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The Appeal of the Hypnotically Dull Novel

12 July 2018

From Book Riot:

Boring is bad, right?

Well, there’s a trend toward celebrating, in a self-deprecating manner, the low-key pleasures of the obscure and mundane. The BBC’s Boring Talks podcast, for instance, devotes loving attention to things as pedestrian as wooden pallets. The Boring Conference is a sold-out event. The Object Lessons series shows that taken-for-granted items like shipping containers and driver’s licenses contain a wealth of fascinating stories. And the Japanese reality show Terrace House has been called “extremely, hypnotically boring”—in a positive review.

. . . .

In novels, dullness is one of the main reasons to give up on a book a few pages in. I find that reading to the end, in the hope of a grand payoff making the slow slog worthwhile, is generally disappointing.

Yet some novels are compelling not in spite of their tedium, but—in a perverse way—because of this tedium. The novels of Nicholson Baker are a good case in point. These have the flimsiest of premises: in The Mezzanine, an office worker sees that one shoelace is more frayed than another, and ruminates over this for the entire book. In Room Temperature, a father feeding his newborn daughter allows his mind to wander. That’s it. Nothing happens. The books take place almost entirely in the unexciting narrators’ heads…and that’s precisely what makes them interesting. Tracing a chain of thoughts, and appreciating the simple curiosity that to me is one of the most enlivening aspects of human existence, is what these books (quietly) revel in.

. . . .

Monotony in a novel can also feel deliberate, if it’s capturing the monotony of real life in a way that unrealistic fiction glosses over. Hideo Yokohama’s Six Four does this for police work, which is so often sensationalized in books and movies, despite the abundance of paperwork that makes up much of this job. Six Four feels plodding in the same way that it would feel plodding to be, say, a press director waiting for ages in a police station’s bathroom cubicle, hoping to hear the distinctive water tap use pattern of a certain high-ranking police officer, in order to ask him some questions. (And yes, this is a thing that happens in the book.) The possibility that reporters will issue a complaint is the main engine of suspense for much of the novel, and the present-day crime doesn’t take place until past page 450.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG must admit reading the books described in the OP sounds like torture, but one reader’s meat is another reader’s poison.

For example, PG finds the Battle of the Falaise Gap (AKA the Battle of the Falaise Pocket. Historians disagree about whether to honor the Gap or the Pocket by naming the battle after it.) quite interesting and could read about it for a long while without becoming bored.

OTOH, although Mrs. PG is quite well-educated about European history, Falaise holds no interest for her and she would undoubtedly and diplomatically change the subject if PG raised it over dinner.

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3 Comments to “The Appeal of the Hypnotically Dull Novel”

  1. Almost any topic can be made interesting by a good writer. Everything has layers, like an onion, and you can go down (and wide) to arbitrary depths and still find something interesting.

    Examples: pigments, diamonds, fingernails, bacteria, the thoughts of a serial killer, pens, flint knapping.

    Whether a reader will agree with you is a whole ‘nother matter.

  2. Navel fuzz. An untapped subject sure to provide hours of delicious boredom.

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