Procrastination Lit

Great novels about wasting time.

Read more from Slate’s  special issue  on procrastination.

Those of us who are vulnerable to the siren call of procrastination can find plenty of fictional compatriots on our bookshelves, though they may provide cold comfort. We could start with Hamlet, obviously, who wonders “whether it be/ Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple/ Of thinking too precisely on th’ event” that causes his dithering. Or pity the aptly named Jimmy Tomorrow and the other ne’er-do-wells who populate The Iceman Cometh, nursing their pipe dreams like toxic cocktails. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City gives us a cocaine-addled protagonist whose procrastination at work costs him his job and whose punishing nightlife regimen is revealed to be, at least in part, an elaborate deferral of grief for his dead mother. Most endearingly, Grady Tripp in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys toils haplessly on an unfinishable novel—he procrastinates not about starting the book but finishing it or, rather, abandoning it.

But there is also a small and unnerving category of literature that is not only about procrastination but that, in form and style, enacts the frenetic paralysis of irrational delay. The reader who procrastinates may discover the sharpest pleasures and horrors of recognition within the tangled, meandering sentences in these slender volumes—detour-clogged journeys that go around and around in crooked, tortured circles as they strenuously avoid their destinations.

The cruel bard of procrastination lit is Thomas Bernhard, the late Austrian writer whose forte was case studies in failed mono- and megalomania. In The Lime Works (1970), a self-styled mad scientist drags his doomed wife with him into near-isolation so that he can compose the definitive book on the sense of hearing, though he never finds the right moment to begin. Likewise in The Loser (1983), the narrator works for years on an essay about genius Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, which is never finished or published. Concrete (1982), characteristically for a Bernhard story, consists of a single, ranting paragraph that spans 150 pages—the feverish output of a reclusive musicologist, Rudolf, who has been trying for 10 years to come up with the first line of a career-making monograph on Felix Mendelssohn.

In his exhaustive, exhausting endeavors to do anything but write the book he so frantically wants to write, Bernhard’s Rudolf exhibits virtually every behavioral glitch of the chronic procrastinator. He’s a pathological perfectionist (that elusive first sentence, he writes, has to be “the only possible one”). He shows hints of OCD (fretting that he has never landed on the right arrangement of books and papers on his desk). He’s a virtuoso of the pathetic excuse (at one point he claims that the breaking dawn light has blocked him). And he’s zealous about blaming his disastrous habits on others, in his case his sister—whether it’s her absence, her presence, her imminent arrival, or her very existence: “It’s as if her sole aim in life were to destroy my intellectual work.” Rudolf’s hilariously narcissistic diatribes against this “wretched, malignant, deceitful” woman are so frequent and passionate that her alleged interferences, and his hypergraphic fixation on them, seem to be a source of compulsive, masochistic pleasure—like blowing a deadline because you watched a marathon of The Hills.

Rudolf delays writing his opus by writing about delaying writing his opus; his nonfiction counterpart is Geoff Dyer in Out of Sheer Rage (1997), a would-be study of D.H. Lawrence that mutated into a memoir about trying and failing to write a study of D.H. Lawrence. (Dyer writes ruefully about a phenomenon that psychologist Maury Silver dubbed “maintaining the procrastinating field”: “I even built up an impressive stack of notes with Lawrence vaguely in mind, but these notes, it is obvious to me now, actually served not to prepare for and facilitate the writing of a book about Lawrence but to defer and postpone doing so.”) In his recently published novel, Fanon, John Edgar Wideman turns up the meta-palooza one more notch. Wideman’s narrator, who is faltering in his effort to write a book about the psychiatrist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon, creates for himself a double, Thomas, who is also attempting a book about Fanon.

Concrete, Out of Sheer Rage, and Fanon are kindred works, built on unmet expectations: They are not what they were intended to be but, rather, the bitter fruits of displaced, often agonizing labors. They portray the procrastinating disease as fundamentally a dis-ease: a suffocating sense of irresolution about where it is the writer wants to be, both mentally and physically. Just as the narrators cannot stick too long with one train of thought before whirling off on a tangent (and then, inevitably, spiraling back to where they left off), they can never attain lasting satisfaction in their environments: Large, time-wasting swaths of Concrete are consumed with whether or not Rudolf will leave Peiskam for Palma, while Dyer flits restlessly from Rome to Greece to Oxford.

The narrator of William Gaddis’ Agape Agape is going nowhere—he is trapped in bed after surgery—but his mind cannot find a moment’s peace. As he races against an inexorable deadline (“No but you see I’ve got to explain all this because I don’t, we don’t know how much time there is left,” the book begins), his thoughts scuttle in agitation from the book he hasn’t written, about the sociocultural effects of the player piano in America; to the piles of notes for the book he hasn’t written; to the piles of paperwork he has to sort out before he dies. Agape Agape, which makes a rambling lament against the mechanization of the arts, is the repository of a lifetime of note-taking on its subject—much like Walter Benjamin’s unfinished, far vaster Arcades Project, an epic consideration of the 19th-century Parisian consumer experience that J.M. Coetzee once called “a history of procrastination and false starts, of wanderings in archival labyrinths in a quest for exhaustiveness all too typical of the collecting temperament.”

Fueled by anxiety, Gaddis’ final, one-paragraph novel naturally needs some anxiety of influence, courtesy of Benjamin and also Thomas Bernhard. The narrator in Agape Agape channels Bernhard’s stream-of-consciousness prose—the opening sentence is 239 words long—and feels such a psychic connection to passages of Concrete that he accuses the author of telepathic idea-theft:

It’s my opening page, he’s plagiarized my work right here in front of me before I’ve even written it! That’s not the only one. That’s not the only one either, he’s done it before, or after, word for word right in this heap somewhere you could call it plagiary a kind of entropy in there corrupting the creation it’s right in here somewhere I can never find anything in this mess never get it sorted out, never get it in any kind of order but that’s what it’s all about in the first place isn’t it? Get things in order that’s half the battle in fact it is the battle …

At first glance, the rushed and desperate prose style native to procrastination lit seems to burst with urgent, do-or-die, carpe diem momentum. But the mode soon feels like a bargaining tactic, a stalling technique, a panicked bid for time to stave off the overwhelming angst generated by enormous—or crazed, or hopeless—ambition. (Next time you’re playing Minesweeper instead of working, ask yourself if it’s because your standards are too high.) The ticking of the clock is almost deafening in Agape Agape: The specter of illness and mortality hangs heavily over the book, which was completed at the end of Gaddis’ life (and published in 2002, four years after his death from prostate cancer). Concrete, too, is chilly with intimations of death. Rudolf does not disagree with his sister when she says he lives in a “morgue,” communing with his books not out of scholarly devotion but out of cowardice: “You associate only with the dead. … Because you’re afraid of the living, she said.”

Indeed, the most bracing revelation of procrastination lit is the terrible possibility that years of delay and deferral are tantamount to a refusal of life as it is or a self-willed limbo—even a living death. The narrator in Fanon appears to recognize this danger: He has, after all, spent 40 years mulling the life of a dead man, to little apparent avail. Accordingly, he scolds his hesitating double, Thomas, with words just pitiless enough to be inspiring to the procrastinator inside us all: “Why couldn’t he write this novel. Or better yet, why couldn’t he live it. Love it or leave it, Thomas.”

Tomorrow: Jessica Winter on authors who procrastinate.