In Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, the characters are in the grip of an ennui so pervasive that they can barely lift themselves from their chaise lounges to deal with their own failures and bankruptcy. Chekhov called the play a comedy and meant the dissolution of the aristocrats depicted in the play to be the objects of our laughter and derision. During the time he was writing, around the end of the nineteenth century, Tsarist Russia was on its last legs, and the land owning aristocracy was seeing the gradual erosion of their power base by a new breed of creature – the moneyed middle class.
As earning money was beneath them – even talking about working for a living was just too tedious – they were unable to cope with the changes of society and their inherited wealth was gradually being whittled away. Even if the revolution hadn’t come along in 1917, judging by Chekhov’s depiction, the whole society would have probably collapsed under the weight of its own stupor sooner or later anyway. Empires don’t collapse because of armed rebellion, but because of the jaded appetites of its ruling class. Having had their own way for too long they either sink or seek to sate their desire for something new through experimentation in drugs and other dissolute behaviours.
In Zach Plague’s new novel, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, being released on July 28, 2008 from Featherproof Books, we are dropped into the world of the students and the hangers on of The University of Fine Arts and Academia. The University has institutionalized the visual arts and turned training artists into a cynical process that has sucked the life out of creativity and made art just another commodity. Instead of the urge to paint springing from the desire to create, it has become just another means of filling the void of boredom.
With art being merely another distraction from the “boring, boring,” the term they use to describe the emptiness of their lives, the characters are in constant search of anything else to alleviate the tedium. For the majority that means endless rounds of parties, drinking, experimenting with weirder and weirder drugs, and, of course, sex. Adelaide and Allister have both done their best to buck the system and subvert the process by actually doing something with their art and questioning the status quo. Unlike most of their peers, their motivation wasn’t merely seeking distraction from the “boring, boring”, but were attacks upon the system that had sucked the life out of art.
Adelaide created a show based on her applications to the top twenty-five Graduate School fine art programs in the United States. Each piece consisted of her application letter, her letter of acceptance, and the portfolio of art that she had used as proof of her talent. The pieces she had submitted included obvious forgeries of other people’s work, stuff she had drawn when she was six, and other similar garbage. Unfortunately the Dean of her university wasn’t amused by the show and was suing her because of it.
The art establishment was afraid of Allister because he refused to play the game at all. They feared he had some grand master plan at work that would expose them all to ruin and infamy, and were desperate to get their hands on a journal he had created referred to as the “grey pages”. The White Sodality, headed by the mysterious figure of The Platypus, would stop at nothing, including kidnapping, to get their hands on these infamous pages
Yet for all his so called anarchy, Allister isn’t much more than a conventional, confused young adult when it comes to his feelings for Adelaide. At one time they were a couple, but at the beginning of the book they are no longer together. As the book progresses we begin to wonder if everything that Allister is doing is in order to avoid having to think about Adelaide and how much she really means to him. He has a reputation to consider and he can’t blow his attitude of cool aloofness by showing how much it would devastate him to be rejected by Adelaide.
She, on the other hand is descending deeper into a pool of depression, as she keeps telling herself that she won’t think of Allister, all the while thinking of him. She turns to booze and drugs for solace. Adelaide is also in possession of the infamous “grey papers,” and is well aware of how much they are coveted by The Platypus. In those moments she can bring herself to care about things she realizes she must do something about them.
Forty odd years ago Richard Farina wrote a book called Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me in which he re-created the insular world of a college town and captured the restlessness of a generation. It was only while writing this review that I realized how much Zach Plague had managed to do something similar for a different generation in boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring. There’s the same sense of quiet desperation gripping the characters in this book that was present in Farina’s novel. The slow dawning on them that the promise of a life full of meaning, the motivation for going to school and attempting a career in the arts, was a lie, is not depicted in so many words, but the character’s actions speak volumes.
On top of that, Plague has also managed to stick a few well placed pins into the insular world of contemporary commercial art, and the pretensions of those involved with it. In his depiction, creativity is something to be feared because of its potential for rocking the boat and the independence of spirit that’s required for it to exist. Gallery owners can’t make money if they’re unable to control the art that’s on their walls, and the best way to do that is work with the schools to ensure the students graduated give them what they want.
boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring is itself a piece of art, as Plague has experimented with various means of publishing the work. It can be purchased as a more or less conventional book, a series of posters made up of the pages, or as a CD. The book is put together in what appears a haphazard manner. Excerpts of hand written pages scattered among the typeset, text meanders across the page continuing down margins, pages are formatted so the book needs to be held sideways on occasion, the fancy calligraphy spelling out the name of the character involved in a particular chapter is sometimes almost illegible but never quite, and the final part of the book is presented as a photo copy of a separate book.
Judging by a sample of the posters that I received, you would get the same text, but as a series of relatively unconnected pages pieced together on large poster paper. Small sections of the book are kept together so that ideas and thoughts aren’t completely dislocated, and at the end of each section is included directions to assist you in finding the appropriate location on the appropriate poster where it continues. I’m not sure if the author is taking the piss here with academics and their habit of deconstruction or if he’s making a comment on content and form, but it comes across as being just a little too much like the art world he is so critical of in the pages of the book. To be fair, it’s impossible to judge the impact of these posters without having access to all of them.
Whatever else boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring, boring by Zach Plague is, it’s an intelligent, sometimes witty, and sometimes sad book that offers sharp criticism of the art world, and our society in general. Boredom has brought many an empire to its knees in the past, and Zach Plague has done a fine job of depicting the ennui that sucks the life out of us.