The Infinite Jest Challenge

Day 13 – Silverblatt vs. DFW

Posted in Aaron's Postings by aaronjoseph on January 30, 2008

Have you listened to the Bookworm interview with David Foster Wallace with Michael Silverblatt? First of all, Michael Silverblatt is simultaneously one of the best and one of the most annoying people on radio. He’s the complete opposite of a shock jock, but still has the same effect on me as one. I’m numb after I listen to Bookworm, stuck to my seat, quivering, wondering if I should ever return to attempt an original thought on literature ever again. I suspect he keeps under his pillow his plans on how to murder Harold Bloom.

silverblatt vs. David Foster Wallace

Returning to my point, in the interview [transcript available here] Silverblatt presents his observation that Infinite Jest takes the structure of – oh, what the hey, let’s just look at the interview:


MICHAEL SILVERBLATT: I don’t know how, exactly, to talk about this book, so I’m going to be reliant upon you to kind of guide me [Sure, Silverblatt; using the carrot before the stick – he is so modest in revealing his brilliant discovery]. But something came into my head that may be entirely imaginary, which seemed to be that the book was written in fractals.

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE: Expand on that. [BAM! With the force of a train.]

MS: It occurred to me [oh, the way a butterfly lands on my French shutters and flies away] that the way in which the material is presented allows for a subject to be announced in a small form, then there seems to be a fan of subject matter, other subjects, and then it comes back in a second form containing the other subjects in small, and then comes back again as if what were being described were — and I don’t know this kind of science, but it just [that I do] — I said to myself this must be fractals. [Must be.]

DFW: It’s — I’ve heard you were an acute reader [This must be a kind of holy grail for literary public radio personalities, I assume, to be praised by DFW who memorably chronicled the ups and downs of radio host John Ziegler in 2005’s The Host]. That’s one of the things, structurally, that’s going on. It’s actually structured like something called a Sierpinski Gasket [of course!], which is a very primitive kind of pyramidical fractal, although what was structured as a Sierpinski Gasket was the first- was the draft that I delivered to Michael in ’94, and it went through some I think ‘mercy cuts’ [one can only imagine the size of a first draft of Infinite Jest], so it’s probably kind of a lopsided Sierpinski Gasket now. But it’s interesting, that’s one of the structural ways that it’s supposed to kind of [kind of] come together.

MS: “Michael” is Michael Pietsche, the editor at Little, Brown [See? Who would know that?]. What is a Sierpinski Gasket?

DFW: It would be almost im- … I would almost have to show you. It’s kind of a design that a man named Sierpinski I believe developed — it was quite a bit before the introduction of fractals and before any of the kind of technologies that fractals are a really useful metaphor for. But it looks basically like a pyramid on acid — [but of course!]


The thing I want to know is: do you actually buy this structural bullshit? I mean, if DFW said so, it’s gotta be in there, but how much actually remains of the Sierpinski Gasket? Is it simply lopsided as DFW claims or have the cuts undermined its foundation? A true evolution of an SG looks as follows:

Which would mean two things for the novel: (1) all the book’s narrative matter (I mean that broadly: characters, plots, motifs, pages, chapters, etc) must come in threes and (2) there must be left in the center of the book infinite lacunae in the shape of progressively smaller triangles.  (Maybe if the book came with a hole in the middle, it would be easier to read?  Baltika through the spine?)

Forget a Sierpinski Triangle, DFW might as well come out and say that it’s a Sierpinski Pyramid for all that we can understand from that! It’s an interesting shape to be sure due to its lack of a controlling center (which has its narrative and thematic purposes), but so does a donut! I can think of many three-sided relationships in the novel, but those same relationships could also be thought of as cyclical. Infinite Jest = Sierpinski Gasket or glazed corner shop donut? [just kidding, I like the SG structure; it’s just amazing that the given structural cipher to the novel has to be something so beyond us earthlings. Does DFW realize that sometimes he’s edging on self-parody? Yes, he probably does.]

2 Responses

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  1. Joubin Houshyar said, on November 4, 2008 at 5:14 pm

    Actually the pyramid form would be 3 dimensional and so the relationship is 3 fold in section, but the overall structure requires 4 vertices.

    One option here is to consider the z axis as archetypal (given that the temporal development of the narrative is a cross-cut). Perhaps even more interesting, we could assign different narrative voices at distinct points on the z-axis. Obviously then the top most voice would be a point (in fact ‘the’ point of the text) and the base of the pyramid would contain total information about the internal relationships. But including the base view would spoil the fun, so best to take partial discreet cuts at various point of the pyramid and let the reader internally reconstruct the overall structure.

  2. […] to which the funny, tedious, interruptive, imaginative note 24 is actually a crucial part of the fractal structure that DFW talked to Michael Silverblatt […]

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