When I started writing my second novel,54 I imagined it would be structured like a teraktys, an ancient Pythagorean symbol that plays a role in the story. Specifically, the second section would be twice as long as the first, the third three times as long as the first, and the final section four times as long as the first. Fiction has a way of defying mathematical precepts, however, and the final version doesn’t really resemble a tetraktys at all, except that the fourth part is still at least somewhat longer than the first one.
I think most writers start out with a Platonic ideal in their head of what their novel might look like when it’s done. For some it might be a mathematical model. For others it might be a quote from some future, hypothetical critic, wrapping the relevant themes in praise. For others it might be the physical thing itself. I think writers do a lot of visualizing in general.55 The craft of writing is forming and massaging words into a whole that hopefully approaches, but never actually becomes, something like the thing you had imagined.
Anyway, I was struck by this Bookworm discussion with Wallace (different, BTW, from the last Bookworm interview I quoted). Michael Silverblatt started the interview by saying that reading Infinite Jest he was reminded of fractals. Wallace responded by saying:
I’ve heard you were an acute reader. That’s one of the things, structurally, that’s going on. It’s actually structured like something called a Sierpinski Gasket, 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’, 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 come together.
It’s illustrative of the gap between our intellects that my ideal novel looked like this and Wallace’s looked like this. Still I understood what he meant. The concept of the Sierpinski Gasket was this organizing metaphor, the avatar of the novel in his head he was trying to make real. And despite DFW’s suggestion that he never expected any reader to notice this, or that the final version of the book doesn’t much resemble a Sierpinski Gasket, there are plenty of surface similarities (and this is what Silverblatt was referring to) in that the main themes and storylines reoccur and replicate in non-linear ways large and small throughout the novel.
Novelists often talk about seducing the reader into following the story all the way to the end. Structure is one of the tools of that seduction. At its most basic level, structure is the way the author reveals and withholds information–much like the way you reveal and withhold information about yourself on a date in order to create some level of personal intrigue.
One of the things that makes other writers go nuts up with envy when they read Infinite Jest is that the structure of it is aggressively anti-seductive. I know there are people who are going to say that Wallace had them at I am in here but obviously this novel is very intriguing at the outset and then kind of veers off into insanity for awhile, with constant interruptions and tangents. For a good portion of the first 200 pages, you’re really not sure what the hell he’s talking about, and frankly you’re getting kind of exhausted and frustrated, maybe even offended. Certainly there are many many sections in that period that are brilliant and funny and sexy, but if you think of Infinite Jest as a first date, there are ample opportunities during the appetizers for the reader to excuse herself, head for the Ladies but then veer toward the exit, never to return.
And certainly a lot of readers over the years have done just that.
Wallace uses the structure of this novel to a very different purpose. It isn’t designed to lead you, with one hand in your ass pocket, from the beginning to the end. He structured the novel specifically to control the experience of reading it. To disrupt you. To disorient you. To rudely interrupt you. Wallace didn’t want this book to just be about these themes of miscommunication and the impermanence of pleasure, he wanted the book itself to a simulacrum of the characters’ experience. Read this section from the most recent week’s pages and think of it simultaneously as a description of AA speakers and their audience, as a metaphor for writers and readers, and also a humble apologia for the kind of hoops Wallace has so far put the reader through:
Speakers who are accustomed to figuring out what an audience wants to hear and then supplying it find out quickly that this particular audience does not want to be supplied with what someone else thinks it wants….Close to two hundred people all punishing somebody by getting embarrassed for him, killing him by empathetically dying right there with him, for him, up there at the podium. The applause when this guy’s done has the relieved feel of a fist unclenching, and their cries of ‘Keep Coming!’ are so sincere it’s almost painful.
But then in equally paradoxical contrast have a look at the next Advanced Basics speaker–this tall baggy sack of a man, also painfully new, but this poor bastard here completely and openly nerve-racked, wobbling his way up to the front, his face shiny with sweat and his talk full of blank cunctations and disassociated leaps….(and) the White Flaggers all fell about, they were totally pleased and amused, the Crocodiles removed their cigars and roared and wheezed and stomped both feet on the floor and showed scary teeth, everyone roaring with Identification and pleasure.56
Most people come to this novel sincerely wanting to have read it. And the journey itself is extremely rewarding. But Wallace makes it very easy to quit this book. In fact, by abdicating the traditional authorial role as seducer, he allows the idea of quitting to become seductive instead.
Wallace clearly wanted the reader not just to understand, but to feel some simulacrum of the emotions felt by the characters sitting in those AA meetings.57 In just the first half of the novel, the characters enjoin each other (and the reader) to “Keep Coming,” or to “Keep Coming Back” 17 times.
I am truly enjoying this novel. I am finding it completely immersive, entertaining, and eye-opening. It’s a marvel to read. But if it weren’t for this project, I’m not sure I would have gotten this far. The stack of other, unread books in my pile is so high and appealing that I might have just decided, Murtaugh-style, that I’m too old for this shit. And I was thinking this morning how grateful I am that this is happening because I want to read this book, and I want to have read it but I don’t think I would have finished it on my own.
Obviously Matthew wasn’t thinking about any of this when he organized Infinite Summer. How could he when he didn’t know much what the book was about? And no author could imagine that his book would be read exactly this way58 Strictly by accident Matthew kind of stumbled on a method of approaching this novel–a structure for reading it–that actually magnifies and complements the very experience Wallace tried to manipulate within his structure for the novel. For me at least, as it does for Gately, the pressure of the group on the individual (not to mention that one-day-at-a-time schedule of responsibilities) serves as a counter to the seductiveness of Out There, where all those shorter unread books are waiting for me.
Keep Coming Back because It Works.