Nick at The Howling Fantods told me about this thread. My apologies for barging into a community to which I don’t really belong (reading Infinite Jest is not how I’m spending my summer, alas), but I thought folks here might appreciate whatever little bit of light I can shed on the “four projects.” Over the years since Nick posted my college thesis, I’ve gotten smatterings of mail about it, and probably 40% of the time, folks want to know what the four projects are. (I asked Nick to remove the short intro. in which I quoted Wallace on the “four projects,” by the way, because I had written that intro. in a glib tone that I didn’t want to encourage in my students, who were discovering The Howling Fantods, and my thesis, in increasing numbers.) Anyway, for the record, yes, Wallace wrote, in response to my thesis, “IJ’s supposed to have four little projects going at one time, and you totally nailed one and part of a second.” This was in a letter dated 25 May 1996. Truth be told, I don’t know what the four projects are. I don’t even know for sure what are the 1.5 projects I supposedly nailed. But based on a bunch of stuff--my general reading of Wallace’s work, my correspondence with him while I was working on that thesis (in 1995-96), certain vague intuitions--I can say this:
I think that barone.brian’s interpretation of “project” doesn’t quite comport with how Wallace used the word (although the waste/parabola/annulation/infinity sequence definitely is on to something, and I’ll come back to it if I can). Wallace worked and thought, I’m quite convinced, more in terms of effects than motifs. That is, he cared about what fiction can do, what it can make happen, as opposed to what it can be. (In an interview somewhere, Wallace speaks scornfully of authorial “stunt-pilotry,” and he was indeed wary of showing what fiction can do just because you can--and, of course, he could pull off things most others can’t--but I think he had special wariness of stunt pilotry because he knew that he was always trying to make his planes do surprising things, and he was nervous [as he was about a ton of things] that sometimes he’d pull a stunt just ‘cause it was cool, not because it got him or his readers anywhere.) Take the parabolas. He actually really resisted the particulars of my thesis’s argument--e.g., he pointed out that my claim that the narrative structure itself is a parabola, with Lucien Antitoi’s soaring death as the apex, is entirely unsupportable because the original manuscript was way longer and got pared way down by his editor, and whatever turned out to be the mid-point of the printed book was just an accident of typesetting. And that’s absolutely right. What he liked--the “project” that I think he was saying my thesis had successfully described--had to do with what I was saying the parabola was for: for showing something without touching it, for focusing light, warmth, readers’ attention on something that, if you tried to represent it in language, you would inevitably taint and distort.
In short, I think one of the four projects is the one Wallace first outlined for himself in the TV and U.S. Fiction essay & “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”: how to follow in the aesthetic steps of the modernist and postmodernist projects but not lose fiction’s deepest purpose of representing and trying to explain human experience. Somewhere in my thesis I quote a passage in which Kate Gompert is making little tents out of raffle tickets at an AA meeting; that sort of thing is what Wallace expressed gratification that I’d paid attention to.
I think a second project is in some ways almost the same but purer (the sort of word I’m supposed to put scare quotes around, as Wallace would explain in a dilatory footnote)--not about literary history but just about looking at the world, and writing fiction about it, in a way that shows respect and restraint (cf. the Kenyon commencement address). Wallace’s favorite thing about my thesis was its discussion (and defense) of the ending, which was the subject of one of his greatest editorial battles (the editor was unhappy about the novel’s “lack of resolution”). Wallace’s account of how he won that battle (and he didn’t win many, apparently) is rather funny, and I’ll try to write about it at some point; but for now, it may be helpful to know that he said this: “So your essay -- which has a slightly different take on the function of silence and restraint than I did, but is very, very close [. . .] made me feel good, real good. I hope readers other than you can see what the end’s at least trying to do (whether it succeeds is, I’ve accepted, not for me to judge).”
I think a third project is the obvious one: to show how much entertainment and addiction have in common.
I had no clue at the time about anything beyond that, but in the <year since Sept 12, 2008, I have of course thought many more thoughts about Wallace, and the D.T. Max New Yorker article + excerpt from the unfinished IRS novel--particularly the intimations of what Wallace thought was important about boredom--have helped me get a very loose grip on what maybe was project #4, and I think mitchcalderwood’s comments above are quite apposite (except I would use the word spirituality rather than religion, for whatever that’s worth), as is thisiswater’s link. More than that, I still don’t think I know. And, I could be way off base on all counts, too.
Oh, and about barone.brian’s four motifs, and math in general: in my exchanges with Wallace, he consistently talked about his work in terms that disavowed any will to create complexity in fiction or any inclination or intention to construct fictions on philosophically or theoretically conceived scaffoldings. (Back before Infinite Jest, I wrote something about Girl With Curious Hair, which Wallace also read, and his summary comment about that was: “I have next to no fucking idea about a lot of the heavy semiohermeneupostspatial ammo you’re bringing to bear on my poor little fabrications.” I was talking in lit. theory, not math, but still. . .) For that reason, when I read and think about Wallace’s work (in the maturer days that have ensued since I was an undergrad writing a thesis, that is), even though I continue to think the parabolic arcs are damn cool, I generally try to use the kinds of old-fashioned terms and modes of thought Wallace spoke up for in places like the Dostoevsky essay. But with that said, I think it’s important to say, too, that Wallace sometimes was disingenuous about these matters, sometimes was trying to be the earnest, good-hearted author who just wants to tell stories and has no math up his sleeve. (A little later in the letter I just quoted, Wallace wrote the following one-line paragraph: “That may be a bit disingenuous.”) Math, logic, philosophy were the grid that powered his brain, and so no matter how he explained to himself the “projects” he was working on, I’m entirely convinced that certain kinds of formal complexity informed how he undertook those projects. And so it wouldn’t at all surprise me if Wallace relied on something like barone.brian’s four-part sequence to organize his own work, maybe without even thinking much about it (the way others of us might use fancy-schmancy structural conceits like “beginning-middle-end”).