Matt Bucher: The Anxiety of Influence

08.26.09 | 28 Comments

Matt Bucher is the administrator of the David Foster Wallace mailing list and publisher of Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. He is an editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, runs a weblog about writer Roberto Bolaño and the novel 2666, and has read Infinite Jest at least three times.

Infinite Jest is an original novel. I mean that in every sense of the word. Wallace has constructed an original novel that is imaginative and fresh; each storyline drips with his distinctive style. It also is the origin point for a new type of novel writing, a path others want to follow. Let me go back and repeat part of that: Wallace has constructed an original novel. The act of constructing a novel of this size and scope invariably involves some degree of borrowing bits and pieces–either from one’s own drafts and notebooks, or from the writing of others–and stitching together many smaller pieces.

In addition to Wallace borrowing from his own work (c.f. Antitoi mentioned in his 1992 Harper’s essay “Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes” (collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments and available in PDF here), many of the details in Infinite Jest owe something to one or other of the thousands of novels Wallace had digested up to that point. Some of these references are homages, some are Nabokovian red herrings, most are just delightful. There are obvious references like Hamlet and Marathe/Marat, but the four influences I’ve chosen to focus on below might not be immediately apparent to the first-time reader.

These influences will be familiar to the members of wallace-l and I give that community credit for unearthing most of these connections.

  1. The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr: The Bruce Green–Mildred Bonk scene early on (p. 39) introduces us to Tommy Doocey, “the infamous harelipped pot-and-sundries dealer who kept several large snakes in unclean uncovered aquaria, which smelled, which Tommy Doocey didn’t notice because his upper lip completely covered his nostrils and all he could smell was lip.” Compare that description with page 76 from The Liar’s Club (1995), (a memoir, by the way): “I knew a drug dealer once who collected [snakes] in glass tanks all over his trailer. He had a harelip that somehow protected him from the stink, but the rest of us became, when dickering over pharmaceuticals with him, the noisiest and most adenoidal mouth breathers. We all sounded like Elmer Fudd, so a coke deal took on a cartoonlike quality: ‘You weally tink dis is uncut?’ It was particularly hard to talk this way when you were tripping your brains out on LSD and had gone there only as a last resort to buy something to help you come down.” Now, Karr and Wallace were an item (per The New Yorker and The Washington Post), but there’s no telling if he picked that bit up from Karr’s book or if he himself went to one of those buys at the real Doocey’s place. Karr’s version is arguably funnier.
  2. End Zone by Don Delillo: It would not be unfair to call End Zone the biggest literary influence on Infinite Jest (at least the E.T.A. half). That is somewhat ironic since End Zone is only 250 pages long. Several key details from EZ show up in IJ, but the biggest is probably the concept of Eschaton. The main character of EZ, Gary Harkness, is obsessed with nuclear strategy. He repeatedly mentions the term eschatology. DT Max tells us that one of the original titles of End Zone was “Modes of Disaster Technology.”

    Some other similarities:

    • The militaristic coach in a tower looming over the field;
    • The players (football college rather than tennis academy) over-intellectualizing their roles and future success;
    • The widow of the founder is the president of the school;
    • The powdered milk.

    Wallace and Delillo both spent time in Texas (the setting for End Zone)–Wallace on a Lannan grant in Marfa (you can read more about Wallace in Marfa in Sean Wilsey’s book Oh the Glory of It All) and Delillo researching Libra in Dallas (Delillo’s wife is from Texas).

    There are dozens of other nods to Delillo’s other books throughout Wallace’s work (“The Broom of the System” is similar to a phrase in Americana, the M.I.T. Language Riots are mentioned in Ratner’s Star, etc.) and the Ransom Center in Austin owns a set of correspondence between Wallace and Delillo.

  3. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris: Consider these two passages:
    Red Dragon: “[The gun] was a Bulldog .44 Special, short and ugly with its startling big bore. It had been extensively modified by Mag Na Port. The barrel was vented near the muzzle to help keep the muzzle down on recoil, the hammer was bobbed and it had a good set of fat grips. He suspected it was throated for the speedloader.” (RD, p. 137)

    Infinite Jest: “The Item’s some customized version of a U.S. .44 Bulldog Special…blunt and ugly with a bore like the mouth of a cave…The piece’s been modified, Gately can appraise. The barrel’s been vented out near the muzzle to cut your Bulldog’s infamous recoil, the hammer’s bobbed, and the thing’s got a fat Mag Na Port or -clone grip like the metro Finest favor…It’s not a semiauto but is throated for a fucking speed-loader….” (IJ, pp. 609-610)

    Wallace was admittedly a big fan of Harris’s writing. And he confesses that he loved the technical details of Tom Clancy novels. In this list Wallace included two Thomas Harris novels in his top 10. (A lot of people think DFW was joking or something when compiling that list, but I’m telling you it’s sincere.) I think this is a place where Wallace needed a detail about a beefy gun and either remembered or came across this in Red Dragon and ran with it.

  4. Super Mario Brothers: OK, this seems like a stretch and it’s not literary, but bear with me. Mario Incandenza, the middle child, is a “small hunched shape with a big head” (p. 32), extremely short, but he has a big head, an oversized skull on a little body. He sort of looks like Super Mario. And then there’s this on page 42:

    “Remember the flag only halfway up the pole? Booboo, there are two ways to lower a flag to half-mast. Are you listening? Because no shit I really have to sleep here in a second. So listen — one way to lower the flag to half-mast is just to lower the flag. There’s another way though. You can also just raise the pole. You can raise the pole to like twice its original height. You get me? You understand what I mean, Mario?”

    For those of you who lived without electricity in Siberia during the late 1980s, the game Super Mario Brothers featured a character named Mario jumping up to a flagpole at the end of every level.

    Later, walking with Schtitt:

    Mario thinks of a steel pole raised to double its designed height and clips his shoulder on the green steel edge of a dumpster, pirouetting halfway to the cement before Schtitt darts in to catch him, and it almost looks like they’re doing a dance-floor dip as Schtitt says this game the players are all at E.T.A. to learn, this infinite system of decisions and angles and lines Mario’s brothers worked so brutishly hard to master: junior athletics is but one facet of the real gem: life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without.

    So, Mario’s brothers play a game, but now Mario, not Hal, is the focal point–these are Mario’s brothers. (With respect to the Incandenza brothers, another connection here is with The Brothers Karamazov. Timothy Jacobs wrote his dissertation at McMaster University partly on comparing the Brothers Incandenza with the Brothers Karamazov.) The connection between Mario Incandenza and Super Mario Brothers is by no means rock solid, but the short, dark-haired Mario concentrating on that flagpole sure does conjure an image worthy of it.