Matthew Baldwin

Hollow Man

09.08.09 | 19 Comments

I love Nashville. Not the city (I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting), but the 1975 film by Robert Altman. Altman was something of a cinematic David Foster Wallace, creating long and sprawling narratives that were superficially “rambling” and profoundly intricate, and which focused almost exclusively on the characters and the relationships between them. Nashville tackles half a dozen stories at least, some big and some small, and all in parallel. That is to say, it’s more like a collection of loosely knitted short stories than a single chronicle–minor characters occasionally stray from one plotline to another, but by and large the narratives are like strands in a rope, twined but distinct. The only thing resembling convergence in Nashville is the end, when most of the characters find themselves attending the same political rally (long story).

Twenty years later, Altman made a similarly structured film entitled Short Cuts and, in this one, there’s no unifying event whatsoever.99 And Short Cuts is often cited as a progenitor for another of my all-time favorite movies, Magnolia (this one by the wonderful Paul Thomas Anderson), which also features a number of stories that fail to fully intersect.100

This type of film doesn’t really have a strict genre classification, but henceforth I shall call them: anticonfluential.

Of course, I did not know such a word existed until recently. And maybe the term didn’t exists, until Wallace-via-J. O. Incandenza, made it up. But once I saw it, the word, “anticonfluence”, in the pages of Infinite Jest, I thought I knew what I was in for. I figured that the three storylines–E.T.A., Ennet, and Marathe/Steeply–would never merge, that the rich kids would do their drills on the hill, and the down-and-out would keep coming back, that Marathe and Steeply would talk and talk and talk, and never the thrain would meet.101 And where this would catch others by surprise, I would close the book with the smug satisfaction of having foreseen all this as early as endnote 24.

And then Steeply appeared in the stands of an E.T.A. game, and Marthe rolled into Ennet House. And no sooner had I hastily adjusted my hypothesis to fit the new data (Steeply and Marathe will serve as the bridge between E.T.A. and Ennet, but the school and the shelter will not directly interact) when Hal arrives at Ennet, asking for NA brochure. Even Lenz and P. T. Kraus shared an alley, albeit briefly.

The moral here, methinks, is: stop trying to outguess Wallace, because that dude will punk you hard.

With all this anti-anti-confluence afoot, it would be easy to overlook what is, to my mind, the biggest revelation in the book thus far. Waaaaay back on page 693, Hal muses on anhedonia:

Hal himself hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny; he finds terms like joie and value to be like so many variables in rarified equations, and he can manipulate them well enough to satisfy everyone but himself that he’s in there, inside his own hull, as a human being — but in fact he’s far more robotic than John Wayne. One of his troubles with his Moms is the fact that Avril Incandenza believes she knows him inside and out as a human being, and an internally worthy one at that, when in fact inside Hal there’s pretty much nothing at all, he knows.

Since the first page of Infinite Jest (or, rather, since page 223, when we learned that the first page falls chronologically after the rest), the big question in my mind has been: what terrible thing happens to Hal, that leaves him sounding like “Like a stick of butter being hit with a mallet”? But this passage turns that first chapter on its head. Because although Hal feels empty inside in Y.D.A.U., by Year of Glad he’ll be saying “I am in here.” The question now becomes what wonderful thing happens to Hal, that makes his life complete?


Thumbs Up?: Of the aforementioned Nashville, Roger Ebert said: “after I saw it I felt more alive, I felt I understood more about people, I felt somehow wiser.” And after his recent column about A.A. garnered multiple recommendations for Infinite Jest, Ebert said of the novel “I have it right here. Started it once, am starting again.” One can only imagine what kind of review he will provide at its end.

Zeno’s Paradoxes: As Kevin and others have noted, Wallace said he structure the novel “like something called a Sierpinski Gasket, which is a very primitive kind of pyramidical fractal”. By fractal, I took Wallace to mean this: that there exist in the book large “things” (themes, motifs, situations, events) that appear nearly identical to smaller “things”, save only scale (in much the same way that the large triangular Sierpinski Gasket is composed of smaller triangles, which are composed of smaller triangles still). But endnotes 324 and 332 are showing the novel to be fractal in yet another sense.

One property of fractals is that they can expand endlessly.102 The example commonly given is the coastline of a fjord. From a high altitude there is a ragged but definite coastline, of what appears to be 100 kilometers. But when you zoom in a bit you see that the ragged bits meander in and out to such a degree that the true length of the coast is a few more kilometers than you had originally thought. You zoom in more and discover that there is still more coastline, this adding additional meters to the total. Zooming in further adds centimeters. And then millimeters. And then microns.

So too does the total page count of this novel seem to be growing right in front of our eyes, now that we are finding entire chapters squirreled away in the endnotes. I get into bed, flip ahead to see how many pages I have to read to read before reaching the next break, and discover it to be eight; 14 pages later I close the book, having reached it. It’s like a house in a Harry Potter novel, that appears to be a hovel from the outside and yet somehow contains 12,000 square feet inside.

Pre-quadrivial : Oh god, that “17 can actually go into 56 way more than 3.294 times” flier made me laugh and laugh.