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Phoning it In

I’ve got company in town this week and really divided attention, so I’ll almost certainly be less prolific and more half-assed about posting over the next few days. For now, some quotes about pattern:

  • “[Madame Psychosis’s] monologues seem both free-associative and intricately structured, not unlike nightmares.” (185)
  • “Madame’s themes are at once unpredictable and somehow rhythmic, more like probability-waves for subhadronics than anything else.” (187)
  • “You can never predict what it will be, but over time some kind of pattern emerges, a trend or rhythm. Tonight’s background fits, somehow, as she reads… The word periodic pops into his head.” (190)
  • “The background music is both predictable and, within that predictability, surprising: it’s periodic. It suggests expansion without really expanding. It leads up to the exact kind of inevitability it denies.” (191)

The recurrence of a number of phrases and ideas (e.g. the distant familiarity of MP’s voice and its associations for Mario) along with this insistence on paradoxically unpredictably periodic patterns makes me suspect that this section of the book could be charted or analyzed to uncover an underlying pretty tightly-controlled pattern. If so, then Wallace has done just what he’s talking about in these passages by providing a sense of unpredictable rhythm that turns out actually to be periodic. It would make a lot of sense for him to do something like this given various themes of circularity/period in the book. Whether or not there’s anything to my suspicion will have to be confirmed by somebody else or at another time, though.

I can’t help thinking that sections like this might be part of what led Bookworm’s Silverblatt to intuit that there was something fractal about the book’s structure, an intuition Wallace confirmed. The very pattern Wallace claimed informed the structure of the book makes an appearance on page 213 in the form of the Sierpinski gasket. I’ve been familiar with this particular fractal since I discovered during high school calculus a function on my graphing calculator that would draw it. With minimal digging, I found the following further information about the figure (source):

It apparently was Mandelbrot who first gave it the name “Sierpinski’s gasket.” Sierpinski described the construction to give an example of “a curve simultaneously Cantorian and Jordanian, of which every point is a point of ramification.” Basically, this means that it is a curve that crosses itself at every point.

The quote stood out to me because of the mention of Cantor, who was mentioned in passing on page 81 in a passage I previously flagged as probably important and about whom Wallace wrote a book a few years ago. Cantor studied infinity and was clearly of interest to Wallace, so his naming here in connection with the Sierpinski fractal along with the confession that the fractal informs the book’s structure seems kind of neat.

I was going to stop there but then flipped forward to see if there was anything else important in this milestone. The Joelle things are pretty darned important. I think I probably found these early Joelle passages tiresome or something on my first read, but I was wowed by some of the writing this time around. And not just the description, but the sound of it. Some of this is good to read aloud. Take this fragment from page 221 (emphasis mine):

and now murky-colored people with sacks and grocery carts appraising that litter, squatting to lift and sift through litter; and the rustle and jut of limbs from dumpsters being sifted by people who all day do nothing but sift through I.W.D. dumpsters; and other people’s blue shoeless limbs extending in coronal rays from refrigerator boxes in each block’s three alleys… red annex’s… boxes’ tops… Endless Stem

And this from 222:

clogged solid with leaves and sodden litter. She walks on toward the Common with the empty bottle

in which a number of vowel sounds match perfectly, but “walks” can also be reasonably read to match, and the second syllables of “common” and “bottle” are so swallowed by the emphatic first syllables that they almost come off as something close to feminine rhymes. At any rate, it’s a very trochaic couple of fragments.

And one more (226):

mistaking little mutters of thunder for the approach of the train, wanting more of it so badly she could feel her brain heaving around in its skull, then a pleasant and gentle-faced older black man in a raincoat and hat with a little flat black feather

In this one, “mutters” does double-duty, sharing its staccato t sound with “little” and its vowel with “thunder.” I don’t think there’s a way to draw any sort of extra meaning out of the poetry of these passages (based on the poetry alone), but it sure stood out to me during this read.

One more shifting of the old gears. I wrote briefly at one point about the cardioid shape of the tennis academy campus and the Lung that exists thereon. During this milestone, we see a cranial building complete with more or less anatomically correct structures. And then we see Enfield described as an arm and the academy described as a cyst on the elbow. In The Broom of the System, Wallace creates a place in the shape of Jayne Mansfield (whether just her face/head or her whole person I forget). There’s talk throughout Infinite Jest of eliminating somebody’s map as either killing them or messing their face up very badly in the process of killing them. I don’t really have a point or a theory to advance. I just think it’s interesting to follow this tic or whatever it is.

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  1. infinitedetox
    July 14, 2009 at 8:32 am

    The Sierpinski connection is flat-out fascinating to me — I also first encountered that fractal in HS calc. class. One of the interesting features of it is that you can basically generate it out of randomness, which my teacher demonstrated each year (see: http://infinitedetox.wordpress.com/2009/06/26/spontaneous-sierpinski/). And somebody commenting on IJ this summer — I forget who — noted that the Sierpinski triangle, when fully realized, has an edge length that tends toward infinity and an internal area that tends toward zero.

  2. July 15, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    Makes my head hurt a teeny bit, but I like it…

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