The Howling Fantods

David Foster Wallace News and Resources Since March 97

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size
Home News by Category Infinite Jest The Four Projects of Infinite Jest

The Four Projects of Infinite Jest

A really interesting forum post has popped over at the infinite summer forums which has thrown some light on DFW's response to Chris Hager's IJ thesis hosted here at the fantods.

Chris contacted DFW about the thesis and he replied, "IJ's supposed to have four little projects going at one time, and you totally nailed one and part of a second."
In reponse to this over at the infinite summer forums barone.brian writes (possible Infinite Summer Spoilers below):


I just finished the book a few hours ago and have been reeling wildly since. My first thought was to pop over here to see what folks have had to say after reaching the end, which turned out to be a good choice. Over in the thread "Have you finished yet? Because I have and I need to chat!", mitchcalderwood points us to Chris Hager's thesis on IJ, which reportedly comments the importance of the metaphors of the parabola and the tide, of which assertions DFW reportedly said "'IJ's supposed to have four little projects going at one time, and you totally nailed one and part of a second'" (Here I'm quoting mitchcalderwood quoting him (Wallace)).

So, naturally I got to wondering about these alleged "four little projects." In a book as big and all-embracing as IJ, it's hard to think of anything as little, so I sensed little promise in following that lead. What seemed more helpful in tracking down the referent of the "four little projects" statement was concentrating on the word "projects." What if, I thought, with the word "projects" Wallace is referring to motifs or groups of like images or metaphors. In light of the blessing he bestowed on Hager's analysis -- which focuses on two metaphors -- this makes some sort of sense.

After thinking about it a bit and positing what I thought might be the four simultaneous "projects" or motif/metaphor/image groups in IJ, I noticed a pattern that, if even just the tiniest bit true, is mind-blowing in what it reveals about Wallace's all-out awesomeness.

Here goes: The four major motif groups are 1) Consumption/Waste (under which umbrella falls lots of ONAN-related stuff, Hal's roomful's of meat, perhaps all the references to GLAD bags, drug use etc.); 2) Parabolas (lenses, mirrors, tennis lobs, punting, Orin's tumblers, convexity/concavity, AA's 'bottom'); 3) Annular Systems (Annulation, incest, genetics, addiction, one-day-at-a-time, tide, double-triple-quadruple agenting, the choice/freedom double bind even?; 4) Limits and Infinity (Schtitt and the boundaries of the court making the game possible, the - uh - tittle, the Show, mental illness, calculus references all over).

Now, here's the part that really boggled me: the Consumption/Waste idea is a 1:1 correspondence (something in yields something out), what mathematicians call a linear function. The Parabola idea connects, pretty obviously, with parabolas -- now we're looking at x raised to the power of two. Annular Systems are modeled by circles which are given in analytic geometry by equations with both x^2 and y^2. Limits and Infinity, of course, become necessary in order to find the area of shapes under curves like parabolas and three-dimensional projections of circles.

You're probably all sensing how loaded this theory seems to be with connections to DFW's undergraduate work in math, and certainly even the novel itself contains explicit references to math (hello Peemster). Moreover, some evidence -- like DFW's response to Hager's thesis above, or his discussion of "dividing as-if by zero" from the famous Review of Contemporary Fiction interview -- might also point to Wallace's affinity for concepts likes these. I just wonder if an organization this incredibly organic is really at work, or whether I just cooked up something in the excitement of completing this gorgeous, heartbreaking, hilarious, wonderful book that I've imagined wholesale to fit the bill.


[ barone.brian]


I think this is pretty interesting and the 4th motif is completely supported by an essay Greg Carlisle (Elegant Complexity also read his 2009 Liverpool DFW keynote here ) had published in the DFW tribute section of the Sonora Review double issue (55/56) earlier this year.

As I posted in the Infinite Summer thread:

"Greg's essay, 'Wallace's Inifinite Fiction' considers the role of mathematical limits in the narrative structure of Infinite Jest and examines a number of scenes where the complexity seems to behave like a mathematical limit and never gets resolved (as it approaches infinity). It is pretty awesome and worth getting your hands on."
One of the sections of IJ that Greg discusses is the rising action, that never quite makes it to the climax, in Eschaton section. This is one of a number of sections that Greg considers but I don't want to mention any other examples from the essay due to Infinite Summer spoilers.
Last Updated on Sunday, 27 December 2009 06:42  

The Howling Fantods