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Critical Essay by Tom LeClair
SOURCE: "The Prodigious Fiction of Richard Powers, William Vollmann, and David Foster Wallace," in Critique, Vol. 38, No. 1, Fall, 1996, pp. 12-37.
In the following essay, LeClair contrasts three roughly contemporaneous younger novelists against their innovative forbears, especially Thomas Pynchon, and makes his case for a new and scientifically more astute voice in American literature that broadens and deepens the commentary and critique begun by the so-called metafictionists.
Since the publication of V. in 1963, when Thomas Pynchon was twenty-six, he has been the reigning, if now aging, prodigy of contemporary American fiction, the gifted author of two prodigious novels, the 492-page V. and the encyclopedic Gravity's Rainbow. Reviewing the more modest Vineland in 1990, Richard Powers addressed Pynchon as a composer of bed-time stories: "So tell us another one, Pop, before it gets too dark". Powers, William Vollmann, and David Foster Wallace all admit within their novels their filial debt to "Pop" Pynchon. A major character in Powers's The Gold Bug Variations has Pynchon as his "favorite living novelist", several references to Gravity's Rainbow appear in Vollmann's You Bright and Risen Angels, and a major character in Wallace's Infinite Jest is constructed from the obsessions of Pynchon's biggest book. Of the three younger writers, Wallace is the most ambivalent toward Pynchon: Wallace praises Gravity's Rainbow as generous in its gift-giving but also calls Pynchon, along with Nabokov, "a patriarch for my patricide". Though still alive, Pynchon seems to have retired from novelistic mastery to become the grandfatherly proprietor of an amusement park called Vineland. As we head toward the millennium, Powers, born in 1957; Vollmann, born in 1959; and Wallace, born in 1962, are our new prodigies.
By age thirty-three, Powers had published three novels—the V.-like Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, Prisoner's Dilemma, and the 639-page The Gold Bug Variations, which reviewers frequently compared to Gravity's Rainbow. At the same age, Vollmann had published a travel book, a collection called The Rainbow Stories, and four novels, two of which exceed 600 Pynchon-dense pages. At the age of thirty-four, Wallace had coauthored a book on rap music and had published a collection of stories, a long first novel, and the 1,089-page Infinite Jest. Although Powers's first book appeared in 1985, Vollmann's and Wallace's in 1987, and although all have been well-reviewed and have received prestigious awards—Powers a MacArthur Grant, Vollmann and Wallace the Whiting Award—none has attracted the academic attention one would expect for their learned, experimental, and political work. Recent surveys of younger American writers—Jon Aldridge's Talents and Technicians and Jerome Klinkowitz's Structuring the Void—do not even mention Powers, Vollmann, or Wallace. They are also missing from Patti White's Gatsby's Party, a study of contemporary fiction influenced by science, a natural sub-category for the three writers. At a parallel stage in Pynchon's career, numerous essays and one book had been written about his fiction.
Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace deserve essays of their own. I have chosen to treat them and their most remarkable novels—The Gold Bug Variations (1991), You Bright and Risen Angels (1987), and Infinite Jest (1996)—together because fundamental similarities among the authors and these three works illustrate their relation to and differences from Pynchon, as well as other large-minded novelists of Pynchon's generation. Although the Pynchon of V. displayed a precocious familiarity with history, geography, and multiple literary forms, what set him apart was his scientific knowledge, which became more central in The Crying of Lot 49. Despite his scientific training at Cornell, Pynchon has said in Slow Learner that his early knowledge of a concept as crucial as entropy was "second-hand". Still, his use of technical terms and references to scientists such as James Clerk Maxwell made Pynchon a prodigy for most literary readers still living in an era of "Two Cultures." Gravity's Rainbow with its detailed development of cybernetics, physics, and other sciences confirmed Pynchon's reputation. Not long after Gravity's Rainbow was published other prodigious novels influenced by information theory and scientific systems began to appear: DeLillo's Ratner's Star, Heller's Something Happened, Gaddis's JR, Coover's The Public Burning, McElroy's Women and Men, Barth's LETTERS, and Le Guin's Always Coming Home. I do not mean to suggest that Gravity's Rainbow led these writers to what I have called "the systems novel," but that from early on in his career Pynchon exemplified a new kind of learning in fiction. Unlike Pynchon, these writers did not receive academic training in science, and their early works, though sometimes concerned with technology, do not exhibit the influence of theoretical science present in V. and Lot 49. DeLillo and the others came later in their careers to cybernetics and to the sciences—such as economics, ecology, meteorology, and mathematics—that saturate their prodigious texts.
Unlike the literary elders I have mentioned, Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace were educated in the Age of Information; and they acquired an expertise nowhere evident in the work of the previous generation, Pynchon's fiction included. Although not much is known about the specific educational backgrounds of Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace, biographical sources do indicate that in their twenties, the age at which Pynchon was reading Norbert Weiner, Powers and Vollmann both worked as computer programmers. Their professional experience with information systems is manifested directly in their first novels, which are at least partially set in the computer industry. In Three Farmers On Their Way to a Dance, the protagonist-narrator is educated in computer science, works for a magazine aimed at the "microcomputer design readership", discusses the differences between digital and analogue technology, and brings a cybernetic awareness to his commentaries on mathematics, physics, and other sciences. The two narrators of You Bright and Risen Angels are computer programmers working in Silicon Valley; the characters they write about are both persons from their past and electronic alphanumerics these programmers call up from the graveyard of memory files. Like Powers's narrator, Vollmann's keyboarders are protagonists and antagonists whose lives mingle with figures from the historical past. In Vollmann's succeeding novels about early North America, information storage and retrieval are no longer explicit subjects but everywhere implicit in the detailed research necessary to write those books. In The Gold Bug Variations, after writing a novel based on game theory, Powers returns to the information industry: two of his three main characters are programmers and caretakers of a large bank of Manhattan computers. Wallace, although not a programmer, studied in college the mathematics and logic that underlie the programming Powers and Vollmann have done. One of Wallace's stories is dedicated to Kurt Goedel, and references to mathematics and theoretical physics abound in Infinite Jest.
I am not suggesting only that Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace write more explicitly about information than the earlier systems novelists or that their fluency with technical or mathematical languages distinguishes their work. Rather I believe these younger writers more thoroughly conceive their fictions as information systems, as long-running programs of data with a collaborative genesis. In the information industry, prodigies age quickly and generations change rapidly. In the novel industry, the cyberpunk strain of science fiction in some of its formal experiments has already exceeded the programming or systems influence found in Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace. However, among writers who set their fiction on this planet, those three novelists are, I think, most advanced in their knowledge of and most sophisticated in their use of information.
Compared with most of the older novelists mentioned above, Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace know more about the life sciences and ecology. Pynchon, Gaddis, McElroy, and Le Guin are all concerned with biology in their encyclopedic books, but only Barth in LETTERS registers as a central influence the most revolutionary experimental science of the Information Age: genetics, the discipline that was probably most aided by and that has the most conceptual overlaps with cybernetics. The Watson-Crick paper that propelled contemporary genetics was published in 1953, four years before Powers's birth in 1957. That is, symbolically I assume, the year in which Powers sets the genetics research group called Cyfer that introduces the dense scientific discourse of The Gold Bug Variations. Post Watson-Crick biology is also the intellectual substratum of You Bright and Risen Angels; "insect genetics" supports Vollmann's encyclopedic analogues between the human and insect kingdoms. In those two works about literary, literal, and figurative bugs, a detailed knowledge of contemporary biology underwrites, like the genetic code itself, a depiction of nature as vast and intricate collaborations of information and energy, a model for fiction even more prodigious than the mainframe computer. For Barth, genetics was a trope supporting a sequel, a backward look at and synthesis of his previous six books. Powers and Vollmann find in genetics and entomology information and symbols for urgent meditation on the future of all life. For Wallace, theoretical biology and zoology are not as central as they are for Powers and Vollmann, and yet, like them, Wallace is particularly interested in the effects of physical mutations, how waste turns two-legged and four-legged animals into monsters.
These young, obviously gifted authors' combined experience with information and knowledge of life science generates new meanings of prodigy and prodigious. Both words have as their root the Latin "prodigium," which meant "omen, portent, monster." In archaic English, a prodigy was "something out of the usual course of nature (as an eclipse or meteor) that is a portent." More recently, the word has come to mean "an extraordinary accomplishment" or "a highly gifted or academically talented child." Beginning as a natural event, the meaning of prodigy changed to a human accomplishment. Now the word is most generally applied to an individual person with a precocious skill or high intelligence. Although Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace may be such persons (Powers graduated with an "A" average from Illinois; Vollmann and Wallace graduated summa cumlaude from, respectively, Cornell and Amherst) and young, precocious characters populate The Gold Bug Variations, You Bright and Risen Angels, and Infinite Jest, the novels as wholes suggest that prodigies need not be only those hard-wired and solitary geniuses of tradition. In the world of Powers and Vollmann, collaboration with computers and other technology-assisted persons can create a contemporary prodigy, one less dependent on genetically inherited synapses, more free to direct the development of his or her own consciousness, more defined by the information he or she possesses. For Wallace, the notion of prodigy spreads even wider, incorporating physical talents and emotional capabilities, both trained in communities of the naturally gifted and culturally afflicted.
These new fiction-writing prodigies both find and create a world of information that is prodigious: "extraordinary in bulk, extent, quantity, or degree (enormous, immense, vast)." These synonyms for "extraordinary" have connotations of cosmic width and breadth, physicists' extra-planetary exploration or sub-molecular investigation. The "Infinite" of Wallace's title, which alludes to Cantor's mathematics as well as to Shakespeare's jesting Yorick, best represents the scale of prodigious fiction. The discoveries of contemporary genetics brought near-infinity to biology, exploding beyond what Powers calls "the complexity barrier" (514) information about all life all over the globe for all of history. The Human Genome project alluded to in The Gold Bug Variations has been called the most ambitious scientific project ever undertaken. Trying to keep up with genetics research in 1985, a Powers character says information in the field doubles every two years. For Vollmann, insects are the symbol of prolific life and proliferant information about life, millions of species breeding, multiplying, and changing, forever exceeding scientists' ability to catalogue them. The irony of both proliferations is that the four-letter genetic code generating life and information is itself not so much a prodigy as a hyperactive idiot savant. "Prodigious diversity of macroscopic structures of living beings," Powers quotes Jacques Monod, "rests in fact on a profound and no less remarkable unity of microscopic make-up". It is knowledge of this new law of the very many and the one, the large and the small, that in Powers's work modifies the behavior of old-fashioned prodigies and offers a model for the work of new collaborative prodigies. Vollmann's novel implies a similar conclusion, but only through a reversal of its characters' attempt to reduce and then destroy the many, "equality's brood", that threaten entrenched power in America, power personified by the novel's pioneering prodigy, robber baron, and multinational CEO, Mr. White.
The effect of both the prodigy and the prodigious—exciting amazement and wonder—is also, I believe, the purpose Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace pursue with their gifted massiveness: amazement at the natural world they depict circulating through us and buzzing around us, wonder at the intricate and dense fictions they offer as imitative forms of that world. Like Pynchon and the other systems novelists of the 1970s and 1980s who were influenced by cybernetics, Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace insist on transforming the synecdochic scale of traditional realism, "overloading" their stories to reflect the accessibility and relevance of technical information in the lives of contemporary characters. The new prodigies also supplement the digital mode of print with iconic or analogue representation such as diagrams and drawings, the mapping of quantitative information in visual displays that has characterized recent developments in computer design.
The artistic pressures exerted by the magnitude of their subjects and by their desires to elicit powerful responses to revolutionary information about life push Powers, Vollmann, and Wallace toward literary means that sometimes seem "prodigal": "profuse and wasteful expenditure of capital," "given to reckless extravagance," and "giving or yielding abundantly." Like the older novelists who practice an "art of excess," Powers and, even more, Vollmann and Wallace exceed expectations, deform genre, and write extravagantly, but they are not, as some reviewers complain, self-indulgent. If their works exceed the social politeness of most realism and the political correctness of their decade, they do so from, if anything, a too-earnest concern for readers and other living things. It is that concern for the future that propels the second halves of The Gold Bug Variations and You Bright and Risen Angels—and all of Infinite Jest—toward the original root of prodigy (omen, portent, monster) and the archaic English meaning (out of the usual course of nature) as the authors warn against mankind's leaving the course of nature and becoming a monster in the world web of life, destroying itself in the process. In these three massive novels, creators, created, and audience are all braided together under the sign of the Latin "prodigy-."
Although The Gold Bug Variations was published five years after You Bright and Risen Angels and although Powers mentions Vollmann as one of two contemporary American authors he admires, I treat Powers's novel first because it is more explicitly about prodigies and new scientific paradigms. The central character of The Gold Bug Variations, Stuart Ressler, genetics researcher become caretaker of computers, "was the prodigy once". In the first grade, he took over his teacher's "abortive lesson on the language of bee dancing". Given an adult encyclopedia at the age of seven, Stuart proved that his "precocity exceeded even his parents' guess" by breaking its spines with rereading in two years. A little later he "lavished this precocious life [of learning] on the home nature museum—a walk-in catalog of the planetary pageant" that he spread around his house. "A boy completely, passionately in love with links," Stuart as a sixth-grader derived "a perfect copy of Gauss's great work" on mathematical summation, a significant discovery in this novel about responding to large numbers. "By junior high, he had proved to disbelieving high schoolers that almost all possible numbers have an eight in them, or a seven, or nine, but an infinity of numbers contain none of these. In late teens, he announced to an uncomprehending English teacher that the word 'couch,' repeated a thousand times at high speed, deteriorated into semantic nothingness". Pursuing "not what a thing is, but how it connects to others", young Stuart Ressler moved from observation of nature to mathematical formalism, metamathematics, and to an experimental knowledge of noise, breakdown of the meanings he had recognized or constructed.
Ressler's rapid youthful progress is replicated at a slower rate during the rest of his life, which Powers dramatizes in two primary time periods: 1957–58, when Ressler is a postdoctoral researcher, and 1983–84, when his life has new vitality under the sentence of an early death from cancer. After studying physiology as an undergraduate, Ressler reads the Watson-Crick paper in 1953 and changes his graduate area to genetics in order to "rush the frontier," believing "all significant breakthroughs were made by novices free from preconceptions or vested interests. In six months of ferocious precocity, he'd made believers of everyone". Accepting at twenty-five a postdoctoral fellowship at Illinois, Ressler feels "under the gun. Miescher was twenty-five when he discovered DNA ninety years before. Watson was twenty-four. If the symptoms of breakthrough don't show by thirty, forget it…. Research—America in '57—is no country for old men". In chapters alternating with chapters about the early 1980s, Powers describes Ressler's joining the Cyfer group of six scientists from different disciplines, their stumbling advance on explaining how genetic processes work, Ressler's falling in love with his married colleague Jeannette Koss, their stumbling advance on consummating their relation. Ressler's conceptual breakthrough, and a double renunciation: Jeannette of Ressler, he of his research.
Trying to uncover Ressler's achievements and then understand his renunciation and years of obscurity are Franklin Todd, Ressler's twenty-five-year-old coworker, an all-but-dissertation in art history at Columbia, and Jan O'Deigh, a thirty-year-old reference librarian who becomes Todd's lover as she helps him delve into Ressler's past and interest him in the present. In this novel with numerous character doublings, collaborative triplings, and coded quadruplings, Jan, the primary narrator of the book, is closest to Ressler in childhood interests and background. "From birth," she says, "I was addicted to questions. When the delivering nurse slapped my rump, instead of howling, I blinked inquisitively". Her early "why" questions were for a time answered by her mother's gift of "a multi-volume children's encyclopedia," but this strategy backfired because Jan could "ask about things that hadn't even existed before". The first time Jan touched her cello it made a wonderful sound she never duplicated; she soon turned to the piano and became a rather mechanical player. Like Ressler, Jan lost her father when she was twelve. Although she had scientific curiosity and artistic training that Ressler did not receive until he was twenty-five, Jan was no prodigy. As an adult, her skillful information searches are primarily directed by library patrons, though she does initiate "The Quote Board" and "This Day in History," small ways of extracting and communicating some significant bits of "the disjointed stockpile". Researching questions from a patron with a Down's syndrome child, Jan makes what John Paulos calls an "Innumerate" interpretation of the data she finds on the causes of retardation. Her miscalculation of her own risk is partly responsible for her renunciation: a tubal ligation. Her four-year relationship with the adrenal ad-writer Keith Tuckwell also illustrates her defensive passivity, for she uses his nonstop commentary on competitive life in the city as a substitute for a more active life and as a source of entertainment. Like Oedipa Maas at the beginning of The Crying of Lot 49, Jan is susceptible to a search that will take her out of her library of trivia and trivialized personal relationship.
Todd challenges her to find out why Ressler was once famous. A student of physics in college, Todd switched to art history and is working the night shift with Ressler instead of finishing his dissertation on the life and work of a minor sixteenth-century Dutch painter. While Jan's searches in the information had are primarily seeded by others, Todd actively lavishes his attention on other people and their eccentricities. He treats New York as his "home nature museum," with the emphasis on museum. His apartment is an archive of art objects and musical recordings. Todd's formalist training gives him a Resslerian awareness of links, but Jan repeatedly thinks of Todd as childish, his curiosity unfocused, his "unfortunately high intelligence" spent in passionate dilettantism. During spare hours at work, Todd cuts up The New York Times, pastes its information into his notebook, and surrounds the facts with elaborate sketches, turning information into a private aesthetic object. He treats the information in his computers like a video game.
The Ressler that Todd knows in 1983 appears to have both technical and personal control of the information glut. He teaches Todd programming skills, and Ressler's almost monastic manner and obsession with Bach's Goldberg Variations appeal to the widely scattered younger man. As Todd and Jan get closer to Ressler, he moves out of his self-imposed isolation, becomes a father figure to them, and tries to direct their attention away from his personal life to the biosphere he has spent his life studying, if not researching, since leaving Cyfer for cybernetic caretaking. After Ressler's death, Jan quits her job, uses her life savings to support herself while investigating the state of genetics in 1957, and keeps a journal of her research and her life during the research. After spending time with Ressler just before his death, Todd writes an account of Ressler's early life rather than his dissertation. What the reader does not know until the last page is that the book just finished has been the product of combining Jan's journal and Todd's biography, a recognition that requires rereading with this new knowledge. This readerly recursion of a book about recursions—and dense with them—finds that the text has not been, as Todd suggests at the end, a product of "splicing" but has been, to use a programming term from the novel, a product of "backstopping", recursive revision. Information, language, and sensibilities developed separately cross over the textual borders and get translated differently in their new context. Clues to this interpenetration or cross-fertilizing occur in chapter 17, when Todd's programming language appears in Jan's narration, and in chapter 22, when information about Ressler in Illinois breaks into a section presumably told by Jan. Locally cooperative, the text is globally collaborative. Its chapters and subsections simultaneously obey two formal codes—genetic and musical—that neither "author" could have managed to follow or impose alone. Although neither Jan nor Todd is, like Ressler, a prodigy capable of an imaginative "breakthrough" to the reductive secret of all life, they do combine his top-down power of abstraction and his bottom-up power of observation to understand the secrets of his life and learning, using this knowledge to form an artistically patterned text. Like Ressler's breakthrough, Jan and Todd's collaboration would have been impossible without love: their love of Ressler and his altruistic example, their learned love of each other. The Gold Bug Variations is, therefore, their "baby", a creation with some of the chromosomal complexity present in every child, the being Ressler called nature's "model of miraculous miniaturization".
At 692 pages, The Gold Bug Variations is a miniature simulation of the natural world described in it. The collaboration that produces the text is learned at the center of it, a chapter called "The Natural Kingdom II." In a book very concerned with formal symmetry, as well as the asymmetry that creates mutations, "The Natural Kingdom II" is the fifteenth of thirty chapters. Unlike most chapters, it is wholly composed by Jan, a four-part summary of the principles ruling the world populated by the four-letter genetic code, principles she had begun to understand in one of four parts of chapter 12, the subsection entitled "The Natural Kingdom." In chapter 12 she quotes Melville's Ishmael on natural classification ("the draft of a draft") and meditates upon difference and similarity. She learns how huge the genetic "gap between individuals is" and how the human genome "represents only the slightest of divergence from … chimp and gorilla". With her developing knowledge of genetics, Jan corrects her misconceptions about evolution: it is "not about competition or squeezing out, not a master plan of increasing efficiency." Evolution is "a deluge, a cascade of mistaken, tentative, branching, brocaded experiment …". She ends this subsection by quoting Monod on "prodigious diversity," the theme with which chapter 15 begins by returning to Ishmael's comparison of nature to texts: "Books may be a substantial world, but the world of substance, the blue, species-mad world at year's end outstrips every card catalog I can make for it". In "A. Classification" Jan learns that "Living things perpetuate only through glut" that resists and embarrasses all human classification schemes: "Nothing exceeds like success. Excess of issue. Surplus of offspring". In "B. Ecology" Jan replaces "competition" with a new set of more appropriate, historically denigrate terms—"parasitism, helotism, commensalism, mutualism, dulosis, symbiosis"—and extends her book metaphor: the planet as "lending library—huge, conglomerate, multinational, underfunded, overinvested … No competition, no success, no survival of the fittest. The world I am looking for, the language of life, is circulation". The next subsection, "C. Evolution," is "an explosive deflation" of her library metaphor, for it is only through error, genetic chance that evolution proceeds: "Mutations cause cancer, stillbirth, blindness, deafness, heart disease, mongolism—everything that can go wrong. Yet faulty copying is the only agency for change". For metaphor to represent the Darwinian revolution's effect—"tailspin anxiety … soul's distress"—she turns to The Goldberg Variations, its midpoint fifteenth, "terminal descent" from which the succeeding variations rise. "D. Heredity" is "the last, delicious twist … Evolution is the exception, stability the rule", a recognition that returns her to the chapter's beginning: "proliferation results from one universal and apostolic genetic code" produced by "the prodigal gene".
This twenty-page chapter enunciates a new naturalism, one that revises and reverses early twentieth-century naturalism's determinism and struggle for power, preserving the metaphor of hierarchy in the word "Kingdom" but undermining this vertical notion and the concept of Creation Jan first learned in her catechism. Born out of chance, affected by ecological constraints beyond its control, spreading and perpetuating itself by improbable variation, life is not designed. Once the notion of design disappears, Jan remembers Ressler theorizing, so will the destructive notion of improving life. Although spiritual distress has been the widespread response to the world as a "'Monte Carlo game'", the prodigious odds against life ever appearing on the planet and the prodigal diversity of its forms stimulate in Ressler "wonder and reverence", reactions he believes are the appropriate purposes of science. "'The proper response'" to the observed world, Jan quotes Ressler, "'ought not to be distress at all. We should feel dumb amazement. Incredulous, gasping gratitude that we've landed the chance at all, the outside chance to be able to comprehend, to save any fraction of it'". The natural science that Jan, Todd, and the reader learn from Ressler teaches a series of analogous lessons: that life is a prodigy, a highly unlikely phenomenon on a planet dead for millions of years; that humankind is a recent prodigy on the timeline of life; that every normal child with its brain of a "hundred trillion synaptic bits" is a prodigy within the realm of biology; and that humans had better employ their natural curiosity, the information stockpile, and pattern-recognition to become new kinds of prodigies—emerging, collaborating, maturing rather than declining with age, creating an "ecology of knowledge". For Ressler, humankind is the "caretaker" of the earth who must learn the most fundamental lesson of genetics: "small initial changes ripple into large differences".
The wisdom of "The Natural Kingdom II" can be fed backward in time to evaluate the Cyfer group in 1957–58 and fed forward in the text to judge the actions of Jan, Todd, and Ressler in 1983. The seven scientists in Cyfer are brought together in a Cold War intellectual environment with reminders of the Manhattan Project, the possibility of nuclear apocalypse, and the launch of Sputnik. Despite these examples of theoretical physics turned into practical threat, the Cyfer scientists look to a local achievement—the invention of the transistor by two Illinois professors—to reinforce their collective belief that they are producing knowledge that will improve life. Supposedly pure scientists, their research is pressured by review boards and funding mechanisms. Initially collaborating, the group breaks up into two camps with Ressler as liaison and eventually the camps break down because of the difficulty of the project or the interference of the scientists' personal lives. Tooney Blake, locked for a night in the library, experiences information overload and leaves the group for a life of hopeless generalism. Joe Lovering, who has an imaginary girlfriend and an impossible computer task, kills all the lab's animals and, on a sudden impulse, himself. Woytowich, unwilling to admit in his personal life the long odds he investigates in the lab, breaks up his marriage and gives his intellectual energies to rating TV programs. Jeannette Koss sacrifices her role in the breakthrough and her love for Ressler to a 1950s version of womanly nobility. Ulrich, the administrator, and Botkin, the European scientist comfortable in two cultures and a reminder of Nabokov, who used the name as a pseudonym, are the only members of the group by the year's end. The novel's sections about Cyfer suggest that scientific discovery is almost as lucky—as dependent upon variables scientists of the 1950s tried to ignore—as life itself.
Ressler's passionate love of Jeannette affects his own refusal of the breakthrough, but equally important is his vision of the future, the next generation of prodigies and science. While working backward to the genesis of life, Ressler observes two children of his colleagues in Cyfer. Margaret Blake, at age seven, has been trained to recite long passages of romantic poetry that she does not understand. The Woytowichs' infant child Ivy is also being conditioned to be a prodigy, picking out alphabet blocks when her father names them. Both children are directed to second-order experience—language they do not understand, letters they cannot, know, ciphers—rather than being placed in proximity to first-order nature that language names. They see arbitrary links before experiencing things. They may well grow up to be facile cross-referencers and glib conversationalists like Jan and Todd, but these "prodigies" will lack the curiosity about and wonder at nature that Ressler and, I believe, Powers maintain are the source of science and its grand understandings. Poised at the edge of such a break-through, Ressler sees what biotech will and has become. Koss's husband—engineer turned food technologist, master of cheese in a can—is the parody version of useful knowledge. More dangerous is engineering life, creating genetic combinations that, like cheese in a can, cannot be put back in once sprayed out. For Ressler, the benefits of medical science are not worth the risks to the million-year-old genetic library, which can be snipped and cut a million times faster by human intervention than by evolutionary mutation. When he loses Jeanette and the possibility of the two of them standing as symbols of scientific renunciation, Ressler gives up the gold associated with the Nobel Prize and patented life forms. He spends the next twenty-five years recovering from what Powers suggests is the "gold bug," the financial flu, of mid-century science.
Poe's "The Gold Bug" is first referred to in the Illinois sections and serves best as a commentary on the period and the searches of the book's first half. Bach's Goldberg Variations are also introduced in the Cyfer group, but they are more important in the second half of the book and in the 1980s sections. The fact that "Variations" is capitalized on the title page implies that this word is more important than either of its predecessors. The characters who comment on story, Ressler included, are interested in the intellectual power and knowledge that the self-aggrandizing Legrand uses to break the code and dig up the treasure. For Powers, I think, other features of the story are equally important. Legrand is a naturalist whose curiosity about life on the seashore is responsible for first turning up the unusual golden bug. After that a series of accidents involving his servant, the weather, his friend the narrator, his dog, and a small error with huge consequences help lead him to the prodigious riches in Captain Kidd's chest, natural stones worked into human treasure immorally amassed and then covered by skeletons of men Kidd presumably killed. This wealth Legrand shares with his servant and the narrator who spends little time meditating on the sources of the wealth.
Whether it is the possible wealth that produces feats of analysis or whether code-breaking is a natural proclivity of the brain that accidentally produces financial rewards, intellectual prowess is a metaphoric piracy. The "breakthrough" that Ressler achieves is a kind of break-in: "Putting One's Hands Through the Pane" that separates life from our understanding of it.
The plot of the last third of the novel provides a contemporary analogue of piracy and the dangers of interfering in the prodigious web of interconnected information inside or outside the gene. In December 1983, Ressler, Todd, and Jan take a weekend holiday in New England. When they are snowed in, their supervisor, a boy-man named Jimmy without computer skills, futilely attempts to keep the information processing working. Feeling guilty and sorry for the overworked Jimmy, Todd uses the programming skills he has picked up from Ressler to break into the company records and give Jimmy a raise. This altruistic hacking inadvertently cancels Jimmy's insurance. When the raise is investigated, the innocent Jimmy has a stroke and requires long-term care and therapy no longer covered. To right this wrong, Ressler, Todd, and Jan create an elaborate computer violation that breaks no laws but embarrasses the company into reinstating Jimmy's insurance before firing Ressler and Todd. Their clever manipulation of programming knowledge and literary quotation can close the gap in coverage, but nothing can repair the broken blood vessel in Jimmy's head. Like the genetic code and the life it produces, the brain is prodigiously dense and complex. But as Jimmy's accident implies, the brain that makes us prodigies is also exceedingly delicate, small changes producing huge unanticipated effects, a single event turning the rest of Jimmy's life and speech into noise.
Personal collaboration, man-machine cooperation, financial conglomeration, and overpopulation create massive scales of information, organization, and environment in The Gold Bug Variations. Magnitude and number pose a question that Powers asks in his other novels: how can the single person believe she or he matters? In collaborating to help Jimmy, Ressler, Todd, and Jan renounce the selfish desires percolating up into behavior from the selfish gene and act, according to Jan, by the morality dictated by "a new complex mathematics, one dependent on the tiniest initial tweaks". Her "notion that the entire community was accountable to the infinitesimal principle of a single life" has as its basis the nonlinear science of chaos and fractals, a paradigm that has emerged since the explosion of genetics and a paradigm that finds in both life and inanimate matter the kind of delicate patterning and noisy order of genetics. I have discussed in some detail in The Art of Excess the influence of nonlinear science on Joseph McElroy's Women and Men. The terms of that analysis can be easily mapped onto The Gold Bug Variations. Particularly relevant to Power's novel are the sources of this new paradigm: fractal theory arose from Benoit Mandelbrot's mathematical formalism and chaos theory came out of early large-scale sorting of phenomena made possible by the computer. Both theories rely on computer graphics, reducing their prodigious digital information into analogue forms, to communicate their beauty and validity. Key to both theories is the recognition that initial changes in a dynamic system create huge and unanticipatable results. This unpredictability—from the processes of genetics to an individual's brain to ecosystemic processes—is the fundamental basis of Powers's critique of scientific mastery and human intervention in the biosphere.
If old-fashioned and new prodigies turn their energies away from engineering nature and tinkering with biological information, they can learn how to imitate the new paradigm of nature in their lives and works. Jan and Todd create the collaborative biography of Ressler, who spends his last years investigating music's relationship to the brain and composing his own music. In this work about science and art, Gold Bug and Goldberg, Bach's music dominates the second half, culminating in chapter 27 where Powers uses both digital and analogue means to explain the multiple levels, overlapping orders, and recursive structures of the Goldberg Variations. I will leave a detailed analysis of the Bach influence to someone more knowledgeable about music than I, but it is clear from Power's use of the Goldbergs and his comments on them that the central feature uniting this music and the new science, whether genetic or nonlinear, is correspondence. For Powers, self-similarity and variation replace Newtonian cause and effect as the fundamental principles of nature. And correspondence is a pervasive principle in the novel from its molecular structure—puns, puzzles, riddles, translations—to its metaform—doublings, splittings, triplings, recursions, and expansions.
The correspondence between Bach's Goldberg Variations and Powers's The Gold Bug Variations also represents the novel's deceptive prodigality. Opening with an "Aria" that insists upon its simplicity, Powers takes the reader into a fairly conventional realistic novel about failed love and gradually overloads the reader with functional information about genetics that shows prodigality is life's rule. Then through parallels with the "Goldbergs" and through commentary on them Powers reveals the prodigality—the superabundant connections—of his novel. The result is what one of Powers's characters in Prisoner's Dilemma calls "Crackpot Realism", a fusion of traditional representational methods with contemporary paradigms that will seem like crackpot ideas to readers clinging to the common-sense empiricism of traditional realism. This fusion creates a mutation, the "'hopeful monster'" known in biology as "the Goldschmidt variation". With his collaborative artistic method, Powers elicits the emotional effect of realistic representation—the reader's sympathetic engagement with characters—while building toward the final response of wonder, the reader's amazement at the world created in and through this book made by an author "giving or yielding abundantly."
William Vollmann employs as artistic methods the more negative meanings of prodigal—"profuse and wasteful expenditure," "reckless extravagance"—from the very beginning of You Bright and Risen Angels: a vicious epigraph from Hitler; a subtitle that announces the book as a "Cartoon"; another epigraph defending exaggeration; a dedication to "bigots everywhere"; the author's autograph accompanied by hermetic signs not explained until an "Author's Note" on page 636; a four-page "Social Gazette of the Personalities Interviewed for this Book" too dense with information to be of use; a four-page "Transcendental Contents" that includes chapters of a second volume that does not exist; and a prologue entitled "Shape-shifting" in which the narrator says "I may disguise myself as any other animate or inanimate object in what follows". The profuse frames and extravagant ironies of the first few pages are followed by Shandy-like chapters, often eccentrically titled and decorated with multiple, esoteric epigraphs; a plethora of human and insect characters in several wandering plots; an amorphous time and space, historical and imagined; a style as digressive and metaphorically diffuse as Tom Robbins's; and a humor as parodically broad as that of Robert Coover and William Burroughs, both of whom are alluded to in the novel. Unlike Powers, who suggests the prodigal quality of his novel arises from its protagonist-narrators, Vollmann calls attention to himself as the prodigy source of his book's more than crackpot hyperreality. But the author who signs his name in the text at the beginning and signs again in hermetic symbols at the end is only one manifestation of the actual author whose printed name in capital letters in the paperback edition) precedes the text. How the lower-case author becomes the capitalized Author is a central story of the novel: the development from personal hermeticism to a role as public Hermes, the prodigal god of science and art, orators and thieves celebrated as a parasite by Michel Serres. The prodigy who wrote You Bright and Risen Angels between 1981–85, when he was in his early twenties, became that prodigy: the author learned to become the Author by collecting and using prodigious information as a computer programmer, what he calls a "glorious profession" in the only partly ironic "Social Gazette."
Reconstructing this development requires assembling into chronological order details about the self-referring "author" that occur piecemeal throughout the novel. This author lived in San Francisco with a girl named Clara Bee, who called him "Beetle" and kept snakes in a glass case warmed by electric lights. Tiring of him and his parasitical dependence, Clara ended their relationship, the author attempted suicide, and began what he terms his "bug blazoomises" to forget his personal unhappiness. The hero of these cartoons (and of You Bright and Risen Angels) is the nameless "Bug," a bookish and vulnerable outsider like the author. Although Bug remembers everything he reads, neither he nor the author seems inherently gifted with creative abilities. Bug's "great sensitivity" to insects is largely the product of some wax earplugs that a bug-eyed boy gives Bug at summer camp. From childhood Bug's nemesis is a snake-like character named Parker Fellows, who continues to plague Bug like some Poe double even after college and after Bug joins with "The Great Beetle" to wage war against humankind and electricity. In addition to the parallels between the author and Bug, bits of information about them and what the author's note reveals about Vollmann—that he went to Cornell, visited Afghanistan, and that he lives in San Francisco—also overlap. What Vollmann suggests with these seeming or partial self-references is that the cartoon, a form for children, arose from the author's child-like vulnerability and took its imagery and names from his rather juvenile romantic relation. "As children," Vollmann has his author say, "when we pulled the covers over our heads to protect us from monsters at night, we knew that if the monsters ever came they could rip the blankets silently with their claws and then eat us … but with an exoskeleton we'd be as invulnerable as Superman".
Much of the mid-section of the book—about Bug's years at summer camp, on a high school swim team, at college, in a protest group, and finally as leader of a violent revolutionary cell that includes Milly, Clara Bee's best friend—parodies with its exhaustive, frequently excessive detail the sentimental, Holden Caulfield bildungsroman and the political revenge fantasy, mocking the obsessive personalizing that characterizes both forms. Although as a boy Bug, like Stuart Ressler, was a student of trees and interested in insects, his later ecoterrorism develops more from his emotional alienation than from an informed ideology. He decides to be a revolutionary when he sees the powerful effect the wind has on women's skirts. The most ideological member of his little band is the "meta-feminist" Milly, whose alliance with Bug is a symbolic defeat of Clara Bee. The group retreats in Alaska to the "Caves of Ice" that Bug read about in a Tom Swift book. Bug's attraction to guns and violence is equally juvenile and again bookish, reality developing out of the gun catalogues that he once collected. In the revolutionary cartoon, the alienated author reverses Superman's alliance with the law and order of dominant culture. Bug is a Spiderman gone native, back to his insect roots.
What metamorphoses You Bright and Risen Angels from a parodic cartoon about adolescent monsters to a serious attack on a larger enemy is the author's job as a computer programmer working for a "math nerd" supervisor named Big George. Incorporated as a character in the cartoon, Big George meddles with the author's favored creations. Then Big George rises above his status as character, interferes with the author's use of his word processor, and takes over long stretches of narration as alternative author. The reader experiences this conflict between authors early in the text, but understands their competition and the fact that Big George has been the speaker of "Shape-shifting" only later in the novel and in the epilogue, also called "Shape-shifting." Initially Big George appears to be a cruel manipulator of the author, substituting a long "History of Electricity" where the author would like to tell the personal lives of his characters, but the reader eventually welcomes Big George as a source of public information. Although Big George's history is ideologically distorted by his alliance with the Blue Globes, the personifications of electricity whose initials he shares, his tall-tale celebration of American pioneering imperialism and rampant industrialism are a welcome relief from the exaggerated sentimentality of the author. He attempts to depict Big George as a traitor to electricity, but he is "the eternal winner". By the end of the book the parasitical, shape-shifting, and monstrous Big George appears to be in almost complete command: as night shift supervisor, he keeps the author locked in the "Training Room" of the computer center, where he sleeps next to snaking extension cords and finds it difficult to "believe in the outdoors". Big George also controls the "tape drives" where the characters' lives exist, the "disk drives where the action of this novel takes place", and the "end of-file mark" that shortens the book from its "Transcendental" length to its real one-volume existence.
During Big George's final "justification subroutine", he becomes more than a commercial editor cutting the young author's text, more than a personification of technological power unsympathetic to sensitive art. At the end, the reader understands a much-earlier comment by the author—that Big George is "pure electrical consciousness itself, insinuating itself everywhere, drifting in and out of all stories and machines". Ultimately the relation between Big George and the author is a cartoon projection of several recent ideas coming out of neurobiology and the cognitive revolution. In The Gold Bug Variations the brain is described as an evolutionary "kludge," a "walkie-talkie wrapped around a shrew-screech encasing a lizard's intuition". In these terms (what Carl Sagan called "the triune brain"), Big George is the big brain, the evolutionary top of the head, a "walkie-talkie" become a calculating machine consciousness. Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained, which summarizes cognitive research of the last decade, posits a "Multiple Drafts model of consciousness" in which "information entering the nervous system is under continuous 'editorial revision' … accomplished in the brain by parallel, multitrack processes of interpretation and elaboration". For Dennett, consciousness is competitive and collaborative, selecting, editing, and revising the information we call personal (as well as "objective") truth. The conflicting voices of the author and Big George are two methods of cognitive interpretation and elaboration. What Vollmann calls "pure electrical consciousness" does not, according to J. Allan Hobson, turn off during sleep. In The Dreaming Brain, Hobson offers a physiological explanation of dreaming as an "endogenous process with its own genetically determined dynamics" (15), the work of a brain processing information without "external space-time data" and "the internal chemical controls necessary for logical thought". By the end of You Bright and Risen Angels, the author is sleeping at the computer center and Big George is speaking, his electrical voice "insinuating itself everywhere." Like Stuart Ressler's attempt to map the effects of music in the brain, the theories of Hobson and Dennett have a reductive effect. Hobson does away with the autonomy of the Freudian or Jungian unconscious, often cited as the source of artistic imagination. Dennett attempts to destroy the vestiges of Cartesian identity, replacing the central processor with the connectionist model of consciousness. They make humans more electrical, more like machines, even more like fireflies. But in destroying several bases for mankind's lordly separation from and authority over nature, his inherent, reified powers, Hobson and Dennett also increase human responsibility. If we are electrical information processors, if we are the summation of our information as well as our evolution, we must attend more carefully to the data about the world and ourselves that we take in.
Former programmer, Author Vollmann knows "garbage in, garbage out." This external Author programs his novel's programmers, controls the internal authorial conflict, and creates from its forcible collaboration—not a spliced or matched text like The Gold Bug Variations—but a prodigious garbage heap. Its prodigality represents the uncompromising extremities of its internal authors and satirizes the wasteful failures and reckless, also wasteful successes of their political positions. This satire has its dramatic climax near the end of the book when the author's hero Bug attacks the computer complex where the author and Big George work. The Luddite Bug and his companions smash terminals, murder programmers, capture two Blue Globes, and torture them. The author is helpless. Big George escapes and the conflict between reactionaries and revolutionaries, machines and bugs escalates into further violence and repression. In Gold Bug Powers reports the origin of the expression "bug in the machine": a "moth that crashed a complex program on one of the first sequential logic machines". Powers's cyberpunks get inside the computer and use its capabilities against the powerful people who buy control over and through it. Vollmann's author's revolutionaries are like the moth: they destroy a few machines and programmers and are then destroyed. Vollmann as Author is a parasite: he learns the computer's language and procedures, shows how it helps perpetuate an economic and political system, illustrates how it can be a model of consciousness, and then imitates its prodigious storage and instantaneous revision to create You Bright and Risen Angels, a giant bug in the system of literature. Eating away from inside the decayed or useless forms it parodies, enlarging itself like "The Great Beetle" and Big George, the book does not molt, does not become a winged creature, whether angel or butterfly. It remains, like the winged Hermes, an instructive monstrosity, something "out of the course of nature," a "portent" of American life and politics.
In his biographical sketch for Contemporary Authors, Vollmann calls himself an "Environmentalist egalitarian". Where Powers described the genetic code uniting all living things, Vollmann spreads his environmental net even further, linking all things animate and inanimate with their shared electricity. Even a rock and a computer have this in common. The primary symbols of his egalitarianism, however, are insects and, more particularly, beetles, which include fireflies and cockroaches. Vollmann enlarges human sympathies for insects by showing how humans treat other humans like bugs (how must bugs feel when the scale of victimization is even larger?) and by incorporating objective entomological information into the book. The latter method, present primarily in "The Great Beetle" chapter, parallels Powers's introduction of the "Natural Kingdom." After emphasizing, like Powers, the similarities between mankind and the "lower orders"—their common need for space, the desires to eat and mate, the survival tricks they learn—Vollmann focuses on ecological interdependencies, particularly the beetles' parasitical relation with ants, wasps, and bees. After man enters the scene in a crop-dusting plane that kills prodigious numbers of harmless insects, the encyclopedic account metamorphoses into cartoon imagination and Vollmann describes "The Great Beetle," an individual bug "capable of many feats of mentation". The Great Beetle organizes the insects' defense against man, a mission almost completely devoted to gathering information, "bugging" man's conversations for his future plans. A prodigy among the bugs, "The Great Beetle" preaches collaboration among orders as an alternative to mankind's aggression.
Bugs and mankind coexisted for millions of years. In ancient Egypt, Vollmann reminds us in his tale of "The Great Beetle," beetles were worshipped as symbols of cyclic process and immortality. In Vollmann's history of the world, the nineteenth-century taming of electricity, what an early experimenter called "blue globes," was the achievement that made man a dangerous prodigy in the ecosystem, a threat to all nature's continuance. Using quotes from Thomas Edison's writings, Vollmann metamorphoses the father of electricity into Jack White, pioneer of Big Power. With the help of his student Newton Payne, a prodigy of "superior mentation" who is credited with 950 inventions, and marketing genius William S. Dodger, White turns America into an electric monopoly in the first decades of this century. In the cartoon time of the novel, Mr. White is still living in the late twentieth century and now controls the computer industry. The "Blue Globes" of industrial electricity have become electronics, miniaturized into microchips that are, in a turn of the book's metaphor, alarmingly "like bugs": "tiny ubiquitous pellets inside the NMOSFET chips and other silicon wafer wonders … turning away from human concerns, the young ones, and playing diffusion gate games which we will never understand and they frolic as the snakes used to do in the great jungles of the Americas". The prodigy of this silicon age is the snake-man Parker Fellows, who has a Midas-like gift of developing pictures with a touch of his finger. This master of the image is also working on an invention called "The Great Enlarger," a technology obviously inimical to little bugs or other beings attempting to avoid the scrutiny of Mr. White's information empire. The author attempts to diminish Parker's power by making him suffer the puppy love of the author's own life. Originally interested in electricity because of the male body's ability to "conduct electrolysis of a concentrated sodium chloride solution" in a woman's body, the author contrives as a fantasy solution to electrical and electronic monopoly a Martian takeover of White's empire.
Vollmann the Author's solution is to offer a frightening metaphor of the future, a planet-wide final solution that emerges through Big George's "Shape-shifting" epilogue and gathers together the book's numerous references to Hitler's extermination of the Jews. For the "Environmentalist egalitarian," the political terms of the novel—reactionaries and revolutionaries—shift shapes twice. Meant to sympathize with the insect revolutionaries' battle against reactionary, White power, readers ultimately have to recognize that humans are the true revolutionaries on the planet, manipulating time and space that other life forms could only react to over long periods of adaptation. In his final words, Big George indicates his future work, "electrifying" all that is left of the Amazon, an "almost dried-up canal" that "stretches all across the east-west axis of our Great Republic, the two ends forming it into a fine palindrome". When this waste sink and breeding ground for insects is brought inside the empire of electric civilization, America and the planet it stands for will become an ecologically closed system, what Vollmann calls, in a section just preceding "Shape-Shifting," the "World in a Jar." Newt Payne, White's prodigy, studies life in a glass case. The author brings home an insect, puts it in a jar, and finally finds it has destroyed itself after it has molted. In "World in a Jar," Vollmann recalls these two experimenters and creates a compact, economic metaphor for the future of man. Bugs placed in a closed jar eat h food there, multiply, cover the glass with waste, and cover the food with their own bodies. The bugs have been trapped in glass. Supposedly more intelligent, information-processing humans trap themselves in the glass of the Greenhouse Effect: "the cars snorted and farted in the blue-grey air, the yellow taxicabs especially idling and idling and double-parking, pouring out gases, while the flies buzzed and swarmed inside the darkening vial … but they went on buzzing and swarming until the vial dried up completely and then they were still. The vial went into the trash" This gassing of life is a final solution, however, that destroys both the controllers and victims of industrial civilization. We turn ourselves into trash, garbage, prodigal waste.
Bugs rise to blue globes above the swimming pools in suburban backyards. Inside the homes children are glued to the blue globe of the television screen. At the office, parents are affixed to the blue globes of their monitors increasing human efficiency everywhere. To break the magnetic power, Vollmann creates a book that, like electricity itself, attracts and repels, a black and white cartoon for readers reared on television, and a prodigious store of information that has what Michel Serres calls abuse, rather than use, value. Though Vollmann and Powers share numerous ideas and concerns, Vollmann's alienation effects, pop culture parodies, and surrealistic imagination are more like Pynchon's methods. Where Powers provides charts and tables to represent the intricacy of genetics, Vollmann includes childish line drawings and grotesque wood-block prints analogous to the Tarot-card future Pynchon lays out at the end of Gravity's Rainbow. Perhaps that is why Vollmann's two allusions to Pynchon are to children: "the Counterforce Kid" and "The Kamikaze Kidz". To be a counterforce in post-Pynchon fiction and in postindustrial culture, Vollmann implies, an Author may have to be like a Kamikaze, attacking like a swarm of gadflies, crashing like the moth that crashed the computer, risking that artistic prodigality in a time of blue globes will be recognized as functional. Treated as an organized profusion, You Bright and Risen Angels is neither wasteful nor reckless but generous, a prodigious text that uses its "monster masks and giant glow-in-the-dark Spiderman cut-outs to frighten" readers away from a glassed-in future.
Vollmann and Powers are among the seven young novelists David Foster Wallace has said he admires. These three and Jonathan Franzen also compose what Wallace has called, in a short Harper's Bazaar profile, the school of "white male novelists over six feet", which suggests big authors write big books. Infinite Jest, though not quite as prodigious as its title proclaims, is only 150 pages shorter than The Gold Bug Variations and You Bright and Risen Angels combined! I do not want to suggest that Wallace, who wrote his book between 1992 and 1995, was substantially influenced by the earlier novels, but Infinite Jest can be most economically described as synthesizing and extending characteristics of its predecessors. The setting of Infinite Jest extrapolates from much of the history, politics, and technology in the imagined worlds of Powers and Vollmann. In Wallace's post-millennial future (about 2015), he is identified by its sponsors: "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment," "Year of Glad." "Annular physics," something like cold fusion, supplies energy, and "teleputers" (tele-computers) provide nearly infinite in-home entertainment. Giant fans and catapults send U.S. waste into northern New England, which has been ceded to Quebec by President Johnny Gentle, former Vegas crooner now president of the United States and leader of the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN). Into this onanistically ominous age, Wallace inserts a monster more deadly than Pynchon's rocket or the gigantic corporations of Powers and Vollmann: a movie (or "cartridge," with its explosive connotations) so powerfully seductive that it fixates its viewers and destroys their brains. The movie, possibly entitled "Infinite Jest," extends the cyberthreat of Gold Bug and Angels to mass entertainment and gives Infinite Jest an international political dimension not present in those novels. As Quebecois terrorists and ONAN agents attempt to locate the master tape and identify the Master who made it, Wallace plays off the small, more traditional culture of Quebec with the gigantic, post-postmodern world of ONAN.
Within this imaginary setting and Pynchonian quest plot, Wallace creates two more contemporaneous worlds populated by Powers-like prodigies and Vollmann's victims of childhood. Living at the Enfield Tennis Academy, founded by physicist and then filmmaker James O. Incandenza and his Canadian wife, Avril, are two of the Incandenzas' sons: nineteen-year-old Mario, a physically stunted but precocious cameraman, "the family's real prodigy"; and seventeen-year-old Hal, a "lexical prodigy" who quotes from the OED. Hal's best friend, Michael Pemulis, is a math-science genius as well as a drug dealer. Other mostly white and rich residents at the Academy—ages ten to eighteen—have specialized intellectual abilities, and all are tennis prodigies sent away from home to prepare for "The Show," the worldwide pro tour.
Just down the hill from the Academy in its Boston suburb is the Ennett House Drug and Alcohol Recovery facility populated by mostly impoverished white and black street people like those who enter the last pages of Angels. The focal character at Ennett House is Don Gately, a twenty-seven-year-old former narcotics addict of enormous size who is "a prodigy of vitriolic spine". As a live-in staffer, Gately attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and listens to the stories of his residents. Among them is Joelle van Dyne, a former coke addict, a member of UHID (Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed), and a former actress in James Incandenza's underground films.
In a novel where waste is propelled into a border area, Ennett House first seems a disposal site for the underclass. But as Wallace reveals the tennis prodigies' individual lives and probes the histories of Ennett's adults, the two social worlds begin to overlap and the radically disjunctional novel starts to cohere as a profound cross-class study of parental abandonment and familial dysfunction. Sent away to the Academy to become top-flight entertainers (or pre-teen failures), the tennis kids play self-destructive games and take recreational drugs to relieve the pressure. The founding family is itself sick. After finding his father dead, having committed suicide by sticking his head in a microwave oven, Hal—a boy of "prodigious talent"—loses interest in tennis, becomes dependent on marijuana, and moves toward muteness. At the novel's end he visits Ennett and attempts to recover from his dependence.
"Conditioning" is a central concept Wallace uses to connect Enfield and Ennett. The kids are physically conditioned and scientifically coached, like circus animals, for performative success. In their childhood, many of the Ennett residents have been trained by their parents or conditioned by the media to be providers of sexual pleasure or consumers of reductive entertainment. Gately's mother, for example, spent much of his youth in an alcoholic haze while his stepfather became an obsessive watcher of M∗A∗S∗H. The underclass's adult escapes from parental and cultural abuse are alcohol and drugs. The killer movie, perhaps made by James Incandenza, is the logical extension of other addictions and suggests that the higher world of Enfield has corrupted with mass-produced pleasure the lower world of Ennett.
What distinguishes Infinite Jest is Wallace's passion for the particularities and histories of characters, both intellectual prodigies such as Power's characters and figures even more psychologically deformed than Vollmann's. In case readers of Infinite Jest do not understand why it provides more detail than Power's novel and proceeds more slowly than Vollmann's, Wallace enters his narrative as a tall, lexically gifted, and etymology conscious "wraith." To a semi-conscious Gately, the wraith explains his desire to give voices to "figurants", the mute, background characters of most literary fiction. The wraith calls his project "radical realism", which accurately names Wallace's method, for no matter how story lines wander both major and minor characters dig down and articulate the childhood roots ("radicalis") of their personalities. "Radical realism" also corresponds to the kind of fiction Wallace calls for in his interview with Larry McCaffery: "'Let's try to countenance and render real aspects of real experiences that have previously been excluded from art'". The number of Wallace's characters, the intelligence or sensitivity of some of them, Wallace's dedication to imagining the etiologies of muffled geniuses or fast-talking idiots, and the instructive value of placing these characters in contrasting cultures are some of the factors that necessarily press Infinite Jest to its prodigious size.
In the McCaffery interview and an accompanying essay on television, Wallace describes the contemporary fiction to which "radical realism" is an alternative. He criticizes younger writers for becoming purveyors of "image-fiction", surface realism that resembles TV, and "crank-turners" of postmodern irony, both of whom respond in limited ways to an earlier generation of great experimenters such as Nabokov and pynchon: "The postmodern founders' patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years". Although the serious business of Infinite Jest is diagnosing how figurants" are produced in families, social systems, and national cultures, the novel can also be read as a metafictional allegory of this aesthetic orphanhood. James O. Incandenza brought a "scientific-prodigy's mind" to several fields—first optics, then physics—before turning to experimental films that often resemble—in their themes and parodic methods—outtakes from Gravity's Rainbow and Pynchon's other work. In his last movie before committing suicide, "Infinite Jest," Incandenza creates a parental apology—a long series of variations on "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."—that he hopes will bring his prodigy son Hal out of his inward-turning "hiddenness," but Hal never sees the film. After the Pynchon figure dies, the Academy is run by Avril, an obsessive-compulsiveprimarily concerned with organized housekeeping and sexual relations, possibly a representation of domestic realism. The Incandenzas' oldest son, Orin, a punter for the Arizona Cardinals, enjoys the love of the crowd but fumbles at his attempts to give love. Perhaps he represents the Brat Pack, to which Wallace condescends in his interview. Mario, the physically and intellectually challenged boy who walks around with a Bolex camera on his head, is "image-fiction." Lexical game player Hal, who becomes increasingly withdrawn and ironic after his father's suicide, is postmodern talent without passion or position. Although Wallace's personal background most resembles Hal's, and although the "wraith" sounds like a combination of Hal and his father, the Wallace who wrote Infinite Jest is a prodigious collaboration of the three sons' qualities—and of Don Gately's sympathy for the victims whose stories he hears. Even in the realm of aesthetic allegory, Wallace is true to the history-mining of his "radical realism," for he imagines the alcoholic James O. Incandenza's childhood with an overbearing father from whom a dominated mother could not rescue the unhappy boy.
In neither the aesthetic allegory nor in the realistic family relations Wallace depicts is he satisfied with the Abuse Excuse. When the wraith attempts to explain his past to Gately, this veteran of Boston A. A. critiques the wraith's self pity and victimhood, which recalls A. A.'s policy on "causal attribution": "if you start trying to blame your addiction on some cause or other … everybody with any kind of sober time will pale and writhe in their chair". A.A.'s suspicion of causality and "Analysis Paralysis" is in turn critiqued by a college instructor at Ennett who argues with Gately's defense of the "Program":
"You can analyze it till you're breaking tables with your forehead and find a cause to walk away, back Out There, where the Disease is. Or you can stay and hang in and do the best you can."
"AA's response to a question about its axioms, then, is to invoke an axiom about the inadvisability of all such questions."
Instead of choosing between mechanistic causality and A.A.'s "Miracle" pragmatism, Wallace allows them to alternate with and supplement each other. "Infinite Jest" the movie is repetitive and single-voiced, seductive and possibly destroying because it depicts a parent blaming herself for causing the viewer's unhappiness. Infinite Jest the novel, though, is more like an A.A. meeting: multifarious and multivocal, engaging in its verisimilitude, and possibly rescuing because it depicts mysterious, even miraculous recoveries for addiction and anhedonia.
Like Powers and Vollmann, Wallace refers to the sciences of both chaos and cognition as contexts for the sometimes unpredictable actions of his characters and, I think, for the militantly "anti-confluential" character of his narrative. Describing the imagined heir of nonlinear science, "Extra-Linear Dynamics," Wallace says it deals with "systems and phenomena whose chaos is beyond even Mandelbrosian math's Strange Equations and Random Attractants". An M.I.T. building within which Joelle van Dyne does her "Madame Psychosis" radio show is described in great details as a huge brain. The inherent disorder of dynamical systems and the neurological noise of mental illness may well be conceptual bases for Wallace's critique of mechanistic causality, yet his central scientific interest is as old as Western medicine: orthopedics. The three Incandenza boys are all deformed: Mario's whole body at birth, Orin's left leg by repetitive punting, Hal's left arm by tennis strokes. The bodies of other kids at the Academy break down under the constant stress of training and competition. The bodies of people at Ennett House, including its stroke-afflicted director, are deformed by their addictions or behavior. Don Gately, who "grew to monstrous childhood size" watching TV, has covered his huge body with ugly tattoos. Joelle van Dyne's face was, in the novel's argot, "demapped" by an accident with acid. During one of her radio shows, she recites hundreds of deforming diseases. Minor Ennett characters are in various stages of physical decay. Out in the larger world, Quebecois terrorists have had their legs cut off or crippled by trains in an initiation rite. In the waste disposal zone, it is rumored, feral animals grow huge and an occasional gigantic child wanders out of the zone to terrorize normal people. While some of these deformities are the results of accidents or political policy, many of the monstrosities are self-inflicted, the results of addiction that has its culminating symbol in the film "Infinite Jest," described as a lethal "angelic monster".
Infinite Jest is a "hopeful monster," more extreme in both those terms than Gold Bug and Angels because Wallace extends Powers's sense of possibility to people without huge intellectual gifts or first-rate educations and because Wallace makes Vollmann's warning more plausible with "radical realism." To defamilarize the ordinary and to familiarize the exotic require even more prodigal means than Powers's "crackpot realism" and Vollmann's "cartoon," so Wallace combines and modifies the methods that the other prodigies use to deform the "classical Realist form" that Wallace calls "soothing, familiar and anesthetic". The rigorously controlled dual collaboration of Gold Bug is opened up by Wallace's multiple points of view, both first- and third-person; stylistic tours de force in several dialects; a swirling associative structure; and alternations in synecdochic scale. These methods produce, not just length, but a prodigious density because parts do not disappear into conventional and easily processed wholes. Wallace seems to allude to this effect with his references to mosaics and to an "infoliating … Cantorian continuum of infinities". This infolding density frequently manifests itself in Wallace's references to the historical, often physical roots of the words he uses. The wraith lists some of Wallace's key words in caps when he talks to Gately. Although Vollmann's relatively small number of cartoon characters are replaced in Infinite Jest by a host of physical or emotional grotesques, Wallace, like Vollmann, does employ numerous facsimile documents—such as formulae, transcripts, letters, and other documents—to deface the novel's textual surface and constantly remind readers that they are experiencing "mediated consciousness," a quality Wallace insists upon in his interview.
The novels of Powers and Vollmann imitate coded abstractions: the genetic chain and the cartoon. Wallace's special achievement is to make his book recall and resemble a prodigious human body. In a note that begins with a discussion of "Volkmann's contracture," a "severe serpentine deformation of the arms following a fracture," Wallace discusses "bradyauxesis": "some part(s) of the body not growing as fast as the other parts of the body". He then explains the "medical root 'brady,' from the Greek 'bradys' meaning slow" and applies the word to reading. Two notes later, Wallace mentions "hyperauxetic" in connection with Mario Incandenza's head, which is "two to three times the size of your more average elf-to-jockey-sized head and facies". Infinite Jest is self-consciously and intentionally both "brady-" and "hyperauxetic." In addition, relations between the novel's "big-headed" title, the body of the text, and Wallace's "Notes and Errata," which make up about one-tenth of the whole book, are both misleading and disproportionate. Although often humorous and satiric, Infinite Jest is more like the root of "jest"—"gest": story or exploit—than an extended joke. The notes (which might have appeared at the foot of the page) often function less as supplemental or clarifying material than as crucial information of the kind that would appear in an epigraph or headnote. The eight-page "Filmography" note is a prime example, for the brief descriptions of Incandenza's movies are seeds for larger narratives in the main text. In this book about addicts' bodies and athletes' extremities, the head and its abstractions are not as crucial as in books by writers of a more militantly intellectual cast. Wallace has not, like Incandenza, put his own head in a microwave, but much of the learning in Infinite Jest is physical, sensory, rather than bookish or filmic. The text and the notes have, like torso and extremities, a collaborative and reciprocal relation. The only "errata" in the final section are those of readers who do not switch back and forth between the two sections and who, therefore, do not appreciate how Wallace has deformed his novel to be a gigantic analogue of the monsters—hateful and hopeful—within it. In its microscopic materials and macroscopic art, Infinite Jest makes 1996 the "Year of the Whopper," for Wallace's novel is a larger lie than The Gold Bug Variations or You Bright and Risen Angels. Infinite Jest is also a grand omen—frightening warning against the feral future it depicts, invigorating evidence that a Pynchon protege can both collaborate with his fellow prodigies and create prodigious original work.
This section contains 12,076 words
(approx. 41 pages at 300 words per page)