Monthly Archives: January 2012

Infinite Jest As Sierpiński Gasket

David Foster Wallace’s INFINITE JEST was written (according to DFW) almost as a Sierpiński Gasket. The Sierpiński Gasket is a fractal and attractive fixed set named after the Polish mathematician Wacław Sierpiński who described it in 1915. However, similar patterns appear already in the 13th-century Cosmati mosaics in the cathedral of Anagni, Italy and other places, such as in the nave of the roman Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Originally constructed as a curve, this is one of the basic examples of self-similar sets, i.e. it is a mathematically generated pattern that can be reproducible at any magnification or reduction.

Download an mp3 version of the interview Michael Silverblatt did with DFW where he [DFW] talks about the novel as a sort of crumbling Sierpiński Gasket here:

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The End of the World

This is, of course, a mostly accurate estimation of how we can expect the world to end.

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The sophomore slump explained, maybe

I’ve got an idea—a theory—and it pertains to both music and books. And I suppose, really, it pertains to anything creative where there are ultimately followup efforts. It might seem kind of obvious, but if so, it begs the question: why is it still unexpected?

For starters, the “sophomore slump”: why are people so surprised by this phenomenon? Books, music, movies—no media is safe from this label. It’s ostensibly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “This album/book/film is totally not as good as his/her first one.” To me, that is what should be obvious.

Writers, like all artists, [typically] spend years practicing their art before they are discovered; years working on that first big project—honing his or her style, finding his or her voice, sentence cadence, sense of humor. That first project is the author’s culmination of everything they’ve learned. If he or she gets discovered for that work, readers will automatically and inherently have a set of expectations for a followup work by that writer (or musician or film director/actor).

However, herein lies the proverbial rub:

When artists are signed to contracts, there is typically a timeline—an expectation that a sophomore followup will be produced within a year, maybe two. Even though the writer (artist) has found and honed their style, is it not ridiculous to expect a product as complete and revised and polished as the artist’s first effort? Even with a better idea of where to start and less of a need for revising (though, of course, not an absent need for), I would think—just quickly, off the top of my head—the artist would still need at least half as much time as they spent previously to create a work on par with his or her debut effort. [N.B. no actual statistical or mathematical formula or equation was used to come up with this estimate.]

But indeed, this is not the way art-as-a-profession works. Writers (and musicians, directors, et al.) have a contract and a deadline. If you are, say, Adam Levin, author of the astonishing and epic 1,030 page (debut) novel The Instructions, you would be hard pressed to recreate that success in only a year or two. Fortunately, Levin is a McSweeney’s author, so he’s probably got a more lenient timeline written into his contract. Plus both Levin and McSweeney’s are smart: his sophomore effort is Hot Pink, a collection of stories (collected over the period of time he was writing The Instructions), so the expectations will, of course, be different, and the quality will match the expectations, thus (in all likelihood) avoiding the “sophomore slump,” e.g.

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Women (Writers) Kick Ass!

Just blogged about some kickass women writers over at Specter Magazine‘s Tumblr. You should read the post, and then go read these women! (Here’s an excerpt:)

…My list would include, but not be limited to, in no specific order: Lidia Yuknavitch, Antonia Crane, Jane Smiley, xTx, Roxane Gay, Ethel Rohan, Emma Straub, Elissa Schappell, Zadie Smith, Grace Krilanovich, Amy Hempel, Nicole Krauss, Ayelet Waldman, Jo Ann Beard, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Danzy Senna, Rivka Galchen, Annam Manthiram, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Amelia Gray, Aimee Bender, Nami Mun, Ann Beattie, Monica Ali, Emma Donoghue, Jennifer Egan; my 3 MFA mentors (all women)—Patricia Lear, Amy Hassinger and Catherine Texier; Joan Didion, Karen Shoemaker, Alana Noel Voth, Alissa Nutting and Rachel B. Glaser…

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2012’s Most Anticipated Books: The Big Presses | 01.03.12

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus: No venom seems more befitting an author than words, words, words. In Ben Marcus’s Flame Alphabet, language is the poison that youth inflict on adult ears. Utterances ushered from children’s mouths have toxic effects on adults, while the underage remain immune to the assault. The effects are so harmful that The Flame Alphabet’s narrator, Sam, and his wife must separate themselves from their daughter to preserve their health. Sam sets off to the lab to examine language and its properties in an attempt to discover an antidote and reunite his family. Marcus’s uncharacteristically conventional narrative makes way for him to explore the uncanny eccentricities of language and life.

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the dyspeptic bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence but compensates by introducing a “sickly old tortoise” named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. “If people really think that (is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize.

Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room by Geoff Dyer: Geoff Dyer shows no signs of slowing down after seeing two stunning books of essays published in the U.S. in 2011, Otherwise Known As the Human Condition and The Missing of the Somme. This English writer, blessed with limitless range and a ravishing ability to bend and blend genres, is coming out with a peculiar little book about a 30-year obsession. It’s a close analysis of the Russian director Andre Tarkovsky’s 1979 movie Stalker, and Dyer calls it “an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.” Even so, Dyer brings some sharp instruments to the job, and the result is an entertaining and enlightening joy.

When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson: The exalted author of Gilead and Home claims that the hardest work of her life has been convincing New Englanders that growing up in Idaho was not “intellectually crippling.” There, during her childhood, she read about Cromwell, Constantinople, and Carthage, and her new collection of essays celebrates the enduring value of reading, as well as the role of faith in modern life, the problem with pragmatism, and her confident, now familiar, view of human nature.

Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret: Etgar Keret’s choice of position while writing–facing a bathroom, his back to a window–reveals much about his fiction. He stories are absurd, funny, and unearth the unexpected in seemingly everyday situations. Many stories from his forthcoming collection are set on planes, “a reality show that nobody bothers to shoot,” and deal in wishes and desires. In “Guava,” a plane crashes, a passenger is granted a last wish and is then reincarnated as a guava. Another story involves a wish-granting goldfish, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, and a Russian expatriate who seeks to avoid having strangers knock on his door. Keret’s stories are brief inundations of imagination, an experience that holds true for Keret as much as it does for his reader. Keret says he becomes so immersed while writing that he’s unaware of his surroundings, regardless of his view.

The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: After a run of bestsellers, including the Columbine-inspired We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was recently made into a movie with Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly, Shriver is digging into her bottom drawer to publish an old novel rejected by publishers when she wrote it in 1998. The New Republic, written when Shriver still lived in strife-torn Northern Ireland, is set on a non-existent peninsula of Portugal and focuses on terrorism and cults of personality.

Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Adam Levin works on his short game with this follow-up to his 1,030-page debut novel The Instructions. Hot Pink is a collection of short stories, many of which have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly and Tin House. From his own descriptions of the stories, Levin seems to be mining the same non-realist seam he excavated with his debut. There are stories about legless lesbians in love, puking dolls, violent mime artists, and comedians suffering from dementia. Fans of The Instructions’ wilder flights of invention (and devotees of the legless lesbian romance genre) will find much to anticipate here.

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