Thursday, July 16, 2009

Infinite Corridor

In the previous post on the Sonic situation in Northern NJ, I mentioned the late author David Foster Wallace, who was known for his well-reviewed (but, I suspect, infrequently-read) door stopper Infinite Jest, and for his copious use of footnotes in his writing1. Somewhat coincidentally, yesterday I received an e-mail from Joshua Persky, the subject of this post from last December, "Infinite Connections or Infinite Jest?".

Persky, you may recall, was the MIT alumnus and former investment banker who gained national attention for his unorthodox job searching method: handing out resumes while wearing a sandwich board in Midtown Manhattan. In that post last December, I noted that Persky had found a new job with an accounting firm, but Persky informs me that he left that job a couple of months ago, and is currently open to job or business opportunities in "writing, inspirational speaking, career counseling, valuations and business development consulting". If you are aware of any such opportunities, and would like to contact him, below is Mr. Persky's website and contact info:

917 650 8700

In that post last December, I also questioned the value of MIT's alumni network (the school's alumni organization is called "Infinite Connections"; hence the post title) given the challenges of Mr. Persky's job search. In our e-mail correspondence, Persky seemed to agree, writing,

MIT's alumni network has not been as helpful as it could be. Unfortunately, although the education is wonderful and rigorous, the school lacks in social connectivity. It's pretty much up to each student to find his/her own way. I imagine that the other ivy league[2] schools are a bit better at networking. However, MIT is trying and encourages alumni to be in touch and mentor each other.

Persky also was able to shed some light on the origin of the name of MIT's alumni organization, mentioning that the main hallway at MIT is called the "Infinite Corridor".

1The Onion once hilariously mocked Wallace's tendency to write door stoppers and his use of footnotes, "Girlfriend Stops Reading David Foster Wallace Breakup Letter At Page 20". Excerpt:

BLOOMINGTON, IL—Claire Thompson, author David Foster Wallace's girlfriend of two years, stopped reading his 67-page breakup letter at page 20, she admitted Monday.

"It was pretty good, I guess, but I just couldn't get all the way through," said Thompson, 32, who was given the seven-chapter, heavily footnoted "Dear John" missive on Feb. 3. "I always meant to pick it up again, but then I got busy and, oh, I don't know. He's talented, but his letters can sometimes get a little self-indulgent."

[2]Although MIT is more prestigious than some Ivy League universities, and is located close to Harvard geographically, it is actually not part of the Ivy League.


JK said...

Wallace was a pomo writer, so needless length and needless detail come with the territory. It is an acquired taste.

I wonder if Wallace was enough of a techie to notice, before he died, that The Entertainment has already arrived in the form of MMORPGs. Except in the real world, Infinite Jest is named along the lines of "World of Warcraft", (which doesn't say much for human nature). China's internet addiction problem is almost exclusively the result of MMORPGs. I know of a whole family that is addicted to WoW, it is very sad.

DaveinHackensack said...

What does "pomo" mean?

I never read Infinite Jest, but my sense is that he was pretentious. Good writing can be long and detailed, but it can't be "needlessly" either. Among a certain set of Pynchon acolytes, some amount of contempt for the reader is a requirement to be taken seriously.

I've wondered whether Neil Stephenson got sucked into that with his turgid trilogy. He wrote a long but spectacularly entertaining epic called Cryptonomicon, and then followed it up with a prequel trilogy, the first book of which I was excited to buy. I made it through 150 painful pages before giving up out of apathy and boredom. Why try to be a Delillo or a Pynchon when you can be a Stephenson? Thank heavens Michael Crichton was secure enough to keep writing entertaining novels despite being smart enough to write like a Pynchon acolyte.

Re WoW, a recent post on Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog impressed upon me now addictive this must be. He talked about playing for 8 hours straight on Memorial Day, without getting up to eat or anything. I immediately looked up the company that publishes these games, but it looked priced for continued rapid growth. On my list when we have our next cyclical bear in this secular bear market.

JK said...

pomo = postmodern

Most postmodern literature isn't made-for-the-big-screen page-turners like Crichton or Dan Brown, and the genre is mostly self-indulgent, avant-garde stuff. But I like it, when written by a knowledgeable writer, it works. "The Name of the Rose" was a best seller, and I had the same suspicion as you, that few people who bought it actually finished it. The book was ostensibly a murder mystery but really just a way for Eco to write extensively about life in the Middle Ages. So, mostly nerds like this stuff.

A postmodern architect might make a large pattern out of clocks on the side of the builing, with other patterns and designs all over the place. Modernist thinking says "Why do we need this?", Pomo says "Why not?". Likewise, a pomo author will fill his books with detail for the sake of detail*, using arcane and highly technical language, jumping back and forth in time for no reason, etc. It only really works if the author is a subject matter expert, and the reader is interested in the subject the book is about. A sense of playfulness is also required, I'm not sure what you mean by contempt for the reader? Postmodern lit usually doesn't take itself seriously enough to show contempt for anything, except formality.
Crichton was plenty smart, but I wish he had sat down and put together a magnum opus where he could display the full range of his erudition and use more advanced literary techniques. But instead, he mailed in a number of mildly entertaining but sub-par novels.

Anyway, I can't make it my whole literary diet, but I have enjoyed the pomo literature that I've read. I see Stephenson has won a Prometheus award, one of the pomo novels under my belt, the Illuminatus! trilogy, has won that award also. (It also contains a humorous, oft-cited satire of Rand and Objectivism.)

*"detail for the sake of detail" or "needless detail" isn't entirely correct, as the detail usually fits into a larger pattern the author has designed, but the detail is often not relevant to the plot itself.

A MMORPG company will have much higher overhead than a regular video game company, because it has to support all the millions of users playing on its servers simultaneously. But mmorpgs in general are not going anywhere, and WoW is the 10 ton gorilla in this space.

DaveinHackensack said...

If you've read Gravity's Rainbow, which I guess was the granddaddy of this genre, you should check out a guidebook that was written for it, "Sources and Contexts for GR" -- something like that. Interesting stuff. According to the author of the guide book, there was a lot more intention to GR's structure. E.g., he tracked mentions in the text of minor Catholic feast days and news events and determined that the present-tense action of the novel takes place over three-fourths of a solar year, with the decisive action taking place on April 1st (April Fool's Day), a detail which the guidebook author said was intended to 'hopelessly equivocate any chance for resolution'. Or something like that.

That guidebook author also mentioned that the jumping back and forth through time ("analepsis" and "prolepsis", he called it) mirrored the heterocyclical structure of organic chemical compounds, which feature prominently in GR.

My sense of GR after reading it was that it was worth reading, but it would have been a much better book if it had had an editor confident and authoritative enough to hack out a couple hundred pages of garbage. The best parts of GR were the details actually, particularly the details based on fact: bizarre but true stuff such as how Kekule came up with the structure of benzine, or how the tech for the V-series rockets originally came from work done by a bunch of pacifist dreamers.

Re Crichton, ironically, the criticism usually made of him -- that his character development was weak -- is true of someone like Pynchon as well. Looks like we'll get at least one posthumously published novel by Crichton though, which I'm looking forward to reading.

What does MMORPG stand for? Massive multiplayer something role playing game? One thing that surprised me looking at the numbers on the publisher of WoW was how low its profit margins were. Maybe it's that added cost you refer to.

JK said...

I'll have to check out that guidebook. Looks interesting. The details and factoids were also the best part of Illuminatus!, and that book also lacked in the character development department. Illuminatus! not only jumps back and forth in time, but it jumps around in narrative mode without warning. Reading it has been described as going on a vicarious acid trip. I've never done acid but that sounds like an accurate description.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco did a much better job of fleshing out its characters, and it is always fun reading between the lines of an unreliable narrator (think Catcher in the Rye). Crichton's characters are simple, but the problem is, from a critical perspective, so is everything else. He targeted a broad audience, so maybe he thought he had to keep it simple. Most of his novels have an imaginative, original premise, which is what makes him fun to read.

MMORPG = massively multiplayer online role playing game. Yeah, I would bet that is the reason for the low profit margins.

DaveinHackensack said...


That guidebook is called "A Gravity's Rainbow Companion" and it's by Steven Weisenburger. Definitely worth checking out.

Also, have you read Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections"? If memory serves, before he wrote that, he wrote a somewhat controversial essay slamming some of the "pomo" novelists for their turgid work, and "The Corrections" was his attempt at writing a literary novel that was also an engaging read. His attempt was a success, IMO, and in the opinions of many critics. Worth reading if you haven't yet.

JK said...

Thanks, I'll probably get it at the bookstore when I go tonight.

I haven't read "The Corrections", but I just read the wikipedia entry and it seems like something I'd appreciate.

Postmodern literature definately has its flaws, but -without slipping into total relatavism here- I'm leery of any argument that derides any particular manifestation of art. (I also haven't read Franzen's essay so I don't know if that is what he did) For example I don't particularly care for cubism, but I get what cubist aficionados enjoy about it, so I respect it. Likewise there are aspects about pomo lit that many readers will probably never enjoy. Genre-snobbery causes some great works to never be read or appreciated too late. It was behind a lot of contemporaneous criticism of JRR Tolkien despite his work being on par with the finest 20th century fiction written, or better, IMO.