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Spontaneous Sierpinski

June 26, 2009

It’s no secret that Wallace structured Infinite Jest like a Sierpinski gasket — Wallace said as much in a 1996 interview (although due to the editing process, he said it came out “lopsided”).  Right now there’s a discussion on the topic over at the Infinite Summer forums.

But what I haven’t seen discussed so far, at least specifically with respect to IJ, is that you can generate a Sierpinski triangle via a totally random process. My high school calc. teacher did this every year at the school’s open house. What she did was, she stuck a giant poster-sized piece of white paper on a board near the door and put a box of tacks beside it. She asked each parent who came to the open house to grab a tack and stick it in the paper wherever they wanted. Obviously, she didn’t tell them why. At the end of the night, after several hundred people stuck tacks in the board, what emerged was a very distinct and recongizable Sierpinski triangle. No shit. This still blows my mind. There were some outliers, naturally, but there was no mistaking the emerging pattern. And she repeated this process every year with a new batch of parents. Crazy.

Now the question is, how does this all tie in to IJ? Several commenters at Infinite Summer have posited that themes and ideas play themselves out at micro and macro levels, which I think is a pretty solid interpretation. But what about the self-generation-out-of-randomness aspect of it? The product of 3 years of very deliberate creation, the book obviously didn’t generate itself out of nowhere. But maybe Wallace was playing with the idea that all of these seemingly random unconnected characters and voices come together to create a unified whole. Perhaps he was saying this is how things are in real life too — that the guy you see walking down the street may, in fact, be connected to you through a subtle but highly-structured Sierpinski matrix — maybe there are “themes” in your life and his that could be tied together, if only someone were capable of seeing the larger pattern. I don’t know. I’d like to explore this more.

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