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Reading and riding the post-scientific wave: the shorter fiction of David Foster Wallace.

The influential swing toward meaning and away from sense is as discernible on the wilder shores of contemporary American fiction as it is in the shored up wilds of that contemporary fiction that is America. Its consequence has bean a much anticipated but little heralded turning away not only from mytholepsy and the sort of Spenglerian Untergangbang that became the hallmark of postmodernism's first generation, the Pynchon-Coover-Barth axis of the sixties and seventies, but also from the later capitalizing on empty signifiers that became the stock in trade of the movement's second generation, the minimalists, in the eighties. Now, well into the nineties, a third generation has sprung up whose quiet revolution in the realm of fictional technique has scrapped deadpan irony in favor of passive-aggressive role modeling in conceptual plasticene (note Mark Leyner's My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist); loss of affect in favor of affectation, suitably randomized, of loss (viz. Kathy Acker's Empire of the Senseless); and density of texture in favor of density matrices whose historical decompressions of the indigenous reenergize the master-slave dialectic in wholly new and de-Hegelianized ways (for example, William T. Vollmann's cycle of novels-in-progress on the loss-leader role assigned American Indian culture in the discounting of America). Consider, for example, the most recent work of David Foster Wallace, a true third generationist and author - so far - of a novel, The Broom of the System (1987), structured around the prinzip of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) that all fassion of atomic facts begins and ends at ground zero-degree; a collection of fictional pieces both long and short, titled Girl with Curious Hair (1989); a book on African-American street music done in collaboration with Mark Costello, Signifying Rappers (1990); and some as-yet uncollected stories, including the different and really quite remarkable "Order and Flux in Northampton," published in Bradford Morrow's Conjunctions in its tenth anniversary issue in 1991 (no. 17, pp. 91-118).

This essay will focus on several samples of Wallace's recent fiction from Girl with Curious Hair and pay particular attention to "Order and Flux in Northampton" because it so thoroughly exemplifies qualities found in the newest writing in what I choose to call the post-scientific mode. I propose to illustrate the differences between Wallace and his postmodernist predecessors by examining the epistemology masquerading as indeterminacy physics that so often undergirds the master topoi of classic first-generation metafictional works, as well as its transfigurations in certain third-generation, on-the-way-to-becoming-classic post-metafictional, or post-scientific, texts. Now, post-scientific fiction, as I see it, counters such specious epistemologizing by altering not only how the game of fiction is played but its nature and rationale as well. If the postmodernists of the sixties and seventies were content to smoke out the mirrors secreted in civilization's high-toned myths, the fact could not be ignored that those myths were from the start intent on blurring the distinction between the innocence of loss and the loss of innocence, whether they were a solution dreamed up by Scheherazade to keep a knife from her throat, or a problem dreamed up for Achilles, Ulysses, or Aeneas to keep him from reflecting too long or too hard on how holding the mirror up to self-reflection can leave any masterpiece open to having its bones jumped someday by a Barthelme or a Barth. These and other writers sought to veil with multiple ironies (or to infinitize ad ironiam) Bedeutung's undignified retreat from Sinn all across the spectrum of twentieth-century culture, believing that, under a barrage of superhip gags and snickers, readers would be at a loss to say whether what they were being treated to was an extravaganza piped into a lounge pretending to be The Big Room or a small satyric revue in a big room pretending to be The Lounge.

Wallace, Leyner, or Vollmann, however, divest their fiction of the games multiple ironists play by outering the hidden schematics with which the guidance systems of stories had hitherto been programmed and scrupulously reinscribing them in an idiom not unlike a blueprint's with its filigree of specs but somehow charged with a capability to render character and nuance, as postmodemist coolness seldom was, with a topologist's love of contour and tactility (though the spirit of place is often "being there-ed" at the cost of there's being). Their stories also display a lay(er)ing on of topos-less narrative by a method that musical formalists from Ezra Pound to Pierre Boulez have designted pli selon pli or "fold over fold." Rather than folding in with the basic elements of his story grand narratives (ostensibilized as vast cryptogrammta done up in the style of modernism's - and postmodernism's - great mythophiliacs from Joyce to Gaddis) like ingredients in a batter, Wallace instead contrives something intriguingly different. He folds over layers of text until they intercalate each other's strata, thus simulating a version of hyperspace utterly removed from either the discontinuities of Burroughs's montage linguistics or the Einsteinian cut-ups of Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. These layers act as software for what might be called the Wallace story's programmatic control center or Wittgensteinian database of "atomic facts" by which "everything that is the case" is subtended. Initially, finally: it makes no difference - in that philosopher's Stonehenge of the obvious, the Tractatus, time is as epochal or bracketable in the Husserlian sense as it would be in any spreadsheet universe where only insistencies, duly numbered, ever reach printout. This re-envisioning of fiction as the endlessly reconstitutable core reactor by which reality is broken down into its various unifying fields and not nucleated conscriptively into gross metastases of metaphor and metonymy - engrossing though they might be - as the original groundbreaking works of a Pynchon or a Coover now seem to third-generational eyes to have been.

For this and ower reasons (contingent upon Wallace's newer even more engaging "gridworking" and "netlocking in" of facts) it has become necessary to devote to the as yet uncollected "Order and Flux in Northampton" the amount of commentary space usually accorded more easily accessed works, such as, in his case, his 1989 collection Girl with Curious Hair. Though several of the stories from that collection - "Girl" and "John Billy" particularly - screw the potential for weaving in hypertext beyond the first-order permutables that have long been the stock-in-trade of Coover and other older postmodemists to an even further sticking point, "Order and Flux" highlights a recent tropism still very much in progress in both his approach to narration and the crafting of sentences that if not directly attributable to Wittgentein (as were many sentences in Broom), are certainly of the sort he would have relished getting deep inside of. Thus, some of the stories in Girl, and especially the longer ones like "Little Expressionless Animals," "Lyndon," and the novella-length "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," hark back to what now seems a more retrograde stage of Wallace's transition from a writer obsessed with the decline of post-modernism to one heralding the advent of an auspicious shift toward the post-scientific in fiction, as is discernible in "Order and Flux." It is hardly accidental that Wallace closed out Girl with Curious Hair with "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," a story that launched into orbit a satellite of Barth's 1968 medley of metafictional duties, Lost in the Funhouse, and most notably its title piece, in the form of a sendup-cum-homage that is nearly six times as long as its source text. Indeed, Wallace closes a magic circle of first-generation postmodernism by recalcifying - with Lettermaniacal irreverence - the now quaint manner of Barth's 1968 - isme, with its "For whom is the Funhouse fun?" sedimentation of ironies into a petrifactualism that goes the poet Auden one better in praising the limestone he himself has quarried for the occasion. This effect is further enhanced by having D. L., the story's ingenue, present her copy of Lost in the Funhouse for autographing to its parergonic auteur, Professor Ambrose, in whose writing workshop she labors, in an arch reprise of metafiction's "the way we were," to give birth to herself as a postmodernist.

Though along the way Girl and "Order and Flux" might re-Cooverize a descanted pricksong or two. Wallaces more mature work no longer under-studies the Rubik's cubism of pieces like "Quenby and Ola, Swede and Carl." On the contrary, in stories like "Say Never," "John Billy," and "Here and There" Wallace transcends the generics of homage by reinscribing the setups that let Coover be Coover within story grids that work to provoke character instead of just being characteristically provocative. Gone, or at least forcefully reined in, are the obligatory algorithmics of the Coover style, that tendency to view fiction as a quickstep of likelihoods high-stepped by fortuity and desire, the slavish imitation of which has left many of today's younger writers awash in paregoric of Cooverismo. In fact, Wallace's sendups of life lived in the shadow of Jeopardy ("Little Expressionless Animals") or The David Letterman Show ("My Appearance") are every bit as distant from Coover's meltdowns of Casablanca and The Gold Rush in works like A Night at the Movies, or, You Must Remember This as Coover's fictions are from the pummelings to low, middle, and high culture administered by R. Crumb twenty-five years ago in the pages of Zap Comics, which they superficially resemble. More often than not, the Coover method is to nominate a she of cubistically pretzelized actantcies out of a field of potential developments whose mutant derivation from an Ur-mythos (such as spanking the maid or leaving a child alone with a baby-sitter) denies any of them precedence within the schema of that particular fiction.

For Wallace, however, commandeering myths in order to play ironic games within the interstices of determinisms imposed by their structures is not at all the same thing as demythicizing myths by invading their structures and commandeering their control centers. A timely analogue from virology helps bring into focus the difference between first-generation postmodernism's debunking of myths indispensable to the modernist project and the third generation's of s debunking of their debunking of myth so as to reconstitute the mythical as an esemplast having already internalized advanced tochnology and virtual environments. While books like Barth's Chimera and Barthelme's The Dead Father invaded the cells of myth in order to replicate en abime the multiple ironies of their own self-reproduction, the fictions of Wallace, Vollmann, and the Richard Powers of The Gold Bug Variations effect penetration in order to transmute the very genetic material of the myths themselves. They recognize that myth in our time is not the panoplied derangement of an Achilles's tent or Circe's isle but rather the Jonah-fication of whaling exemplified by the TV shows beamed, spelunker-like, into the Plato's Cave of the global village.

In "Order and Flux in Northampton" the basic "plot" downloads much of what is new about Wallace's most recent fictionalizing into a stylistics whose hard copy has moved far beyond the Cooverismics, Barthematics, and Pynchonics of first-generation postmodernisme. Unlike the setups of his more narrowly focused pieces such as the title story of Girl and "Luckily the Account Executive Knew CPR," "Order and Flux" is fielded through a schema that owes less to plot than to a marriage of paradigm and syntagm. Within the plasmic folds of a kind of supercoordinate Hilbert space, Wallace choreographs a dance of distentions (not all of which appear as characters) that are for purposes of the dance indistinguishable from the envelope of fatality with whose topological surface they interface and from whose curvature and parallax they fail to deduce their imprisonment in a paint-by-number Las Meninas that seems drawn to scale by the Logico-Tractator himself. Set on or about June 1983, "Flux" 's Hilbertized world of quantum-massachusetts folds out to include virtually every other vector for which a dimension is assignable as direction or momentum, and so is able to create a chain of Lorenzian attractors in such diverse locales as Rock Springs, Wyoming, Tyoy, New York, Florence, Aldzana, and Fullerton, California - all "places" where life is eerily universalized in parallel to the erroneous comedy unfolding on the Northampton main stage. As a paradigm/syntagm it poignantly triangulurs the exasperations of one Barry Dingle, thirty-five-year-old man-on-the-ground of a "spotlessly managed franchise, The Whole Thing Health Food Emporium ... located directly next to Collective Copy on Northampton's arterial Great Awakening Avenue" (OFN 91). Of course the juxtaposition of these two commercial enterprises so near the jugular of today's post-hippie and unde-Reaganized over-the-counterculture is hardly fortuitous. As with Wallace's literary predecessors Joyce, Barth, Pynchon, and Coover, no detail in his fiction is ever fortuitous.

Employed at Collective Copy, next door to where Barry Dingle, "purveyor of bean sprouts," does his thing, is Myrnaloy Trask, "for whom Dingle harbors ... an immoderate love." Trask is variously described as a "trained Reproduction Technician, unmarried woman, vegetarian, flower-child tinged faintly with wither, overseer and editor of Announcement and Response at the ten-foot-by-ten-foot communicative hub of a dizzying wheel of leftist low-sodium aesthetes, a woman politically correct, active in relevant causes, slatternly but not unerotic. ..." Completing the triangle is Barry's rival, Don Megala, the man Myrnaloy Trask "has eyes only for," a "middle-aged liberal" and "professional student" and "presently at work on his seventh and potentially finest unfinished dissertation, an exhaustive study of Stephen Dedalus's sublimaed oedipal necrophelia vis A vis Mrs. D. in Ulysses, an essay tentatively tided |The Ineluctable Modality of the Ineluctably Modal.'" Which serves to explain at least in part why Myrnaloy "has only the sketchiest intuition that Barry Dingle even exists, next door" (OFN 91).

On top of this, we are asked to imagine a further triangulation, bordering on parallax, beyond the mere human triangle whose sides have just been outlined, establishing its outlying points esemplastically within a continuum of texts coextensive with, but not contingent upon, the core text of Barry/Myrnaloy/Don (which, if so desired, can be read linearly, though this is not necessarily recommended). And, as suggested earlier, we are encouraged to conceive this triangulation as being disposed within unpredisposable space - a space which no topology dominates or molds dimensions to its particular shape or vectoral agenda - indeed, a space wholly congenial to the one-act play of facts Wallace has mounted on a grammaturgical stage fitted a-scenically, in arena style, with three blind sides. It is these facts, one should hasten to point out, that both figure on and configurationally activate the loom of coincidence on which Wallace's narratological woofs warp and his equivocating back-and-forths shuttle.

What facts? Why, those whose incontrovertibility, non-negotiability, and unconvertibility Wittgenstein serves up within the connectable dots of his "picture theory of meaning" and which figure so prominently in his Tractatus as "atomic facts." This atomic factician asserts that a picture, insofar as it is also a fact, is therefore "a model of reality and "like a scale applied to reality." Further, given that "a picture depicts reality by representing a possibility of the existence and non-existence of atomic facts," it must necessarily contain "the possibility of We sum of affairs which it represents." And finally, the all-important proviso that "We could present spatially an atomic fact which contradicted the laws of physics, but not one which contradicted the laws of geometry." Why are these facts so important? Because facts are modal, and that modality is synonymous with the conditions language imposes on that reality constructed according to pictures which meaning assembles out of those same facts that make up the atomic structure of the only world we know. Wallace likes this view of things because hi mirroring the tradeoffs at the heart of Wittgen-stein's own philosophical career it splits the problem of the solipsistic down the middle by salvaging knowledge at the expense of a Cartesian knower and by denying private languages the role of spoiler ceded them by the later, more mistycal Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations.

But Wallace's dog-wagging tale is also about love-objects "invested with all the flected umbiguity that makes Romance itself possible" - an ambiguity that thrives on flux and the humunculoidicities of immoderate love (OFN 97), no doubt further Dingle-ized by diffusion, deflection, and distortion of the sort that unpacks the Russian nesting dolls of nightmare that terrorize Mrs. Dingle on the night of 14 June 1983, when she dreams that her husband, the king of Ithaca (played by Nelson Eddy) is dreaming of her demise and that of her son, the "finely sandaled" Barry D. on the night of 14 June 1983 B.C. - a regressus ultimately to be diffused, deflected, and distorted polyphonically into the anoptically "Telemachoid" resplendencies of Ulysses's dream of Joyce in a book (dated 1922) about order and flux in a city called Dublin, the dearness and dirtiness of which, having been "dreamt" in advance almost a millennium ago in a symmetrical inversion involving Northampton, Mass. (in which the "dulcimer-craeftig" Don Megala is cast as the advisor who tells the king of Ithaca that what brought the plague that carried off both Mrs. Dingle and Barry D. was nothing other than the king's dream itself) is grotesquely reprised as if by a Saturday Night Live sketch in which guess who play a Tristan and an Iseult whose dithyring Rambonics, far from bringing death and mortal woe to the pinnacle of taste in this, Denis de Rougemont's and our modern world, merely freeze its eternal antithesis within an instant's burlesque frame. And it concerns parameciae in human saliva that make for the true magnetic north in all their mediated plashings in direct opposition to big toe-seeking inflammations of Eros. Thus, this: a hypertextual space across which parbolas of actantcy can flit but for which no Marvin Minsky-style "default assumptions" can be adduced. Envisioning this is not unlike trying to picture Cartesian tennis being played without so much as a Malebranchian net.

Viewed narratologically, the trajectory of "Order and Flux" seems calibrated at about Middle High Pynchon, but such calls are little more than ballpark estimates. Don Webb, in reviewing Mark Jacobson's new novel Gojiro in American Book Review, is so loath to proscribe the dismantling of originality by up-and-coming writers that in approving self-mantling in Ur-styles considered "classical," he all but invents writer-response criticism on poststructuralist principles before the reader's very eyes:

For Mr. Jacobson to achieve his paean to life a workable style had to exist. I realize that this speaks against the current call for originality, but books do not need to be original in style. Classical poets always cast their works in the appropriate style, and Pynchon-prose is the appropriate mode for the current epic. It moves between consensus reality and stylized camp reality effortlessly. It leaves the complicated goings-on of the real world whenever a close-up focus is needed-and best of all it can just tell the reader what's going on or spice up the flow with a few jokes.

For first-generation postmodernists like Italo Calvino - himself given to wondering before his untimely death, "Why Read the Classics?" - the subtext of such remarks might seem less a surrender to influence in the form of hero worship Man a succumbing to influenza through a contagion of styles. But Wallace is third generation, a fact that clearly emerges in the algorithmic plotting of "Order and Flux," with its reflectively principled encoding of truths elicited from certain axiom systems and rules of procedure able to elicit further truths unrelated to those systems and procedures. As suggested earlier, in at least some of the stories that make up Girl with Curious Hair he is into quite different things than either the permutations of influence or multiple mises en abime played on the mind's eye by a shattered- mirror. Wallace, Volimann, and some of their contemporaries are busily rediscovering the wheeling, if not the dealing, attendant upon plying the psychological dimension in their fiction. This explains why the narrativities of the title story "Girl with Curious Hair," in their determination to find a way out of the seeing-round-corners narcopathology of the story's narrator, shift the fulcrum of self-consciousness away from the sun-stricken heliotrope, Sick Puppy. It also makes plain why the monologics - phase spaced-out to the max - of John Billy, who, in the story bearing his name, implodes a responsibility to "tell Simple Ranger how Chuck Nunn Junior done wronged the man that wronged him and fleen to parts unguessed" (GCH 121) into a shrinking universe-as-tall-tale that miniserially parallels the nebulous expansiveness of a McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. Similarly, with the catechistic dissymmetrics (dedicated to K. Godel) proffered by the connubially stalled respondent in "Here and There" - and others deserving of broader mention than can be made of them there.

At any rate, the atomic "facts" comprising Wallace's molecular narratives can be made to seem unatomizably factual in context only if, as with reflection principles, they aid in convincing us that they indeed provide valid ways of arriving at what for the piece in question is a correspondence theory of virtual truth linking the story's "axiom system" with the "rules of procedure" that govern its discursivities narratologically. In fact, it was a sense of deprivation over Wittgenstein's having doublelocked the door to a reconciliation (which only he could have effected) between the dark inner space of solipsism and the deprivatized shadowplay of endless noon in Plato's Cave that gave rise to Wallace's belief that the second and more famous half of the Viennese thinker's career, the post-tractatus revisionist period of logical atom smashing in the Philosophical Investigations (1945-49; pub. 1953), represents a catastrophic loss to philosophy. All that the later works managed to do was to trade the only real bullion ever secured in post-Cartesian philosophy for the inflated paper of language games and psycho-logical atomism. For Wallace's thoughts on Wittgenstein's "tragic fall," see the interview with McCaffery above.)

Thus, the narrative game being played in the works under discussion revolves around the problem of creating a private fictional world (theoretically corresponding, more or less, to the truths dictated by God, were He a logical atomist, which, despite quibbles that might arise within the hermeneutics of conjectural atheism, He could well be) without at the same time creating a private language of the sort anathematized by the Wittgenstein of the Investigations and which eventually denied the Joyce of Finnegans Wake a gold medal in the only Olympics that matters. In the RCF interview Wallace contends that membership within hermeneutical circles can result in knowledge only of what it is like to experience being within the bounds of such a community itself, and never of the larger reality whose immanentizing center the knowledge community is. The world "outside" will always remain the "world" outside, no matter how "communicative" relations within that community become.

Consider the basic concatenation of events that, far from just populating a Wallace story with data, actually nude up that story. The paronomasia is crucial: nowhere in any of the pieces mentioned so far is the motor of self-determination ever allowed to idle in any particular character's conative driveway. For instance, Barry Dingle's passion for Myrnaloy Trask is in one sense an erotomania fueled by runaway hormones, but in a different sense - one, say, involving an erotomane able to step outside his erotomania and view it non-erotomaniacally - it is anything but such an erotomania. This sort of Turingesque two-step brings to mind Godel's theorem, in which the truth or falsity of arithmetical propositions cannot be wrung out of a self-describability lodged within a system of description itself incapable of assimilating self into any coordinating predicate. But it also sets spinning the peculiarly Boolean mysticism of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, in which atomic facts head up a treatise in which luck is as absent as any trace of a diverting conundrum: "The riddle does not exist," tractates the Logico-Philosophicus.

"Order and Flux" begins under an injunction to supply enough atomic facts or "Trask-data" to put Barry Dingle's "immoderate love" for Myrnaloy up on the big screen. These data are further rounded out with dossier fodder documenting Barry's impairment at the hands of his macrophobic mother. This has doomed him to the "position of a man able to want without the disturbing option of ever truly being able to have" (OFN 91, 96). Nor does the same factitiousness that afflicts Barry's search for sexual peace fail to enfold Sick Puppy of "Girl" up to his proverbials, since the brute and stubbom mindlessness by which his existence, a triumph of luck and Reaganomics, has so far been maintained is nothing but a vacuum left by the facts of a sustainable life in departing a causeless loss. Much of that mindlessness reaches critical mass only through sexual jumpstarting, a conscription of orality into the anaesthetized essays of genital intercourse:

Unfortunately, even though I am one handsome dude and desirable on the part of many girls throughout my school and life, my penis declines to become erect when they want to commit the sexual act, and will only be erect if they fellate me, and if they fellate me I wish to burn them with matches or my lighter very much and most women dislike this event and are unhappy when burned and thus are chicken to fellate me and only wish to commit the sexual act. (GCH 72).

As William H. Gass once wrote in commenting on an especially well-turned Barthelmean period, "it is impossible to overpraise such a sentence." The mix here of Rolling Stone interview jargon and schizoid parataxis (common to serial killers speaking viva voce and mob figures mouthing dialogue in films like Bugsy and Hoffa) constitutes an edgy lead-in to a historically original neo-trash phenomenon. It also alchemizes fact in such a way as to provide a Sick Puppy too stoned to philosophize with a means of turning sex hassles of the "stump Dr. Ruth" variety from heavy metal cliche into base gold.

So, too, in the realm of Dinglemania, where factologies lie like glaciers on an emotional tundra landlocked by sea change and roiling with stasis. That such Wittgensteinian reefs remain unnavigable by the port-leaning ship of fools so improbably beached in "Order and Flux" amounts to Wallace's point as well as his counterpoint. Having been invaded by a homunculoid love, Barry Dingle "is, as it were, beside himself, in a state of utter emotional flux whereby up and down, good and bad are as indistinguishable as right and left" (OFN 96). A Dingle-an-sich in hot pursuit of the Dingle-ling-an-sich he pines for completion by another, but this masks a fact at least as crucial to the story's support system as the Godelian umbilical linking the affictive quo est of Barry's toe to the inflictive quod est of his homunculoid love. Within Wallace's Wittgensteinian schematic this dominating because most particularized) atomic fact is that "cross-eyed Barry's" pining is fundamentally "duplicitous" due to his unauthorized version of second sight; this redoubled vision has, from 15 June 1961 (the day in Troy, New York, when his two eyes, which had flirted with disaster like star-crossed lovers from childhood on, finally and forever came together), consistently provided him with a synoptic gospel whose good news parallax routinely deconstructs and whose eight-eyed orthogonals he is determined to transcend via a liebes-toed contusion of cur (his) and bitch (hers) at the feet of his very own beloved Iseult-of-the-"delicate white hands" on the mayday aforementioned, 15 June 1983 (OFN 102). This last date assumes inipanance because (as any attentive reader will instantly grasp) it is the twenty-second anniversary of Barry's blindsiding at the hands of fate and the twentieth of his having first laid eyes (albeit in a doubly triangulated stare: see below) on Myrnaloy Trask. But it is also a mere calendar's tick from June 16th or Bloomsday, that singular diurnal interval in 1904 during which a certain Dingle-like Dubliner by the name of Bloom wanders like Tristan (a major backup myth in "Order and Flux") from one Celticity to another, faithfully (or almost so) temporizing the faithlessness (only skin deep) of his wife, the Myrnaloy Trask-like Molly, whose rendezvous that afternoon with his sexual rival, the Don Megalaesque Blazes Boylan, has brought him to focus his Odyssean wiles on the awful moment of his moment's force: the desire to reclaim his riteful home and wrongful bed, to yang, yet again, his well-worn yin in Ithaca.

This town is not, it should be noted, the one in New York state, which, like Barry Dingle's and Myrnaloy Trask's Northampton, is a college town, which, though unlike it, is closer to Troy, a town less given to gown and not all that much further from Homer's Ithaca than is once towering Ilium, where Ulysses made war, from the seat of his kingdom, where he made love. As far, perhaps, as the Troy of Barry's youth, where the cross he now bears was first hoisted onto his shoulders in the form of "thick angled lenses that catch and reorganize the disordered doubleness of things into a unity that fuses at a focused point several yards in front of Barry's own ruined apparatus," is from the Northampton where he now resides and whose objects "appear always twice as far away as they in fact are. Smaller and more distant. . . . So that," the story's mediated voice goes on to descant, "Dingle has chosen ... between doubleness and distance, between there being, for him, exactly twice or exactly half as much as there really is" (OFN 96). (Hence Barry's long, doubly triangulated stare, "as only the cross-eyed can stare," two years earlier when, ma 15 June 198L while at work the Michelson-Morleyed image of Myrnaloy Trask was bounced back at him from off the window of a Northampton Public Transit Authority bus onto the colored glass of the storefront of The Whole Thing Health Food Emporium which he happened to be looking through [OFN 92].)

A similar doubling and shrink-wrap redistancing may be noted in Wallace's deliberate use of Ulyssean parallels and his sedulous aping of the sort of pedantic overfastidiousness with which Stuart Gilbert's guide to Joyce's masterbook has long been associated. Don Megala, the Mortimer Adler of dissertations-in-progress, is said to have "at least one" copy of this graduate student classic "under his arm" (OFN 105), and Wallace's point in flashing this reference is to keep his story's Joycean refractions on the beam. Consider, for example, the brief scene in the Collective Copy, which from Dingle's point of view and ours, doubles as the Xeroxing establishment that employs Myrnaloy Trask and as a hotbed of Aeolian circulation, "full of the dry chemical wind of roaring copier and rattling automatic collator" (OFN 104). Here, the eye of the narrative, damping its aperture down to a binocular anopticity nearly enough in sync with Dingle's own to make double or nothing a redundancy, piggybacks on a flatbed of metalepsis to it's own dim view of things, in this case how the "Cave of Winds" segment of Ulysses acquires an eigenvalue relative to the eigenvector of the Collective Copy, one among many such eigenvectors, the sum of which comprises the "observable," or the eigenbasis of the observable (an eigenbasis being a set of vectors, such that any arbitrary vector can be represented as a linear combination of those in the set).

This meta-Ulyssean mock-up thus assumes - in keeping with its protagonist's shrunken vision field of folk - the qualities of the very antithesis of "an observable," becoming in fact (and by paronomasial flatlining) an-observable. Indeed, Wallace's tale of erotic whoa tends to downplay sharpness of visual detail to the low anoptic hum of a verbal diagram, almost as if its purpose was to give a sense of how little the ableptical Joyce really saw when writing Ulysses from 1914 to 1922. Wallace's power to make his reader see is evident everywhere in Girl with Curious Hair, so there's no doubt that, for him at least, Pound's metaphrasial homage to the poet of the Odyssey in his Cantos as "blind, blind as a bat" triangulates the ophthal-malogocentricity of Joyce's Homer in much the way Myrnaloy Trask's image is described as hawng caromed off two blindsiding mirrors smack into the corner pocket of Barry's peripheralized vision.

Thus, Wallace's tale (in which love is not the issue) reenacts the story by which other lovers and their obsessions avoid being incarcerated in narratives that would otherwise assure their deaths, were not the sole condition of their mortality foreclosed by myths proclaiming their infinite empowerment to die in prophetic retellings of Love prophesies foretold. How else explain the gathering at the end of the story of synchronicities eigenstacked like cord wood and yet knotted in love within the interval 11:50 to 11:57 A.M. EDT, 15 June 1983, which, we are informed, "finds a tiny percentage of the planet's persons involved in a tiny percentage of the planet's various and ineluctably modal situations" (OFN 115)? (Even the sodomistic daisy chain of gang rape perpetrated on Dean Paul Doyle by the Eskew brothers, Ronnie and Boone, on the floor of a crowded dormitory in Cell Block D, Arizona State Correctional Facility, Florence, AZ, constitutes a loveknot of sorts. Which only goes to prove what all the catalog rolling and calculated heartlessness tricked out at the end of the story confirm, namely that when vice is versa-ed, one man's poison can all too often (and unfairly) become another man's meat.) Or, how account for the loveknot of other, antecedent tales only seemingly intercalated at random with the Barry-Myrnaloy original and which may be seen as dependently Dingle-dangle, catenary-style, from this lei of interrupted lays? And even when the dispositional and predispositional paronomastics point the other way - that is, toward the very mythos of the observable with which Wallace's story is every which way preoccupied, it matters little to the human propositions locked inside its phase space of spacey phases.

If the world is indeed "everything that is the case," it necessarily looks endlessly down the barrel of its own self-delimiting Dasein; likewise, it disposes of events with astonishing diffidence by disposing of them wherever atomic facts go to die. For between the persistence of Wittgenstein's "picture theory of meaning" ("Picture this" or its equivalent is an injunction which the reader of "Order and Flux" is not infrequently put under by its narrator) and the insistence of its logical framing metabolism that regulates sentences internally according to the laws governing propositions such as those that led the Wittgenstein of the pre-Tractatus Notebooks to declare that "|aRa' must make sense if |aRb' makes sense" - between these two abnegational extremes falls the shadow of the arti-factual, whose field of dominance is the there and then, as opposed to the here and now. In "Flux"'s Northampton, "John Billy"'s Minogue, Oklahoma, and "Girl" 's Irvine, California, no less than in the Dresden, Chicago, or even Tralfamadore of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five (1969), past is never prologue, but in a turnabout that hardly plays fair, prologue ends up as past, thrust, as in a world of metafictional and polymath-physics it must be, into a time warp of dissembling presence whose simulacra mock for all eternity the recurrence of eternal recurrence. Or, to put somewhat less of a spin on it, prologue appears as a past whose energies remain frozen within the very same parenthetical frames as earlier enclosed Slothropian metanarratives hungover with the Spenglerian [delta]t's and all such screamings across the sky.

This might be a good moment to stop and ask just what Wallace is proposing as an alternative to Pynchonics and the sort of density matrix the author of Gravity's Rainbow was able to field in that unbelievably dense mother of a book. A density matrix may be defined as a complex system in which many quantum states are taken together to represent reality. When Pynchon employs such a wodd processor in projecting a novel he has not left the realm of mythmaking behind him; he has merely modulated its Joycean and Mannian proclivities to another, more mathematically distant plane of abstraction. Wallace rejects this as the pyramid scheme that it is and always has been. He seems to feel that it's better to internalize the density matrices of the original postmodernists and remetabolize them as both subject matter and object lesson. As suggested earlier, Pynchon-prosaics are everywhere in evidence in "Order and Flux," but subtly absorbed into an ophthalmologos in which the spectacle of Pynchonics moving its slow thighs across the page is more likely to trouble the sight than seriously affect the vision. Filtered as it is through a mere twenty-seven pages of text, "Flux" is accommodated by a matrix of complex systems sufficiently compacted to pass, if not for an infinitely bot and dense dot, then certainly for a planisphere with multiple bearings visible at all times. If its pinions of fact and struts of conjecture avoid the sort of continuum rupture that Pynchon's later work does on, it is because Wallace's propositional calculus deftly escapes being thrown for a loop by feedback from its own theory.

Indeed, it seems never to have occurred to Pynchon to wonder in spite of quantum mechanics whether his particular take on the postmodern take on fiction, with its self-discounting silences, might not finally be incommensurate with its dark-sided twin, the world of physics - specially postmodern physics, where contiguous Hilbertized envelopes bump upendlessly against one another and linguistic opacities like "unsolvable," "density," "parallel," and "serial" become impenetrable barriers rather than windows on that ulterior world. Any choice of discourse risks entropicalization whenever language contracts into a space whose flickering topologies wax figurative or wanly wane. Which notation system will be of most use is a matter not of truth but of whose noughtical inscriptions are in force and under what particular whether watch. Also involved are force fields of a different nature: those that determine whether the systems of language and sign or the systems of formula and design will ultimately prevail. Of course, this is not anything novelists or physicists can decide, for themselves or for others. What if all fields, conceptual or representational, merely misrepresent one another's "border writing" without realizing it?

Which, finally, in point of a subsequence of recorsi, lands us back at W. H. Gass's original question: What would a literary physics be?

What it would not be is a literature of or about physics, either in the direct way of a discourse on the history or ideas of physics, or the interworkings of physicists, whether singly or collaboratively, effecting historic trajectories of explanation, prediction, and control. Neither could it be a physics of literature, which would be an absurdity on its face. As a dangling plethom of misapplied linearities and functions such a hybrid would inevitably con-script a dysfunctionality in dire contradiction to the correspondence (necessary to any science) between reflected truth and the truth of reflection. This leaves, it seems, only one conceivable alternative - the one which, as I have been suggesting, Wallace has selected on occasion: physics in the form of a form of writing radiant with an idealized clarity once thought synonymous with the sort of sciencespeak that Houyhnhmns like the Huxleys, Aldous and Julian, spoke and wrote, but now viewed, this time by Yahoos, as runoff from a stream of consciousness beset by theory and by a praxis capable only fitfully of being its own subject. As Wittgenstein surely recognized when tracking thoughts he would later run to ground in the Tractatus, to write in this form of a form is to court hubris. It entails being aware of the "complete unclarity" of all the sentences that tend to gather (like the crush of oil, oozed) at the mind's tip whenever anyone attempts to talk what is the case down from its ledge of quanta and back into a cage of words.

Joseph Liouville, the unacknowledged legislator of narratological physics proposed a theorem according to which phase-space volume does not change with time-evolution. In the formulized formalisms of literary physics this means that no matter how long the time span of a novel might be (whether measured in terms of textual action or of active text), the phasespace within which the work elaborates its own actantial algorithmics - in synaptic contradistinction to Euclidean dottiness on the matter of points, the novel's "counter-point" having magnitude but no location - remains constant. Postmodern fictional space - broadly considered - is phase space; but the space in which Wallace and the younger post-postmodernists choose to have fiction become operational is sentence space -- a space that is, in every sense of the word, Hilbert space. Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind (Oxford University Press, 1989) provides the basis for this when he describes single points in phase and Hilbert space as follows: "A single point of phase space would be used to represent the (classical) state of an entire physical system. In the quantum theory, the appropriate analogous concept is that of Hilbert space. A single point of Hilbert space now represents the aquantum state of an entire system." And because "the most fundamental property of a Hilbert space is that it is what is called a vector space - in fact, a complex vector space," that being one in which "we are allowed to add together any two elements of the space and obtain another such element" (ENM 257; italics the author's), it may not be stretching things too far to imagine the semantico-grammatical elements of a sentence as operating within a kind of complex vector space. To put it more succinctly: first- and second-generation postmodernists build, whether in a novel or a story, a fictional structure in phase space whose parts are only configurable in terms of their inclusion in a whole; space, third-generation writers like Wallace work in sentence or Hilbert space, wherein the entire notion of overarching fictional structure is meaningless except in terms of sentences whose "genetic material" must encode the DNA molecularity of the fiction as a whole.

Yet, it must also be kept in mind that the dynamics at work in Wallace's stories are not the only Hilbertian dynamics propinquitous to literary sentencing. When, for example, in the story "Little Expressionless Animals" Wallace has an associate of the TV showtalk magnate Merv Griffin register character by plainly - or not so plainly - speaking out of it, what is projected is not only splendid neo-Heideggerian parody, it is Hilbert spaceyness pure and simple. The remark the Griffin aide-de-Camp makes to the story's co-protagonist Faye Goddard - "The mystery of total data, that mystery made a sort of antic, ontic self-perpetuation. We're talking fact sustaining feeling, right through the change that inevitably attends all feeling, Faye" (GCH 28) - eigenvaluatively Hilbertizes phase space as though it were Wittgensteinian logical space, while at the same time opening the possibility of the entire story being metonymized by this transmutation of sententiousness.

The gag here is, at least in part, built around having Merv Griffin phenomenologize droppings like "ontic" which, while vaguely suggestive of "antic," a term to which it is not in any way homologous, still somehow manages to be congruent with it on a free-associational level. Throughout all his writing Wallace enjoys being free with those associations found milling around the hub of the ontological. In "Order and Flux in Northampton" there is mention made of "miraculous manipulations of primal human ontemes too primal and too human even to be contemplated" (OFN 94), an "onteme" being presumably a unit of emitted being. Likewise, Merv Griffin himself, here frontloaded as a "character font' with We freedom to enter and leave the story's narrativity frame (as well as determining the fate of its "typecasts"), proves that in this text at least il n'y a pas de hors-Merv Griffin. But in his own person he also proves something else. As a point of Hilbert space representing ad finitum the "quantum state" of an entire narrative system, his indeterminacy is then indistinguishable from the causeless effect and the effectless cause of that state, which is now a story that has Merv Griffm in it but which determines how it shall be read, from a point outside it, his ever shifting cachet as a performance artist in late capitalist showbiz. (Though it is tempting to adduce the same power to mediate an end run around the means of cultural production to the other "real-life" characters in "Little Expressionless Animals," such as the TV hosts of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak, their use in the story is in every sense "fair" and merely reprivatizes what is already within the public domain.)

Such raids on Nouveau Kitsch by gimcrack "technicals" franchised by E. M. Doctorow and Max Apple over a quarter of a century ago are scarcely new. Indeed, David Letterman appears as a character in another Wallace story, "My Appearance," from Girl with Curious Hair. But differences between the frames broken by these two particular outtakes, though indistinguishable in context from the surface of things fictional, are hardly superficial. "I'm always stumped when critics regard references to popular culture in serious fiction as some sort of avant-garde stratagem," Wallace confesses in his interview with McCaffery. "In terms of the world I live in and try to write about, it's inescapable. Avoiding any reference to the pop would mean either being retrograde about what's |permissible' in serious art or else writing about some other world." Postmodern irony having "become our environment," why not use real names when adverting to the world of commerce and the media instead of stooping to the sort of campy logo-centricity that Updike and other older writers engage in whereby certain fast-food restaurants get called "Burger Bliss" rather than "Burger King."

Why not, indeed. The obvious answer is that the canvas of proto-reality, having become indistinguishable from the frame that contains it, is no longer able to prevent fiction from reconfiguring the collage of icons that is itself indistinguishable - postmodern irony having become our environment - from the circumambient culture that sustains it. This iconic speculum also doubles as the medium that permits us to view that no less factitious world whose endlessly recycled representations include made-for-TV images of ourselves being watched as we watch them, thus providing an echo chamber for our least negotiable narcissisms. Escaping from this paralysis of irony and narcissism is one of the main problems Wallace has found himself having to face as a writer: how to spacewalk in the vergeless virtual totally unpunctuated Hilbert space of the new post-scientific sensibility.


Yes - if by the term is meant collaborative rather than unicellular-heroic, transempirical rather than Popperesque, cumulo-enactive rather than linear-descriptive. "No longer devoted exclusively to knowing, knowledge, or know-how" might be one way to encapsulate the post-scientific in opposition to both Feyerabendistic (against method) and anti-feyerabendisfic (against Against Methoa) mindsets. Nor is it in any way to be confused or conflated with postmodernism or poststructuralism. These two no-longerquite-so-trendy dyslexicologies once carved out insubstantial niches for themselves by furnishing ways and means (though not necessarily the ways and means) by which what is - or more often, what is not - might be reconscripted into an army of metaphors and metonymies at least as mobile (and certainly newer) than the one half-excoriated and half-embraced by Nietzsche in "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense" (1873). As fully self-conscious theorias they clearly set out to debug the collective pleroma of sociotronic mass intermediation with literary-philosophical sounding kits somewhere between the reflex tester (again, proposed by Nietzsche, in Twilight of the Idols, or, How One Philosophizes with a Hammer [1888]) and the armamentarium of program protectors with which computer virologists come equipped. Postmodern science begins from the point of recognizing the need, as Stephen Toulmin writes in The Return to Cosmology (1982), "to reinsert humanity into nature." The post-scientific, on the other hand, involves a far different approach to bricolage than the vision of either a Paul Feyerabend or a Gregory Bateson allows for. It requires a hands-on algorithmics for actually doing realily in a sense akin to the old sixties cachet of "doing drugs," but it also combines a counterintuitive reserve with an open field commitment to what the pianist David Sudnow calls "ways of the hand" or "organization of improvised conduct," instead of settling for well worn Taosing rods urging us to play reality by ear.

How, then, might "Girl" 's fractalizations of Sick Puppy's discombobulating mind in a prose as sweatlessly unconscionable as it is unconscionably sweatless properly - or even improperly - speaking, be considered "post-scientific"? Or, for that matter, the emergency room narrativistics of "Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR"? Or the Dinglemania so fractally ophthalmologized by Wallace in "Order and Flux in Northampton"? And why should such a cumbersome new concept, laid on the culture like an enormous mustard plaster, be of any interest to literary theory already up to its canines in dogs that won't hunt?

Let me attempt to answer that by deproblematizing the issues involved. Post-scientific writing no longer accepts either the single-author theory of literary conspiracy or the conspiratorial model of "non-subjective" impersonal authorship favored by poststructuralists, post-Marxists, postmodernists, and post-post-all of the above. It bathes (rather than frames) the act of writing in the light of a wholly collaborative dissolution of alterities and the culture wars they have historically given rise to. The aim of the scientific has always been to control those parameters that are indispensable to the exercise of domination. Science as we know it has thrived because it has co-opted all responsibly envisionable canons of authority and the perquisites of legitimacy that go with them. Post-scientific writing releases the literary from its longstanding obligation to oppose the scientific, to play "pseudo-" to its overarching power to collapse all articulative distinctions between "state" as a noun and "state" as a verb. It overturns the traditionally imposed hegemony of the temporal over the spatial and returns writing (after long exile) to its dream of fields - open rather than closed (as along the Flaubert-Joyce-Beckett axis); fractal rather than linear-dynamic; integrative rather than discontinuous and catabolic. Though superficially comparable with the plush upholsteries of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and related congeries, post-scientific writing may perhaps best be understood as "discourse art" grated on to a root stock of chaos theory and Nietzschean "somantics," which is a spinoff from semantics and cognitive science, having been filtered through some recent and highly innovative thinking about "the body in the mind."

To suggest where this leaves postmodern fiction it is necessary to review what such fiction has been thought to be by the industry that has marketed consensus regarding the value of its products with the untempered enthussiasm of a Honda Corporation touting the merits of a very different type of accord during the last twenty years or so. This accord is nearly always referred back to the same few appraisers of the "postmodern condition" - Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Jameson jump to mind - who view postmodern writers generally as opting to problematize reality in their works rather than settling for an illusionistic consensus of what it is.

But of course it could be asked, When has fiction not "problematized" reality? Even "novelists of manners" from Austen to Waugh (keeping to just the Anglo- in Anglo-American writing) have fictionalized their problematizations of it by appending to their testaments to will the empowering codicils of proprietary subjectivity without which any "reality" is but a rationalist's forgery or an irrationalist's fraud. "A mourning process has now been completed," Jean-Francois Lyotard opined sunnily in The Postmodern Condition. "Most people have lost the nostalgia for the lost narrative." That was warmly aired in 1984, an auspicious year for singleminded ascensions into doublethink. Five years before the collapse of the Great Wall of communism in central and eastern Europe; eight years before the resurgence of "post-Marxist" socialism in the same countries that had only recenty rhapsodized about the promise of "post-socialist politics." One grand narrative that turned out less lost than just misplaced by the likes of Lyotard and others eager to hop on the garishly painted wagon of postmodernism was, of all things, modernism. Not the Enlightenment modernism of a Jurgen Habermas, but the aesthetic modernism of an Erich Auerbach, whose final chapters in Mimesis (1953) conceive narrative as a crucible in which even so discontinuous and fragmentary a subjective experience as Proust's can be reconstituted by "analogy" (Proust's term) into a unity.

At least some of Wallace's shorter fiction can be seen as exemplary acts of post-scientific writing because they erase the factitious dualism that has plagued the modernism/postmodernism chimera by abolishing the pain in the neck that is vaceabb; to the "pineal connection" underlying its disembodied and mindless interdifferentiality. Wallace's "Flux," for example, is a tale of Love Syntagmaticized that takes a grammar of lore and energizes it to drive a syntax of eigenvectors only dimly contingent upon such signifying chains as socioreality/rhizomatics (Guattari), economimesis/difference (Derrida), or chronotopicality/dialogics (Bakhtin). The linkage system "interseparating" Barry Dingle, Myrnaloy Trask, and Don Megala (not to mention the host of named and unnamed supernumeraries who inhabit the Berkeleyan/Berkeleyan pleroma of Northampton/Amherst, Massachusetts) exceeds reality without transcending it because it offers no megalomaniacal "grand narrative" of the sort that Don Megala hoped to find in Stuart Gilbert's misguided tour of Ulysses. Fiction in the age of science (coincidental with the novel's maximum solvency) has always posted "the world according to . . ." in a ledger of double entry transfers of knowledge from the carnal to the ever expanding database that, in direct succession from Samuel Richardson to his less-talented postmodern epigone John Irving, has rendered "real life" accessible through an essentially Garped economy of means. Like the underheated economy that is present-day America's discontent, such fiction has flourished on a regimen of borrow and spend, ignoring with singleminded determination the mounting deficit of relevance and belief it could no longer bank or bank upon. Northampton's ancestral kvetch, Solomon Stoddard, set the tone for this screming beneath the sky well back in the eighteenth century, when, as the narratormentor to the reader doing "Order and Flux" reports, the dentist/ theologian and deliverer of some stemwinding Great-awakening jeremiads in the years 1711-17 "foretold the world's cold and imminent end, characterizing that end as a kind of grim entropic stasis already harbinged by, among other portents: poor nutrition and its attendant moral and dental decay; the increasing infertility of modern woman; the rise of the novel; the Great Awakening itself" (OFN 94).

The example of Thomas Pynchon provides a useful contrast to Wallace's post-scientific approach. Pynchon, of course, is still very much alive, but remains very much a horseman of this chiropractical apocalypse; which is also to say that by now it's impossible to come upon the word entropic without recalling just whose gold lies buried at the foot of gravity's rainbow. Yet, for all its postmodern panache and skill at inventorying the century's paranoid inventions, no shimmer of the post-scientific gleams from the pages of this encyclopedic master. His Vineland is not all that removed from the sort of world that can be pieced together from Rev. Stoddard's X rays of the mouth of Hell.

But not so the recent writings of his inheritor and not-so secret sharer of influenza's anxiety, David Foster Wallace. In several of his best stories modernism and postmodernism are underwritten with a currency that projects a semblance of solvency, even while its value continues to drain away behind the scenes of its own commercially staged renascence. If all that Wallace has set a-shimmer doesn't yet gleam, his work nevertheless proves the writing on the wall for any number of his glitzier contemporaries. This wall has been waiting patiently to receive such writings - and those of his post-postmodern contemporaries - if and when what is still wanting in it weighs in with the balanced fullness of its findings, and ours.
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Author:Rother, James
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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