Big Geeky American Novels

Over at Infinite Summer, there’s an interesting and personal post by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who knew David Foster Wallace and now teaches a course on his work.  She also taught Infinite Jest as past of another course called ‘The Big Novel’.

I’d taught Infinite Jest twice before, as part of a course called The Big Novel. In that one, we read Gravity’s Rainbow, Underworld, Infinite Jest, and Cryptonomicon, attempting to think through the impulse of a subset of recent authors toward producing such encyclopedic novels, and what they have to do with the state of U.S. culture after World War II.

I’m glad to see Infinite Jest mentioned alongside Cryptonomicon, because there are some obvious similarities.  There are plenty of timeline shifts and digressions in Cryptonomicon, of which the reader must keep abreast, although Stephenson doesn’t lose himself in cross-refencing and footnotes as Foster Wallace does.  Both authors have a penchant for describing and revelling in technological advances, both real and extrapolated, in a little more depth than your average novellist would be comfortable with.

There is also an undenibly lustre of geekyness to the prose of both, I find.  Is geekyness the right word?  To elaborate: both texts are centred around the doings and thinkings of earnest and high functioning American males, fin du millénaire.  And although both novels have a third-person narrator, there is the sense that we are nevertheless hearing the story from the direct p.o.v. of the protagonists (this is something that Stephenson excels at, the skill more evident in the Baroque Cycle triology and Anathem, where the characters’ language, and therefore the narrators, is much further removed from twentieth century North American norms).  Both text are peppered with the idioms and slang that mark them as the work of someone comfortable and practiced in the ways of modern technology, and the associated culture.

Neal Stephenson, by Flickr user jeanbaptisteparis
Neal Stephenson, by Flickr user jeanbaptisteparis

One thought on “Big Geeky American Novels

  1. In Snow Crash, we actually get Hiro Protagonist as the main character.

    I somehow haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow – so I should probably do that before Infinite Jest. Hmm.

    The big geeky American novel is certainly a valid stereotype. There are a few notable rules:

    1. Characters do not have complex emotional drivers. They pose in their milieu, and shit happens to them.

    2. Details matter. Meta details springs from details in a fractal manner.

    3. The patterns of university life are often present in the narrative.

    4. Wheras a short story is all about the ending, big geeky novels rarely have wholly logical or satisfying conclusions.

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