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Literarea Review: "Everything And More: A Compact History of Infinity" by David Foster Wallace

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Infinity Cover

“Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself,
I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Walt Whitman
"Songs of Myself"

David Foster Wallace was definitely a Whitmanesque character if there ever was one. He was hyper-intellectual receiving an (mostly) Ivy League education while being a down-to-earth central Illinois kid of the ’70s. He was the child of a professor of English (mom) and a doctor of philosophy (dad) and he was a child of pop culture, being part of that first generation to truly have 24-hour television viewing at their fingertips. He was a very, very good tennis player and yet found himself more intrigued by the mathematics (angles) of the game than the competitiveness.

What I’m bumbling towards is the idea that David Foster Wallace, as you can tell by the quote preceding this review, contained multitudes. Not because of the first part of that famous line, but because of the second bit. And there’s a bit of that second bit that often gets overlooked or omitted altogether. It’s the line that precedes “I contain multitudes” – “I am large”. And yes, David Foster Wallace was anything if large. And so it would be apropos that he take on that largest-of-large concept, infinity.

Since Wallace is not a mathematician, one might expect a book for “non-specialist readers”, as Neal Stephenson writes in the introduction. This is decidedly not the case. This is an intellectually serious attempt to address and review the concept of infinity – which, as Stephenson points out, “rubs some people the wrong way” in the academic world.

But here is where what I’m going to call the Wallace Difference comes into play. No matter what he wrote about, Wallace undertook an immersive, intense and borderline-obsessive study of the subject. There’s nothing casual about the way he approached a topic.

It’s evident in the sprawling and highly detailed stories of the tennis academy, rehab center and the slightly futuristic world they inhabit in “Infinite Jest”. It’s evident in the posthumously published “The Pale King” where he tackled what he thought to be the most mundane and tedious career imaginable – CPA for the IRS (the book was even set in Peoria).

He didn’t just do a Google search or, prior to our capability to Google, read everything he could get his hands on like a reporter. The guy actually studied – as in go-to-school-and-learn study. Study studied. We’re talking hardcore, intellectual shit.

For his book on the IRS he attended college courses and was close to reaching degree level. He also regularly drilled his accountant for information. And finally he haunted the Peoria regional IRS office interviewing and shadowing workers.

THAT’s the Wallace Difference.

It’s why his books leave you (or at least me) as amazed about the writer as the writing. “How did someone write something this BIG?” I feel the same way when I read James Joyce, Dostoevsky, Proust, Anthony Powell or William S. Burroughs (for different reasons).

“Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity” really is a difficult book to categorize. It’s definitely NOT a popularization of a mathematic/scientific subject by an expert (see “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking or most of Richard Dawkins’s oeuvre). Wallace’s degree was in Modal Logic. I know what you are saying: a degree in Modal Logic was your fallback plan. But to those of us who think it sounds like a Depeche Mode cover band, Modal Logic, according to Wikipedia, is “a type of formal logic primarily developed in the 1960s that extends classical propositional and predicate logic to include operators expressing modality.” Got it? But, according to Stephenson in the introduction, it “is indistinguishable by almost all laymen from pure math, though even more punishingly abstract than mathematics could ever be.” Which, believe it or not, was right in Wallace’s wheelhouse.

The book is about the history of the concept of infinity, primarily focusing on the work of everyone’s favorite 19th century German mathematician – say it with me – Georg Cantor!*

Cantor was the guy who officially blew everyone’s mind with the concept of set theory, which has to do with fundamental binary blah, blah, blah. The point is, it’s deep stuff and Wallace jumps in with great vigor.

As someone who energetically studied math in high school in order to hasten the moment when I would never have to study it again, a good portion of this book goes right over my head. But the history nerd in me is fascinated by the mathematicians behind the theory of infinity – and how many of them were institutionalized (though not necessarily because of their studies).

Wallace doesn’t make mathematical advances in this book nor does he dumb it down for a popular audience. The book has sections that are equation laden and absolutely mind numbing. But there are also autobiographical sections where he describes his studies as well as the aforementioned historical sections.

After reading this book twice back-to-back, I’m left – as almost always is the case with David Foster Wallace – feeling dazed, annoyed and slightly more educated, as well as humbled about how little I really know. It’s not for the casual reader and – despite the claim in the title that it is a “compact history” – this book is large, just like its author. And it’s further evidence that – when it came to writing – David Foster Wallace certainly contained multitudes.

* I don’t think you said it with me.

About the Author
A Juilliard-trained writer, Kevin Kizer has fought against numerous world-champion writers during his career, besting the reigning middle weight writing champion in an exhibition bout in Helsinki in 1976. He also played a crucial role on the U.S. gold-medal winning writing team during the 1984 Pan-Am games, where he came off the bench in dramatic fashion to write the winning prepositional phrase just as time expired.