Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The problem of narrative complexity

with 5 comments

David Foster Wallace

Earlier this month, faced with a break between projects, I began reading Infinite Jest for the first time. If you’re anything like me, this is a book you’ve been regarding with apprehension for a while now—I bought my copy five or six years ago, and it’s followed me through at least three moves without being opened beyond the first page. At the moment, I’m a couple of hundred pages in, and although I’m enjoying it, I’m also glad I waited: Wallace is tremendously original, but he also pushes against his predecessors, particularly Pynchon, in fascinating ways, and I’m better equipped to engage him now than I would have been earlier on. The fact that I’ve published two novels in the meantime also helps. As a writer, I’m endlessly fascinated by the problem of managing complexity—of giving a reader enough intermediate rewards to justify the demands the author makes—and Wallace handles this beautifully. Dave Eggers, in the introduction to the edition I’m reading now, does a nice job of summing it up:

A Wallace reader gets the impression of being in a room with a very talkative and brilliant uncle or cousin who, just when he’s about to push it too far, to try our patience with too much detail, has the good sense to throw in a good lowbrow joke.

And the ability to balance payoff with frustration is a quality shared by many of our greatest novels. It’s relatively easy to write a impenetrable book that tries the reader’s patience, just as it’s easy to create a difficult video game that drives players up the wall, but parceling out small satisfactions to balance out the hard parts takes craft and experience. Mike Meginnis of Uncanny Valley makes a similar point in an excellent blog post about the narrative lessons of video games. While discussing the problem of rules and game mechanics, he writes:

In short, while it might seem that richness suggests excess and maximal inclusion, we actually need to be selective about the elements we include, or the novel will not be rich so much as an incomprehensible blur, a smear of language. Think about the very real limitations of Pynchon as a novelist: many complain about his flat characters and slapstick humor, but without those elements to manage the text and simplify it, his already dangerously complex fiction would become unreadable.

Pynchon, of course, casts a huge shadow over Wallace—sometimes literally, as when two characters in Infinite Jest contemplate their vast silhouettes while standing on a mountain range, as another pair does in Gravity’s Rainbow. And I’m curious to see how Wallace, who seems much more interested than Pynchon in creating plausible human beings, deals with this particular problem.


The problem of managing complexity is one that has come up on this blog several times, notably in my discussion of the work of Christopher Nolan: Inception‘s characters, however appealing, are basically flat, and the action is surprisingly straightforward once we’ve accepted the premise. Otherwise, the movie would fall apart from trying to push complexity in more than one direction at once. Even works that we don’t normally consider accessible to a casual reader often incorporate elements of selection or order into their design. The Homeric parallels in Joyce’s Ulysses are sometimes dismissed as an irrelevant trick—Borges, in particular, didn’t find them interesting—but they’re very helpful for a reader trying to cut a path through the novel for the first time. When Joyce dispensed with that device, the result was Finnegans Wake, a novel greatly admired and rarely read. That’s why encyclopedic fictions, from The Divine Comedy to Moby-Dick, tend to be structured around a journey or other familiar structure, which gives the reader a compass and map to navigate the authorial wilderness.

On a more modest level, I’ve frequently found myself doing this in my own work. I’ve mentioned before that I wanted one of the three narrative strands in The Icon Thief to be a police procedural, which, with its familiar beats and elements, would serve as a kind of thread to pull the reader past some of the book’s complexities. More generally, this is the real purpose of plot. Kurt Vonnegut, who was right about almost everything, says as much in one of those writing aphorisms that I never tire of quoting:

I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.

The emphasis is mine. Plot is really a way of easing the reader into that greatest of imaginative leaps, which all stories, whatever their ambitions, have in common: the illusion that these events are really taking place, and that characters who never existed are worthy of our attention and sympathy. Plot, structure, and other incidental pleasures are what keep the reader nourished while the real work of the story is taking place. If we take it for granted, it’s because it’s a trick that most storytellers learned a long time ago. But the closer we look at its apparent simplicity, the sooner we realize that, well, it’s complicated.

5 Responses

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  1. fantastic, Wallace and Pynchon are 2 of my favorites writers, so I often try to compere them, the complexity problem is a good point. I agree Pynchon couldnt change the depth of characters, it would also kill the spirit of his books, that are so detached.becouse of them

    refined quotes

    March 13, 2013 at 10:25 am

  2. Great post. I especially appreciate you bringing up INCEPTION — the need for some simplicity to act as a bulwark against the necessary complexity seemed lost on some critics. Between that and “dreams don’t really work like that!”, people were driving me crazy, and I thought the movie was just okay. (And then’s there’s the “it’s all exposition!” charge, which I really need to investigate some time. I suspect we get all the exposition we need when we need it, but I’m not 100% on that.)

    Kent M. Beeson

    March 13, 2013 at 11:51 am

  3. @refined quotes: Agreed. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    @Kent: Well, I love Inception—it’s probably my favorite movie of the last fifteen years. And to my eyes, it isn’t particularly deep or philosophically compelling: it just blows me away as cinema.


    March 13, 2013 at 6:22 pm

  4. I really like this post. Your point that Wallace ‘seems much more interested than Pynchon in creating plausible human beings’ really strikes me. I have found it a lot (a whole lot) easier to get into DFW’s work than I have Pynchon’s. ‘The Broom of the System’ is so closely tied to ‘The Crying of Lot 49’, and yet the difference between them is exactly as you describe: ‘Broom’ seems so much more familiar to me as a human being.

    Saying that, ‘Broom’ (and its companion ‘Lot 49’) seem to share in the effort to create complexity for the sake of it, and both, for me, decline to provide the reader with a compass. ‘Infinite Jest’ seemed to deviate away from that and towards a kind of structure which was in place to help engage the reader. ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’, on the other hand… is still sitting by my bed, waiting to be read. It is for me, as you say for ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, ‘a novel greatly admired and rarely read’.


    March 15, 2013 at 6:34 pm

  5. I’m not sure when I’ll have a chance to read The Broom of the System—the Wallace I hope to read next is The Pale King—but I’m curious to check it out. What Wallace did, or was trying to do, strikes me as enormously important, and it’s a huge loss that his career was cut short.

    As for Gravity’s Rainbow, I never finished it until I brought it as my only English-language book on a trip to Europe, which strikes me as a pretty good strategy. It’s actually much more structured than Wallace, at least based on what I’ve seen of his work so far, but also more deliberately alienating. But taken on its own rigorously perfect terms, it’s fantastic.


    March 16, 2013 at 11:41 am

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