The Frontal Cortex

Fractals and Literature

Jason Kottke, a consistent fount of great links, finds a revealing interview with David Foster Wallace about Infinite Jest. Here is DFW answering a question about whether or not his novel actually follows a fractal form*:

David Foster Wallace: That’s one of the things, structurally, that’s going on [in the novel]. It’s actually structured like something called a Sierpinski Gasket, which is a very primitive kind of pyramidical fractal, although what was structured as a Sierpinski Gasket was the first- was the draft that I delivered to Michael in ’94, and it went through some I think ‘mercy cuts’, so it’s probably kind of a lopsided Sierpinski Gasket now. But it’s interesting, that’s one of the structural ways that it’s supposed to kind of come together.

Michael Silverblatt: “Michael” is Michael Pietsche, the editor at Little, Brown. What is a Sierpinski Gasket?

DFW: It would be almost im- … I would almost have to show you. It’s kind of a design that a man named Sierpinski I believe developed — it was quite a bit before the introduction of fractals and before any of the kind of technologies that fractals are a really useful metaphor for. But it looks basically like a pyramid on acid —

Here is a useful primer on the Sierpinski Gasket. And here is a picture of a gasket made out of coke cans.


*This interview makes me want to reread Infinite Jest, if only because I never even picked up the slightest trace of anything fractal in the work.


  1. #1 mattbucher
    December 11, 2007

    Oh I think Infinite Jest would be right up your alley. One theory about the fractal structure of the novel has to do with the pieces of “missing” time and how they correspond with the blank spaces in the gasket. The largest (center) hole in the gasket would be represented by the largest chunk of missing time (the Year of Glad) and the smaller blank triangles would be represented by the missing days (the novel only recounts what occurs every other day in November YDAU). However, Wallace said that the Gasket is sort of lopsided and I believe this refers to the fact that only two larger holes (representing Hal/ETA and Gately/Ennet) survive where there would’ve been three for another storyline (cf. Steven Moore’s essay here:

  2. #2 mattbucher
    December 11, 2007

    Re-reading your post I see that you have read IJ but just did not see this fractal or Sierpinski gasket at work. There is a new book on IJ out called Elegant Complexity (
    that also uses a diagram of the Sierpinski gasket model to provide a thematic organization of the novel.

  3. #3 amybuilds
    December 13, 2007

    Here and I thought Aristotle’s incline was a good way to frame a novel…

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