Arbitrary Detail: a definition

Posted on February 26, 2011


Endnote 84 in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is the citation and publication info for a self help book on grief by Elizabeth Harper Neeld, called Seven Choices. The note goes: “84. available on ROM via Interlace or in (remaindered) paperback from Delta/Delacorte Division of Bantam-Doubleday-Dell-Little-Brown itself a division of Bell Atlantic/TCI”

What does this mean exactly?

After diligently taking the time to turn the 900 plus pages to the back of the heavy book each time there’s been an endnote, I became slightly perturbed reading endnote 84. The note seemed to me like The Definitive Example of The Arbitrary Detail. After which I have been paying far less attention to the endnotes of this, as they say, Loose Baggy Monster.

But aren’t you tired of hearing particularly long novels described as Loose Baggy Monsters? I know I am. Doesn’t baggy imply some degree of looseness already? Henry James started it, criticizing Tolstoy whose large books contain a queer admixture of arbitrary and artistic detail. Tolstoy! Other critics describe Saul Bellow as the writer of such loose and baggy monsters.  So to David Foster Wallace. What does it mean? Far be it from me to ever say anything about an author whose books I haven’t read but does Henry James really have the right to question a work’s value because of its shape?  He declared that “A novel’s only requirement is that it be interesting,” and via a rather hackneyed and untenable deductive reasoning that means that the arbitrary must not be interesting. But who holds up that golden rulebook? The one that decides what’s arbitrary and what isn’t in an artificial work of fiction? I’ll agree that War and Peace is not necessarily the shining example of all novels everywhere, even Tolstoy did not consider it to be a novel, but who among us would ever wish to abridge it?

I wish to abridge Infinite Jest a good deal. How heretical. That desire is like wishing a Big Mac tasted better. It tastes like crap cause it’s a Big Mac, that’s what a Big Mac does, and if you don’t like it go to Wendy’s already. Could I make Infinite Jest better with a sharpie, redacting those bits I find irrelevant? Probably yes; easier to read, filled with more brevity.  But wouldn’t I be missing the point? Which point is, that arbitrary detail is the point. Which sure enough cancels out the arbitrary-ness. For necessity is the opposite of arbitrary, and isn’t every word deemed necessary to a work of fiction by its creator? The abridged Infinite Jest is not Infinite Jest. Yea, even one word taken away and it will no longer be Infinite Jest. That last bit is probably  not true really, but you understand what I mean.

All signifiers are inherently arbitrary signs that by mutual agreement gain necessary significance. So too we agree tacitly with a work of fiction, that everything there in is necessary for the book to be the book that it is: there is nothing arbitrary in a novel.

That a book is interesting to Henry James is a question on a whole other level.