Information Overload

What did Tom Clancy and David Foster Wallace have in common? Not much… but they were both obsessed with packing in all the facts.


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Tom Clancy’s death did not shake the literary establishment. That’s because Tom Clancy was never part of the literary establishment. He was an insurance salesman. In his spare time, Clancy wrote military thrillers. His first book, The Hunt for Red October — about a Soviet naval officer who takes his super-secret sub and defects to the US — was published by the Naval Institute Press in Annapolis. Clancy got $5000 bucks for it. But Ronald Reagan read the book and started telling everybody how much he loved it. Soon enough, Clancy was a bestselling author. The story gets ridiculous from there, with books spilling off the presses and hundreds of millions of dollars changing hands. Movies were made. Video games were made. This was the stuff that publishers and business-minded authors dream about on cold autumn nights.

The more famous Tom Clancy became, the more serious readers ignored him. Clancy was, after all, not so much a writer as a teller of war stories. He wrote to get the story down. Beyond that, he had little sense of craft or style. He wrote his stories. He made his money. And then he died. The end.

There is, however, a tantalizing side note to this story. There was a man whose death did very much shake the literary establishment. That man was David Foster Wallace. And David Foster Wallace, it turns out, liked to read Tom Clancy. That’s no big deal, you might say. Even the most serious writer needs to take a break from reading Dostoyevsky and Wittgenstein, and we all enjoy a good potboiler. True enough. Except that DFW seems to have valued Tom Clancy a lot more highly than that.

There is, for instance, the now notorious top-ten list of favorite books that David Foster Wallace put together before his death in 2008. The list includes such books as The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, and Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. Not the books you might have guessed DFW would put on a top-ten list, but not completely surprising. Then, at number ten, sits a book by Tom Clancy: The Sum of All Fears. That’s the book where Clancy’s famous character, Jack Ryan of CIA, has to foil a terrorist plot to detonate a nuclear device on American soil. You may have seen the movie with Ben Affleck and Morgan Freeman.

DFW considered this book by Tom Clancy serious enough reading put it on a top ten list of all-time favorites. We’re challenged to figure out why. The writer D.T. Max recently wrote a biography of DFW called Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. Max has claimed (in a New Yorker article) that DFW “admired the novels of Tom Clancy for their ability to pack in facts.” It is not, on the face of it, a very revealing comment. What exactly does it mean to “pack in facts,” anyway?

But on second thought, it is revealing. DFW loved to pack in facts with his own writing. He had real trouble deciding just how many facts to include. Hundreds of pages were ultimately cut from his first novel The Broom of the System, and from his magnum opus Infinite Jest. It was a desire to include many facts that led to one of DFW’s most loved (and most criticized) formal inventions, the footnote (or endnote). DFW could put a footnote in anything: a casual essay, a novel, a short story. DFW’s footnotes and endnotes sometimes take up more space than the main body of the text. DFW published, for instance, a review of dictionaries and English usage books for Harper’s Magazine in 2001 (later included in DFW’s essay collection Consider the Lobster). The review includes 52 notes, some of which get into long discussions about grammar and syntax and are short treatises in themselves. Note 23 is an explanation of Wittgenstein’s private language argument. It reads, in part:

The point here is that the idea of a Private Language, like Private Colors and most of the other solipsistic conceits with which this particular reviewer has at various times been afflicted, is both deluded and demonstrably false.

In the case of Private Language, the delusion is usually based on the belief that a word such as pain has the meaning it does because it is somehow “connected” to a feeling in my knee. But as Mr. L. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations proved in the 1950s, words actually have the meanings they do because of certain rules and verification tests that are imposed on us from outside our own subjectivities, viz., by the community in which we have to get along and communicate with other people.

That paragraph ends with the sentence, “Wittgenstein’s argument, which is admittedly very complex and gnomic and opaque, basically centers on the fact that a word like ‘pain’ means what it does for me because of the way the community I’m part of has tacitly agreed to use ‘pain’.” That happens to be the best single-sentence explanation of Wittgenstein’s private language argument that I am aware of.

The point of all this is simple. DFW had many things to say. He wanted to say them all and he had trouble fitting in all the facts. This caused him to use sometimes tortuous and complicated grammatical structure and to look for various ways, like footnotes, to get all the information in. DFW looked to the writing of Tom Clancy and found a similar obsession with information. Clancy also had a lot of things to say. He loved technical manuals and he loved to find out how things work — guns and big machines like aircraft carriers, yes, but also people and organizations. Here, for example, is a passage from a climatic scene at the end of Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger.

“Uh-oh,” the flight engineer said. “I think we have a P3 leak here. Possible pressure bleed leak, maybe a bad valve, number-two engine. I’m losing some Nf speed and some Ng, sir. T5 is coming up a little.” Ten feet over the engineer’s head, a spring had broken, opening a valve wider than it was supposed to be. It released bleed air supposed to recirculate within the turboshaft engine. That reduced combustion in the engine, and was manifested in reduced Nf or free-power turbine speed, also in Ng power from the gas-producer turbine, and finally the loss of air volume resulted in increased tailpipe temperature, called T5.

Now, most thriller writers would have taken care of this passage with the phrase, “the plane was in trouble.” But not Clancy. He loved all the details and he was damned if he was going to cut anything out. Clancy wrote like this all the time, in all of his books. Right in the middle of the action he would simply break off into laborious and overly technical explanations of the mechanical workings of a plane or the Byzantine hierarchical structure of the NSA.

I suspect that DFW was jealous of the way that Clancy simply stuffed it all in. No footnotes. No elaborate syntax. The incredible thing about reading Tom Clancy is that there is never a shift in register. One moment he is explaining what the characters are doing within the plot of his novel, the next moment he is taking several pages to describe how a fighter jet lands on an aircraft carrier at night. Then he jumps back to the plot again. The lack of transition, the non-sequiturs, never bothered Clancy. Clear and Present Danger comes in at 688 pages in my paperback copy. And that is with very small type. The story could have been told in 200 pages. That makes roughly 488 pages of information packing.

So, when DFW said that he admired the novels of Tom Clancy for their ability to pack in facts, he was expressing a genuine admiration. This forces the rest of us to recognize that Clancy and DFW are of a similar type. They are fact lovers and information gatherers. And they were both faced with hard challenges as writers of fiction. DFW was a philosopher and a thinker. He solved his problems through formal innovations and tortuous bouts of self-reflection. Clancy was a highly intelligent man, but he was not of a philosophical bent, he was not given to bouts of self-reflection. He had more of an engineer’s mentality, the desire to figure out how things work. But the love of facts made the two writers brothers. When you imagine either DFW or Tom Clancy in the process of writing, you have to imagine them with a child’s eagerness, jumping up and down in the school chair and raising their hand to tell the teacher something she didn’t know.

There have always been writers who love information. These writers do not know when to leave it alone, when to put the pen down. This is their glory and their pain. Pliny the Elder, the Roman writer and historian of the 1st century CE, was a man like DFW and Tom Clancy. Pliny’s Natural History is a work that tries to say a little something about everything, from botany to the history of painting. Pliny will jump from one subject to the next, often in the middle of a thought. No matter. The next thought has become even more interesting to him than the last. There is a loose structure to Natural History, but the work mostly proceeds at the pace of Pliny’s own mind. It is said that Pliny had a special chair made so that he could continue writing even as his servants took him out for daily walks. He had special gloves made to write on cold days. He wrote in the bath, on the toilet. He could not stop the flow of information.

Or think of Victor Hugo. Les Misérables contains close to 20 chapters on the Battle of Waterloo. Hugo goes into great detail explaining specific moments and turning points at Waterloo. He fights with other commentators and scholars about the meaning and significance of the battle. He writes a short book, in essence, about Waterloo and then sticks that book into the much longer book Les Misérables. And that is not the only digression in the book. The ratio between actual plot in Les Misérables and digressions is probably about the same as in Clear and Present Danger. The digressions win out by a long shot.

Or think of Honoré de Balzac and his La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy). This is the series of novels written by Balzac with the goal of encompassing all of French life in the early- to mid-19th century. In a letter to a friend, Balzac wrote of one of the books of The Human Comedy that it should “represent social effects, without a single situation of life, or a physiognomy, or a character of man or woman, or a manner of life, or a profession, or a social zone, or a district of France, or anything pertaining to childhood, old age, or maturity, politics, justice, or war, having been forgotten.” After that, he planned to start writing a series of books on the history of the human heart and then a series on the causes of all things in life. Balzac died, in the summer of 1850, of exhaustion.

What is it that drives all of these writers? What pushes them into such a mania for information and detail that it threatens to overwhelm the very literature they are trying to write? Metaphysics lingers behind this obsession for information. The metaphysics is the underlying intuition that everything matters because everything is connected to everything else. You could call this holism. But it isn’t a firm doctrine in the hands of such writers as DFW, Clancy, Hugo, and Balzac. They don’t have a theory so much as a gut feeling. All is one. All is a necessary part of greater whole. Every detail is part of a story that ought to be told. Every fragment of existence is like a thread through which the entirety of the cosmos can be traced.

This means that there is really no such thing as a digression for these writers. Victor Hugo says it in the very first words of Les Misérables:

In 1815, M. Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of D — He was an old man of about seventy-five years of age; he had occupied the see of D — since 1806.
Although this detail has no connection whatever with the real substance of what we are about to relate, it will not be superfluous, if merely for the sake of exactness in all points, to mention here the various rumors and remarks which had been in circulation about him from the very moment when he arrived in the diocese. True or false, that which is said of men often occupies as important a place in their lives, and above all in their destinies, as that which they do.

Do you see the obsession in these lines, the idea that everything matters and that everything is, in the end, relevant to everything else? The poetic version of this opening salvo by Hugo in Les Misérables can be found in Baudelaire’s famous poem, Correspondences:

Nature is a temple where living pillars
Let escape sometimes confused words;
Man traverses it through forests of symbols
That observe him with familiar glances.

Like long echoes that intermingle from afar
In a dark and profound unity,
Vast like the night and like the light,
The perfumes, the colors and the sounds respond.

Tom Clancy would never have worded it this way. DFW had his own, much more colloquial language. But it is the “dark and profound unity” that all the information lovers are after. When DFW read The Sum of All Fears he read the words of a kindred writer who could not stop pulling at the threads of information. Clancy had a deep faith that the, sometimes, disparate threads of information would make his writing richer, more real, more adequate to the deep and abiding mysteries of life. That is why writers like DFW and Clancy keep casting out into the abyss of too-much information and then clawing their way back to the story they are supposed to be telling. All the threads are connected in a dark and profound unity. The only hope for a writer trying to touch upon that unity is to pack in as many facts as possible. The facts could never lead writers like DFW and Clancy astray for one simple reason: There is nowhere to stray when all is one.  October 15, 2013