A Supposedly Fun Blog

June 30, 2009

I am the shadow of the footnote slain

Filed under: Uncategorized — Julian Sanchez @ 4:59 pm

By Julian Sanchez

As one of those who’s actually reading the book for the first time, I’m not sure what to make of the endnotes yet.  My instinct is to find them obnoxious—and doubly so for the endnotes within endnotes, an affectation so twee it makes Shonen Knife look like Black Sabbath. And yet, one of my all-time favorite novels,  Pale Fire, is told almost entirely through endnotes—the conceit being that they’re the deranged narrator’s extended, tangent-riddled commentary on a colleague’s poem.  I also thought Doug Rushkoff’s Exit Strategy used them to clever effect, providing bemused—and often hilariously confused—commentary from anthropologists far in the future on a manuscript purporting to date from the 20th century’s dot.com boom. So apparently I don’t find them obnoxious when the content is, in some sense, justifying the form because the novel is presenting itself as something other than a novel. It doesn’t look like that’s what’s going on here, and since DFW is a promiscuous footnoter in his essays, I’m assuming it’s just a personal tic. Skimming, it looks like there are a couple massive ones that could have been appendices, and a lot of filler that’s not there because any particular note really adds anything, but because having notes at all announces “behold, I am a quirky, convoluted pomo novel .”  But I’m only too happy to be disabused of this initial impression.

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17 Comments »

  1. Julian,

    Having read the book for the second time this year (with ten years in between), I’ll tell ya that while some of the endnotes are absolutely trivial– providing, for example, the longform names and aliases of various substances– most of them are fairly vital. There’s even a plot thread that occurs solely in endnotes as the story goes on. And the long ones are delightful, and frequently have important plot elements. Even the much-talked-about James Incandenza filmography actually has an enormous amount of foreshadowing built into it.

    Comment by isaac — June 30, 2009 @ 5:37 pm | Reply

  2. I would just contribute that (on my second reading) I also have found that many of the seemingly extraneous endnotes are quite delightful reading. The filmography, mentioned above, the second time around, seems to shed a fair bit of light on the life and experiences of Himself. The recurrence of an ominously titled work, for instance. A conversation he has (disguised) with Hal. And some implications about his relationship with his wife (perhaps?) or the difficulties therein?

    Comment by jme — June 30, 2009 @ 6:23 pm | Reply

  3. Why are footnotes considered so postmodern anyway? Lots of novels use footnotes. Just for example, Terry Pratchett — a delightful but quite distinctly *popular* novelist — uses them a lot. I don’t quite see what the big deal is here.

    Comment by Stephen Frug — June 30, 2009 @ 6:40 pm | Reply

  4. This being your first time, I’ll try to avoid spoilage, but… The endnotes are, I think, ultimately narratively justified, though I dunno if it qualifies as “the novel posing as something other than a novel”. Again, I’m dancing around some plot twists, but suffice to say that the first chapter of the book makes clear that this is a novel told in *retrospect*, and the question of who’s narrating the endnotes becomes increasingly fraught and significant as the book goes on.

    Comment by That Fuzzy Bastarrd — June 30, 2009 @ 6:52 pm | Reply

  5. i’m currently reading infinite jest for the first time, but i’ve read other DFW works, so:

    the footnotes do become a personal tic by the time you’re seeing them in essays. he has them in things he wrote around the time of IJ, which includes many essays, because they did become addictive once he started using them and he eventually swore of them for future works.

    however, the endnotes used in IJ are very very very intentional, not just around because he couldn’t help himself. when people interviewing him would (quite disrespectfully) make snide remarks about his apparent inability to cut down on endnotes, he would get very uncomfortable because it offended him so much.

    in IJ’s case, from what i understand (mainly from what DFW has said on the subject because again, i have not finished IJ), they’re put in to help the narrative imitate human thought patterns, which are far from linear. etc. be patient with them.

    Comment by yeah — June 30, 2009 @ 7:47 pm | Reply

  6. David Foster Wallace is enumeratively on record explaining that the endnotes in Infinite Jest are very much intended to disguise the novel as something formally else, see for example here:
    http://www.charlierose.com/view/clip/9540
    It takes him a minute in that video to get to the idea behind the endnotes, so here’s an ill-sourced text quote to back me up:
    http://blog.granneman.com/2009/04/05/why-david-foster-wallace-used-footnotes/

    He wanted the experience of reading Infinite Jest to feel something like our daily experiences of receiving information, which is not at all like a novel. It’s more “fractured,” overwhelming, non-linear. And the subjective feeling that goes along with taking in information that way, and its emotional tone, is a major subject of Infinite Jest. Then, as he puts it in the video, he got addicted and used them everywhere else, too.

    So your mild irritation, or some deeper version of it you have yet to feel, is possibly part of the book’s intended effect on you.

    Comment by Spencer Robins — June 30, 2009 @ 8:05 pm | Reply

  7. I’ve always connected the endnotes in Infinite Jest back to the theme of tennis. Something about the flipping back and forth, breaking the notes and the “real” text into “shots” if you will. And yes, it feels like DFW is playing with you (and is better at the game) and no, I didn’t always like it.

    Comment by Andrew Clark — June 30, 2009 @ 9:23 pm | Reply

  8. So far I’m mostly ignoring the endnotes, unless one occurs at a point where I feel some genuine curiosity. It feels like they’re there a bit gratuitously, poking me in the eye just when I’m getting into a good flow with the book.

    The kindle does make it handy to read them though–one click to the relevant note, one click back.

    Comment by TW Andrews — June 30, 2009 @ 9:54 pm | Reply

  9. Infinite Summer: Morbid? Culturally Imperial? Morbidly Culturally Imperial?…

    Am I alone in finding the whole idea of Infinite Summer a little morbid? The renewed interest in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is an obvious Good Thing—a first step toward popular as well as academic canonization—but having lived through……

    Trackback by Acephalous — July 1, 2009 @ 1:37 am | Reply

  10. I kind of like the endnotes as a kind of novelty, although they do seem kind of tiresome. I can’t really buy into the explanation that the purpose was to create a fractured and non-linear narrative, though…the book is non-linear enough as it is. It’s easier to buy into the “because I like them” idea. It’s sort of one of his trademarks; he used endnotes because he liked to use endnotes, and he didn’t really care if we found them an unbearably twee affectation.

    But, TW, you really should read them. There’s some really key info in there. Plus, I don’t know if you can truly say you’ve read it if you didn’t read the endnotes.

    Comment by Jess — July 1, 2009 @ 1:58 pm | Reply

  11. Another question to think about as you read: How is your experience different because they’re endnotes as opposed to footnotes?

    I found that heaving the mass of the book back and forth to read endnotes demanded a greater commitment on my part than footnotes require. Thus, the sensation of going to and endnote and finding nothing of substance was different than glancing at an insubstantial footnote.

    Comment by Jarrett — July 1, 2009 @ 3:04 pm | Reply

  12. At least 4 of the endnotes constitute “chapters” in their own right, and if you don’t read them you’ll miss some very important foreshadowings and backshadowings and sideshadowings, plus [spoiler] direct intrusion into the narrative by Hal and Pemulis.

    Comment by Knemon — July 1, 2009 @ 6:36 pm | Reply

    • For me, the endnotes were initially a source of frustration and impatience, but I made myself relax and let the book come to me on its own terms. I had to let go of that desire to get on with it, to prime the pump and get down the road of the narrative flow. I think DFW purposefully uses the endnotes as a device to stop you short. Once I let go of my rush to get through them, they became delightful part of the experience (at times).

      Comment by Ralph — July 1, 2009 @ 11:33 pm | Reply

  13. There’s some really key info in there. Plus, I don’t know if you can truly say you’ve read it if you didn’t read the endnotes.

    I’ll definitely read them, but I think I’ll probably read them sequentially when I’m done with the rest of the book. I’ve accepted that I’m just not going to get a full picture on the first read through, and it makes it easier to keep reading of I just let the endnotes fall into that category.

    Once I’ve gone through the whole thing and get a look at the big picture, I’ll take a break, read some pulp fiction and then come back and read it more closely.

    Comment by TW Andrews — July 2, 2009 @ 6:06 pm | Reply

  14. ^dude, i can promise you, that’s a bad idea.

    Comment by yeah — July 2, 2009 @ 6:16 pm | Reply

  15. The end notes in IJ are much like those in Casanova’s HISTORY OF MY LIFE (completed 1797, first English edition from Casanova’s mss. 1966, Willard R. Trask, tr.): some may not be utterly essential, but so many are that it’s not worth missing a good one to “save time” (HOML is three times the length of IJ).

    What’s the hurry? On a first read, one can’t know how the novel is going to twist next; what’s the difference how DFW “fractures” the text?

    Comment by thedmo — July 19, 2009 @ 1:53 am | Reply

  16. [...] and at times even less than adequate; of course reading the endnotes is a must, as much as they irk some readers; and it really does help to know your Hamlet, though if you’re thinking of brushing up on [...]

    Pingback by The Walrus Blogs » Infinite Summer: Required Reading » The Haulout — August 24, 2009 @ 6:30 pm | Reply


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