On Endnotes and Infinite Jest
twitter; surprisingly, I have not yet received any fruit baskets or congratulatory Hallmark cards). I immediately wrote up a blog post about things I wished I had done differently as I raced through the novel—things I wished I had paid more attention to and so on. Rereading that post though, it seemed to include, if only implicitly, spoilers. While I did not discuss any elements of the plot, I increasingly began to feel that saying anything about the ending of the novel preempts one's own experience. So I revised and whittled it down to just some basic advice. But even that seemed like too much. In the end I decided it was best to simply pass over my feelings about the novel's conclusion in silence. Once infinite summer winds down everyone will be talking about the novel's conclusion, and at that point the discussion will be more interesting and satisfying anyway. So instead, let's try this for an IJ-related post: What's up with those damn endnotes anyway? This is not a particularly novel topic. After the novel's length, it is Wallace's use of endnotes that is the most frequently noted when people mention Infinite Jest (followed, I think, by feral hamsters). In the first Roundtable discussion of the book, for instance, the Infinite Summer readers discuss the novel's endnotes, provoking some lively discussion in the comments. Many people who discuss Wallace's use of endnotes in IJ point to this passage from a New Yorker article on Wallace, which I quote at length.blog comments powered by Disqus
In Bloomington, Wallace struggled with the size of his book. He hit upon the idea of endnotes to shorten it. In April, 1994, he presented the idea to Pietsch, adding, “I’ve become intensely attached to this strategy and will fight w/all 20 claws to preserve it.” He explained that endnotes “allow . . . me to make the primary-text an easier read while at once 1) allowing a discursive, authorial intrusive style w/o Finneganizing the story, 2) mimic the information-flood and data-triage I expect’d be an even bigger part of US life 15 years hence. 3) have a lot more technical/medical verisimilitude 4) allow/make the reader go literally physically ‘back and forth’ in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns . . . 5) feel emotionally like I’m satisfying your request for compression of text without sacrificing enormous amounts of stuff.” He also said, “I pray this is nothing like hypertext, but it seems to be interesting and the best way to get the exfoliating curve-line plot I wanted.” Pietsch countered with an offer of footnotes, which readers would find less cumbersome, but eventually agreed.I quote this passage in its entirety because it is so interesting, opening onto broader avenues of pursuit. What exactly is Wallace's antipathy towards hypertext? (Perhaps a reaction to the recent fad of George Landow's Hypertext, the first edition of which was published in 1992). I assume "Finneganizing" means "to-make-like-Finnegans Wake", but that doesn't explain a lot (perhaps it suggests rendering the story subservient to style?). Describing the plot as an "exfoliating curve-line" is suggestive and worthy of further explanation. Pietsch's suggestion that footnotes would be easier to read than endnotes is one that I imagine many readers appreciate; though long notes (like J.O. Incandenza's filmography) would have been impossible as footnotes. (For folks looking for the canonical discussion of the "virtues" and "vices" of end- and footnotes, see The Chicago Manual of Style, sections 16.19 through 16.24; nothing offered there is so interesting that I'll actually quote from it; but it's all there should you wish to consult.) All of which is interesting, but I want to focus on something else: the uniquely academic provenance of the footnote (which, I think, is implicit in Wallace's 1, 2, & 3). As Wallace's list makes clear, the endnotes serve no single function. Some notes are sly jokes, but by the end of the novel whole chapters are relocated to endnotes—the endnote hanging in empty space, deprived even of a particular piece of text to annotate. Such a note becomes a sort of brute command to the reader to jump through the physical material of the novel. But these interesting descriptions of how endnotes operate in the novel (of what it feels like to read a novel with endnotes) ignore what an endnote is. A footnote/endnote is a uniquely academic device, invented in order to provide documentation. Particularly in the field of history, the footnote played a key role in formalizing inquiry by providing a regularized method for connecting one text to another, and thereby (if we accept the premise underlying such annotation) to the world itself (see Anthony Grafton's The Footnote: A Curious History, which I would quote if it weren't currently checked out of the library). This academic lineage, of course, remains visible in Wallace's use of endnotes in IJ. Its endnotes often provide technical details regarding drugs, copyright and trademark information, or citations of works (many of which are fictional; both playing on, and undermining, the "verisimilitude" Wallace claims). Indeed, the filmography, which is contained in an endnote, is itself a thoroughly academic genre. So what? Well one could connect the endnote to larger questions about the relationship of fiction to the world (of maps to territories) or to "the textual nature of truth itself" that is increasingly evident in the "postmodern condition" Wallace's novel describes. (Did that pastiche of academicisms work? ) One could. But I'd like to resist that as well. As others have noted, the use of endnotes is not unique to IJ, but instead it seems to be a key part of Wallace's style, in his nonfiction as well as his fiction. The endnote/footnote, it would seem, is a key part of Wallace's identity as a writer, and marks the position of the writer in contemporary culture. That is, the writer's connection with the University. Wallace's biography gives many instances of his own connections to the University (his degree in philosophy, his MFA; his family; his own career as a university teacher); all of which are merely instances of the cultural ground upon which Wallace's style grew, a style and tone that seems in constant productive tension with the academic temperament. The endnote, in this sense, is a less a stylistic device than a marker of the writer's place in contemporary culture. Wallace, and his footnotes, might be inserted within the larger trend of post-WWII American writing that emerges in the wake of the development of Creative Writing MFA programs. Wallace's endnotes, of course, have an ambivalent relationship to this academic pedigree. They at once rely on the academic tradition of notation they reference, but also poke fun at the pretensions of such reference. Or consider Wallace's most "academic" work: Everything and More (which I have not finished); a work that is academic in its resolutely educational aims, but that is nevertheless impatient with academic convention in its conversational tone. The book reads a little like Pemulis's discussion of the Mean Value Theorem—only by someone with greater mathematical acumen. (It shares Pemulis's enormous enthusiasm for his subject matter). A larger discussion of the role of the University, and the representation of academics in IJ would make this post too long. Recall only that Avril is an academic or J. O. Incandenza's playful attitude toward academic film critics or Molly Notkin's party (in which grad students are gently satirized); here we have clear instances of the way in which the academia impinges upon the novel.