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  • Encyclopedic Novels and the Cruft of Fiction: Infinite Jest’s Endnotes
  • David Letzler (bio)

In the end, the production of footnotes sometimes resembles less the skilled work of a professional carrying out a precise function to a higher end than the offhand production and disposal of waste products.

—Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (6)

Endnotes and the Paradox of the Encyclopedic Novel

In the decade and a half since its publication, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest has frequently been described as “encyclopedic” (cf. Cioffi 161, Burn Reader’s Guide 21, Aubry 208, Tresco). This term, probably most associated in literary studies with Edward Mendelson’s 1976 essays “Gravity’s Encyclopedia” and “Encyclopedic Narrative,”1 has been used over the past six decades to categorize a genre of large, complex novels, particularly those that incorporate substantial specialized information from the sciences, the arts, and history. If we adopt Hillary A. Clark’s terms and define the encyclopedic novel as a prose fiction work concerned with the “discovery,” “ordering,” or “retrieval” of knowledge (“Encyclopedic Discourse” 99),2 then Infinite Jest’s 388 endnotes, which take up the final 97 of the novel’s 1,079 pages, probably encourage that classification more than any other narrative element.3 Just as the academic endnote has long supplied the foundation of evidentiary support for scholarly contributions to knowledge—the traditional attitude being, as Anthony Grafton writes, “the text persuades, the notes prove” (15)—the extensive supplementary information provided by Infinite Jest’s notes, [End Page 304] covering subjects as diverse as pharmaceutical chemistry, calculus, political history, and tennis (including both real-world facts on these subjects and facts specific to the novel), gives contextual information to establish the workings of Wallace’s strange world in a manner not dissimilar to how, say, The Waste Land’s do for T. S. Eliot’s.

Infinite Jest’s notes are not always used for this straightforwardly encyclopedic purpose, though. After all, as Gérard Genette has described, the literary note’s functions have historically included not only this quasi-scholarly one, but span many authorial intentions and implied recipients, prominently including those notes “written” by fictional characters or playful narrators so as to layer voices for storytelling or parodic purposes, as may be seen in authors ranging from Swift and Pope to Borges and Joyce, most notably in Nabokov’s Pale Fire (319–43).4 This type of note also appears in Infinite Jest. For example, when the nutty Dr. Dolores Rusk discusses something she calls the “Coatlicue Complex,” a reference keys to endnote 216 (516), but instead of defining this invented term—as the notes do for other inventions, like the fictional Microsoft OS Pink glossed in note 95 (1003)—the note’s response to this phrase is merely, “No clue” (1036). Obviously, Wallace “knows” what this term means, as he created the fictional world in which it exists and thus may make of it whatever he wants,5 so the note works not to support the narrator’s authoritative knowledge but to separate his voice from that of any real or implied author (in this case, to comic effect). Elsewhere, the endnotes are used for narrative layering of other kinds, as when entire scenes are diverted from the main text to endnotes for no apparent reason: for instance, the scene depicting Michael Pemulis’s expulsion (1073–76) is not only shunted to note 332, it is not even endnoted from anything, as the reference in the main text does not appear next to any actual word or sentence but is suspended in the white space between scenes (795).

On their own, obviously, neither use is narratively radical or troublesome. In conjunction, however, they quietly create a serious problem, because when used side-by-side, these two types of notes theoretically ought to negate each other’s effects entirely. Since scholarly notes are designed to provide authoritative support for the author’s main text, layering notes’ efforts toward (in most critics’ eyes) “subverting the unity of the text and destabilizing, rather than affirming, the central narrative” (Fishburn 287–88) should upend their neighboring scholarly notes’ informative effect. However, were we to assert that the...


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