How to read David Foster Wallace?
August 6, 2004 8:20 PM   Subscribe

When reading David Foster Wallace, do you stop for every footnote, or read the piece all the way through and go back and read the footnotes later? Or are you too anti-hip cool to read David Foster Wallace1?


1. This being a likely futile attempt to deflate the anti-literati pile on that's sure to ensue whenever one of the two Daves is mentioned2

2. The other Dave being David Eggers, whom I appreciate as a craftsman and for his handling of the media, if not his actual work.
posted by alan to Grab Bag (55 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I read the first sentence of the footnote, and decide if i want to follow the tangent. (I usually end up reading it all and having to page back to where i was.)
posted by amberglow at 8:22 PM on August 6, 2004


I've only read Interviews With Hideous Men, but I read most of the footnotes in the middle of the story, although sometimes after finishing the current paragraph for continuity. A couple of the stories, however, allowed the footnotes to be longer than most of the actual text. There, I actually skipped a lot of the footnote. I mean, I think I got the point. ^_^
posted by themadjuggler at 8:23 PM on August 6, 2004


I read every footnote as I come across them. They're not the same as footnotes in, say, some edition of Ulysses. In 'Infinite Jest' the footnotes are part of the narrative and should be read as if they were inserted in the main text.
posted by bobo123 at 8:27 PM on August 6, 2004


what bobo123 said. I keep a finger stuck in the page at the back. It's like reading those "choose your own adventure" books when you were a kid, and totally non committal in your decisions.
posted by bonaldi at 8:34 PM on August 6, 2004


To be fair, you can hate both the Daves & not be anti-literature. But let me be the first ass to say I don't read fiction with footnotes.

My boy does though & he says right away.
posted by dame at 8:38 PM on August 6, 2004


Ah, "Infinite Jizz", what a great read, not. Seriously, people still read that crap? DFW, at least in my view, has never quite lived up to the promise he demonstrated in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again...". He crafts a short story wondrously and gives you just enough to keep you thinking it might make a great, novel, and then mercifully, it ends. Great writer, marvelous potential, never realized, never gonna*. Bored yet?

* Is it time for me to say something really interesting now? I keep looking for a punch line, but it never seems to come... now here it is! Oh, wait. That was just a fart. No, wait! Here's something else. No, I guess not. Now that reminds me of a story. When I was younger, and a really, really good tennis player I....
posted by psmealey at 8:40 PM on August 6, 2004


I got a couple hundred pages into Infinite Jest -- reading most of the footnotes all the way through, to answer the question -- and realized that it just wasn't very interesting. I might give it another shot sometime, but I can't imagine I'll ever enjoy it.
posted by uncleozzy at 8:47 PM on August 6, 2004


Most books with footnotes would be much better if the stuff in the footnotes was just put inline with the rest of the text. Some people might get annoyed by the random meandering, of course, but screw them.
posted by reklaw at 8:48 PM on August 6, 2004


Or anti-literati for that matter. Maybe just anti–this literati.
posted by dame at 8:49 PM on August 6, 2004


Broom of the System is really great, and a good intro to him if you don't want to tackle Infinite Jest, i think.
posted by amberglow at 8:54 PM on August 6, 2004


and we said, look at that fucker dance
posted by bonaldi at 9:22 PM on August 6, 2004


After reading his silly essay on language (handily gutted by our own languagehat) I never paid much subsequent attention to him. Much like when Lampham toasted his credibility with a frivolous Harper's issue on the "real" identity of Shakespeare.
posted by RavinDave at 9:36 PM on August 6, 2004


I'm with uncleozzy -- I got about 400 pages into Infinite Jest, reading just about every footnote as I went, and then I realized that it was a pathetic book that wasn't going anywhere whose pedantry I could no longer tolerate.

It's in a box my parents' attic now, where it will no longer harm anyone.
posted by waldo at 9:47 PM on August 6, 2004


Has anyone seen the lobster essay in the latest Gourmet? A great read, if you're into that sort of thing.

And what's the hate for Infinite Jest?
posted by bshort at 9:47 PM on August 6, 2004


I've read just about all his stuff - the only thing I abandoned was his book on Infinity. (Not Infinite Jest, but the non-number that denotes never ending) In his heavily end-noted books I stuck a bookmark where I was and a bookmark to keep along with the endnotes and read them when they came up. Sometimes when I read a book that has just really great, entertaining passages when I'm done I'll go reread favorite parts. With DFW many of those favorite parts I reread were were the notes. [/fanboy]
posted by vito90 at 10:15 PM on August 6, 2004


Let me be contrarian and say that I not only thought Infinite Jest wasn't that hard of a read, but that it was also quite enjoyable. My only beef with the book was that it was 1000 pages of a foreplay and no money shot.
posted by alidarbac at 10:27 PM on August 6, 2004


Two bookmarks. Read the footnotes when you get to the end of the sentence.

Don't be a hater.

The Maine Lobster Fest folks probably aren't so enthused about the most recent article. I once tried the "spear the lobster through the brain to ensure a quick and painless death" method with disasterous and disturbing results, from which my karma is still recovering.
posted by sad_otter at 10:35 PM on August 6, 2004


No hate for Infinite Jest, I don't think. It's not pulp, it's not pap, it's not prosaic, it's just... well, not that great. It's not terrible, and it's not particularly hard to read. I think we all know these things. It just leaves you with the question of why did someone bother writing such a tome, really, about nothing of consequence. It's well written, to be sure, but what's the fucking point*?

* Gratuitous footnote about having once had a point about something, but that point led to some other episode in one's life and that somehow leads back into the same point, which is essentially about nothing. Oh, well.
posted by psmealey at 10:37 PM on August 6, 2004


I loved Infinite Jest. I put a Post It in the back, with the bookmarks, so I could read them as I went. But I wouldn't stop mid-sentence to go to the next footnote. I'd wait for part of the text that I could take a break from.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:57 PM on August 6, 2004


No. It eventually became clear to me that the footnotes were not for my benefit - which is what I expect footnotes to be. I sort of take them as hyperlinks: 'there is more to read on this subject if you're interested.' It just became too frequent that the footnotes were even more mysterious than their referents, and, ultimately, a formal device used to mask the author's inability to pare down and write lean fucking prose. The guy has convinced himself it's funny, or something, and there's just no stopping him. Thankfully, due the the very nature of footnotes, you don't have to read them.
posted by scarabic at 11:11 PM on August 6, 2004


I read the footnotes inline.

And I love both the Daves quite a lot.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:23 AM on August 7, 2004


I read about half of Infinite Jest, and would read the longer footnotes cos they were generally interesting. I got rather bored though - there are a few good sections, but you have to work through all of the crap to get to them. Not to mention the books is so big its an arse to even hold.
posted by Orange Goblin at 3:03 AM on August 7, 2004


too anti-hip cool to read David Foster Wallace

I'm too anti-hip cool to read anything by someone who uses three names. And that *includes* Victor Davis Hanson, despite the fact that I think that I would agree with him on many issues.
posted by davidmsc at 5:24 AM on August 7, 2004


In 'Infinite Jest' the footnotes are part of the narrative and should be read as if they were inserted in the main text.

See, that's a problem, isn't it? I'm with the others: insert them in the text. I'm waiting for that edition. Then I'll finish Infinite Jest.

Sincerely,

Elmer "Mo" Patrick Nickels

(How's that? *Four* names. Eat it.)
posted by Mo Nickels at 6:02 AM on August 7, 2004


I just finished IJ (and my feelings match alidarbac's). I wasn't good enough to read the thing in one sitting, so I had a bookmark in it to keep my place— when reading, I moved the bookmark to my place in the footnotes. I liked the book, so the footnotes seem like a must to me. Some of the best laughs were in there. I can understand the objection that they should have been in the text themself if they're so great, but it seemed like it was additional stuff that didn't drive the narrative.

I was actually thinking about posting a question here asking if I just didn't get the book; I grasp the whole consumption of entertainment thing, but was the lack of a money shot some sort of in-joke? (At the risk of posting a spoiler) You read a 1000 pages or so of an entertaining book and then there's no end there, like making the book 200 pages longer would have been a faux pas.

vito, I really liked the book on infinity, but I gave up with about 50 pages left, pissed I was too stupid to really appreciate the math at that point.
posted by yerfatma at 6:10 AM on August 7, 2004


I loved Infinite Jest, and read the endnotes whenever they were, uhh, noted. (Then again, I read it during BarBri Bar Review classes, so anything would have seemed interesting at that point.)

If you're going to use this bookmark system, you might use a third bookmark to mark the start of the endnote section, because I was taken by surprise when the book suddenly ended with half an inch of paper to go. I would have read more slowly at the end, to savour the last few pages.
posted by subgenius at 6:44 AM on August 7, 2004


davidmsc: what about gabriel garcia marquez, then?
posted by bonaldi at 7:51 AM on August 7, 2004


and William Carlos Williams?
posted by matteo at 7:57 AM on August 7, 2004


Miguel Esteves Cardoso?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:14 AM on August 7, 2004


Alternatively, subgenius, they could print the footnotes in reverse order so you'd see the two halves coming to meet in the middle. Or the last 8th or so.
posted by yerfatma at 8:16 AM on August 7, 2004


Ford Madox Ford?
posted by dhoyt at 8:39 AM on August 7, 2004


I sort of take them as hyperlinks

Thinking of the endless footnotes as peculiar to his style I couldn't help but thinking this may be an example of something endemic to our time, information glut. The excessive amount of information we're bombarded with every day damages our ability to concentrate on a single line of reason. I was thinking maybe DFW is externalizing this phenomenon in his writing with the endless footnoting, either that or he's just trying to be excessively clever. That or I'm working on a Lit. Review on this topic so I'm seeing it everywhere right now.

Eggers on the other hand is just too much of a self-centered whiner.

Someone mentioned Gabriel Garcia Marquez..does magic realism seem, well, goofy to anyone else? It irks me for some reason. Although for some reason I can palate another three-namer's work, Jose Luis Borges, much better.
posted by tetsuo at 9:02 AM on August 7, 2004


Mark David Chapman?

Oh, sorry. Wrong game.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 9:03 AM on August 7, 2004


Wow, my post was horribly written. Sorry, I'm in a rush, on my way out..
posted by tetsuo at 9:04 AM on August 7, 2004


yerfatma: if you just finished ij, go back and read the first chapter again. not a money shot, but it will clear some things up.
posted by lescour at 9:42 AM on August 7, 2004


Never read him. I did read the paperback edition of Eggers' ...Velocity and quite enjoyed it, despite the backlash he's incurred in much of the blogging community. To be honest, though, I'm not really part of the "blogging community" and I heard of Eggers completely independently of McSweeney's (which I'd never heard of). I also don't think I've ever heard of David Foster Wallace, but I might look into him sometime.

Part of the problem for me is that I'm an English major and when I'm taking classes for eight-nine months of the year I don't have very much time to read anything outside of courseware (much of which is very good). For example, I'm probably going to be taking five English classes starting september (possibly four and a Poli Sci if I don't want that many), which means I'll have in the neighbourhood of 20 novels to read over four months. That's in addition to the ten or so essays I'll have to write. So aside from the spring--when I generally get fed up with school and start reading whatever the hell I want!--the summer months are my only real free reading time. So far this summer I've read somwhere around fifteen novels, I think, at a very leisurely pace. It's quite nice.

What, I didn't answer any of your questions? Go fuxor yourself!

Ok, fine, I don't like footnotes very much. I much prefer wild tangents that take me miles across intellectual landscapes before jerking me back to the narrative with no warning whatsoever.
posted by The God Complex at 10:32 AM on August 7, 2004


'somewhere'. damn you, trebek!
posted by The God Complex at 10:33 AM on August 7, 2004


Someone mentioned Gabriel Garcia Marquez..does magic realism seem, well, goofy to anyone else? It irks me for some reason.
The "goofy"ness is the charm of it--about possibilities and options outside day-to-day living, open in a way to serendipity, its focus on love and desire and their importance to living (and to what makes living worth living)...it opens up the world, i find : >
posted by amberglow at 10:41 AM on August 7, 2004


Ford Madox Ford?

Thanks. I thought I was going to have to mention The Good Soldier again ;)

I don't know why anyone is surprised: even if he's just joking, davidmsc has always struck me as the type to apply lame arbitrary rules to things in order to keep his world view comfortable (this = bad, this = good). He lives in a black and white world, as many of his politics have shown. This seems like par for the (boring) course, no?
posted by The God Complex at 10:51 AM on August 7, 2004


Why the personal attack?
posted by Hildago at 11:45 AM on August 7, 2004


J G Ballard wrote a story that was entirely footnotes once. It's a spin off of one of the stories in the Atrocity Exhibition, which also has a lot of footnotes..
posted by wackybrit at 12:09 PM on August 7, 2004


I loved Infinite Jest! I suggest using two bookmarks, and (I know this will go over well) read it twice. On the second reading one should pay attention to the timeline of the renamed months, otherwise the reader will lose track of the non-linear narrative that is constructed in the book. There is an ending, of sorts, but its folded into the text and only allows for some supposition as to the fate of the characters. Also, read the filmography in the footnotes and observe the plot of a movie called "infinite jest."

Hopefully a few clues for people without giving to much away. Infinite Jest isn't a "fuck you, clown" joke for everybody, but I found it quite funny.
posted by elwoodwiles at 12:17 PM on August 7, 2004


Thanks lescour and elwood. I was already planning on re-reading it (but not any time soon) because I had this nagging feeling in the last third of the book that I hadn't put together a lot of things. I have a feeling for what I missed; now I just need to go find it.
posted by yerfatma at 1:03 PM on August 7, 2004


I read the footnotes inline.

And I love both the Daves quite a lot.


That makes two of us.
posted by jonmc at 1:52 PM on August 7, 2004


Three of us, jonmc. But the best two-bookmark book I know of is Vladimir Nabokov's "Cold Fire".
posted by obloquy at 3:30 PM on August 7, 2004


When I read DFW [which we always said stood for David Fuckin' Wallace when he was my prof for a creative writing class in 1989] I do the two bookmarks routine. I must say that I didn't even try to read Infinite Jest, but I think that anything he writes is worth the effort of trying to parse out his bizarre structure, though I had to return the book on infinity when it was overdue at the library before I had finished it. Dave Eggers on the other hand, is just not my style. Also let me state that with the exception of DFW and Oliver Sacks who wrote an amazing book on deafness, I do not suffer footnotes gladly, especially if I think the writer is specifically putting them in to be coy, cute, or otherwise precious. They are a hassle that rarely -- though sometimes -- pay off as worth the effort they entail. This book, for example, I only lasted through five pages of.
posted by jessamyn at 3:33 PM on August 7, 2004


Ok, I confess. I read IJ, allthewaythrough, and yes, I am a hater. I hated it hated it hated it. What did I hate about it? That there was a modicum of decent writing in it, parts that interested me enough so I felt there was something wrong with me if I didn't finish it and when I did finish it, I knew that the Infinite Jest was on me because I was a dumbass enough to wade all the way through that crap for nothin'. I mean if you want to read a book that turns back on itself, read The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison, which uses the same plot device and does it in far fewer pages. OTOH, I loved Dave Eggers'
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
It really resonated with me and pushed all the right reader buttons. Go figure.
posted by Lynsey at 3:58 PM on August 7, 2004


I liked AHWoSG, even if one of the main "characters" rejected Mayor Curley's and my submission to McSweeneys with the suggestion it sounded like a Jay Leno bit.
posted by yerfatma at 6:47 PM on August 7, 2004


Huh. I lasted five pages through The Worm Ouroboros. The twee archaisms hurt me. I was all excited, too, having read Fritz Leiber's repeated references to it as an inspiration for his writing. Apparently, what it inspired was some of the more unbearable Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, because aaaarrrgh.

(Liked Infinite Jest. I don't like David Fuckin' Wallace's short stories, I've discovered. I mean, he's confrontationally experimental enough in his other writings. I like, say, Donald Barthelme, but DFW's short stories cause... suffering.)

For lighter reading, the graphic novel of Ghost In The Shell deploys interesting footnotes.
posted by furiousthought at 6:56 PM on August 7, 2004


I really liked Infinite Jest. I think that there could also be a great book made by a good and ballsy editor, a copy of Infinite Jest, and a case of red pens, but it would be a totally different book.

I trust DFW, just because he seems so fucking good, to be doing it for a purpose. There are plenty of resources online if anyone would like to find out people's theories about DFW's intents with IJ. For example:

was the lack of a money shot some sort of in-joke?

spoiler:
I've read the idea, and it seems correct, although IANAlitcritic, that the money shot of IJ takes place in the empty space between the ending of the book and the beginning. The narrative of the story is actually sort of a loop, with a gap in it during which whatever happens to Hal happens and Gately and Hal meet each other and stuff. In other words, the money shot happens, but offscreen.

I used the 2 bookmark technique as well and am planning on rereading it as soon as I have another month of my life to throw away.
posted by callmejay at 7:36 PM on August 7, 2004


I tried reading the footnotes as I got to them, turned toward reading the footnotes that I thought would be valuable, then started skipping them, then put down the book entirely. Nothing wrong with footnotes; I just didn't care for the book, and I don't think the footnotes helped things along.

A book that uses notation to great effect though, is Nabokov's Pale Fire. For that, I read the introductory poem in its entirety first, then read the notation, referring back to the poem as I went. Good Times.
posted by .kobayashi. at 11:47 PM on August 7, 2004


I used the two-bookmark method and got through just fine, but I was fuming throughout about the endnotes (aren't they really endnotes) not being footnotes at the bottom of the page. (Nicholson Baker did this really well with The Mezzanine.)

And IJ got me interested in Pale Fire, which is great.
posted by Vidiot at 10:14 AM on August 8, 2004


Yes, the money shot is 'offscreen'. (think about the first chapter).

Also, DFW is trying to show the parallels between the rich tennis academy and the down and out of the halfway house.

There is a lot of substance. It's just not in your face, like the comedy.
posted by Espoo2 at 1:21 PM on August 8, 2004


oh yes, i forgot....
I read with 2 bookmarks also. Usually I'll finish the paragraph or sentence, then flip back. Sometimes I will look ahead in the footnotes for really short ones that would bug me to interrupt the flow with, like the pharmaceutical copyrights and such.
posted by Espoo2 at 1:22 PM on August 8, 2004


Nope -- never read any of the 3-name authors you've cited. Does that make me...um...stoopid? ;-)
posted by davidmsc at 6:57 AM on August 10, 2004


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