David Foster Wallace (DFW) is one of those rare writers who elicits either the most extreme love or hatred in his writing, there seems to be no middle ground between readers of his. He is best known for his rather large novel Infinite Jest, published in 1996, being just over 1,000 pages long and chronicling both tennis and drug addiction. It is DFW’s essays that offer some of the most interesting analyses into his writing craft. The writing of DFW is synonymous with the use of footnotes, footnotes being extra information being found at the bottom of the page, these traditional footnotes are often used as afterthoughts to the subject, offering more information to the curious reader. DFW disrupts this tradition of the footnote by making them integral to the narrative of the essay. Often, the text can only be understood if the footnote has been read in tangent with the original narrative of the text. Some of the greatest essay writing will go into tangents, often rambling and wandering around a subject but staying in just enough proximity to add layers to the writing. This is exactly what DFW’s footnotes are, they work as tangents to his writing which offer valuable layers into his own consciousness and background. When reading DFW’s essays, one must often retrain their reading abilities to read footnotes as tangents necessary to the writing, rather than afterthoughts to be saved for later.
The most essential part of DFW essay writing is the structure of his writing. He employs different types of styles to both control and disrupt the flow of his writing, often using the footnote as a tool for controlling the chaos of his writing. DFW encapsulates the idea that essays are streams-of-consciousness, but it is the writer’s job to organize the chaotic tangents into a cohesive narrative. This analysis will focus on several published essays of DFW, from his collection of essays titled Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays. The structure of this analysis essay will be broken into distinct sections, so as to do DFW some justice in how he would possibly approach an analytical essay.
“Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think” (Wallace 51-59) (1998)
This first essay revolves around the most recent novel of John Updike, titled Toward the End of Time, both its reception and an analysis of Updike’s writing as a whole. The title is very DFW style, long and confusing until after having read the entire essay piece, in which the reader can see both the humor and style used in crafting titles. The essay describes how Updike is revered by the generation that grew up with him (of the sixties) and hated by the current generation (of the nineties), how both groups seem to come to understand the writing of post-war American fiction. The essay makes larger remarks on how challenging it can be to write for future readers, because the current experiences of one’s generation will have different difficulties than the next, and how this can distance future readers from the text. This is obviously only one element of the text, the larger one being that Updike’s writing is far too misogynistic. As someone who has never read an Updike text (and after reading this essay, doesn’t plan on it anytime soon) the critics made of Updike’s hyper-masculinity are very much valid after examining his writing in this essay.
In terms of structuring this essay, where does DFW choose to include footnotes? Well, he only really uses a total of two whole footnotes throughout this essay. A rather small amount from a DFW perspective. The first footnote made is an abbreviation of the term he coins “Great Male Narcissists” or GMNs (Wallace 51). This use of footnotes is much closer to the traditional use of footnotes as being afterthoughts to writing. The second footnote is an expansion of a statement DFW makes about the masculine writing of Updike, using quotes from Updike’s texts that highlight his objectifying view of women. So then, why choose to highlight this essay at all? The answer to this is simple, and that is how DFW uses the statistical list as a structural tool to highlight the misogyny in Updike’s latest novel.
The summary DFW gives of Updike’s latest novel goes like this:
- Total # of pages about Sino-American war—causes, duration, casualties: 0.75
- Total # of pages about deadly mutant metallobioforms: 1.5
- Total # of pages about flora around Turnbull’s New England home, plus fauna, weather, and how his ocean view looks in different seasons: 86
- Total # of pages about Mexican repossession of US Southwest: 0.1
- Total # of pages about Ben Turnbull’s penis and his various thoughts and feelings about it: 10.5
- Total # of pages about what life’s like in Boston proper without municipal services or police, plus whether the war’s nuclear exchanges have caused fallout or radiation sickness: 0.0
- Total # of pages about prostitute’s body, w/ particular attention to sexual loci: 8.5
- Total # of pages about golf: 15
- Total # of pages of Ben Turnbull saying things like “I want women to be dirty” and “She was a choice cut of meat and I hoped she held out for a fair price” and the quoted stuff at the bottom of p. 53 and “The sexual parts are fiends, sacrificing everything to that aching point of contact” and “ferocious female nagging is the price men pay for our much-lamented prerogatives, the power and the mobility and the penis”: 36.5 (Wallace 55-56)
It is this summary that highlights every point DFW makes about the misogyny in Updike’s writing as clearly as possible. DFW disrupts the text by breaking down statistically what Updike focuses to touch on in his novel. Many of these statistics revolve around the topic of sex (or the whole 15 pages on golfing) while neglecting the more nuanced and interesting topics that a reader would want to be learn about. The humor of this statistic is very DFW-esque, where this structure highlights all the points he needs to make on the misogyny of Updike’s writing. Without relying on footnotes, DFW has found another way to use structural tools to the benefit of his essay writing.
“Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed” (Wallace 60-65) (1999)
This second essay focuses on how DFW teaches Kafka in college classes, and how students cannot seem to grasp the inherent humor in Kafka’s writing. As a fellow college student, the humor was also lost on myself in beginning this essay. DFW begins with a short story of Kafka’s, titled “A Little Fable” and moves through breaking down the humor of this piece. He acknowledges that often when trying to analyze the funniness of a joke, the humor will fall flat (and this is applicable to breaking down DFW’s humor in an analytical essay).
The most noteworthy use of footnotes comes at the end of the essay, where DFW has explained that the comedy of Kafka’s writing is often seen in the face of tragedy. The argument is that we all live in some sort of tragedy, but it is in acknowledging this situation is the reason we can find some sort of comedy in the situation. DFW breaks down the conventions of comedy, how an American perspective will seek comedy as forms of entertainment (as escapism) and makes claims of absurdism in comedy.
The digression of looking at how Americans understand comedy is developed through the largest footnote seen in this essay near the end. The placement of this footnote is crucial in understanding how DFW feels about comedy in writing, who understands and who its lost on. An interesting note about this footnote is that there is another footnote describing the function of the previous footnote (very meta). This is not the only time DFW has done this in his essay writing. In this specific example, DFW using the example of American college students and how they seek forms of escapism in their entertainment, rather than their entertainment reminding them of their current inescapable tragic situations. This example being raised is crucial in developing DFW’s point of how comedy is engaged with on a cultural level. Footnotes, as used by DFW, work as tangents, and as seen in this example, there are often tangents within tangents of DFW’s writing. There is some level of control to these tangents however, none overstay their welcome as sidebars to the topic stated above, and without them, most readers would not be able to understand the larger points DFW is making throughout the essay (I for one am one of those readers).
“Authority and American Usage” (Wallace 66-127) (1999)
This is one of the quintessential DFW essays (I would argue) because of how it uses both a specified structure and the tangents of footnotes throughout. The essay is a review of a recently released dictionary, titled A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (ADMAU), by Bryan A. Garner. This essay is, in DFW fashion, not just a review of the dictionary and what it gets right/wrong, it however focuses on the history of prescriptivism vs. descriptivism in grammar, the authority of dictionaries, and concepts such as “correctness” in Standard English. The essay highlights the politicized background of dictionaries, how they often seem to have some sort of agenda pushing them. The essay also describes the SNOOTiness involved with high-brow keepers of grammar, how grammar can be used as a political tool.
The title page of the essay is worth noting for what it adds to the structure of the essay. It is a page full of fragmented, incoherent phrases (link to the article here, so you can see the chaos which is the title page for yourself: https://web.ics.purdue.edu/~drkelly/DFWAuthorityAndAmericanUsage2005.pdf). Trying to make sense of this title page before reading this essay would be pointless, because DFW doesn’t give you the clues of understanding his titles until after you have dived into his writing. The explanation of this title is not given until several pages into this essay, in a footnote that describes that the fragmented phrases is a list of incorrect grammar phrases that DFW has heard recently. The list of phrases adds a layer of chaos to the title page, further proving DFW’s point that once you begin to notice grammar mistakes, they are often in your face every time you see them next. Another important note that must be made regarding the title page is that the very title of the essay has a footnote for it, the footnote being (or, “POLITICS AND THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE” IS REDUNDANT). Having a footnote for the actual title of the paper is very DFW’s style, the usage of this is much rather as a subtitle than it is a full-on footnote. The footnote also furthers the statement DFW is making that the use of language will forever be a political act, it is simply unavoidable which makes this a redundant argument.
This is the first of DFW’s essays in this collection to follow some sort of titled structure. The topics of this essay’s structure look like this:
- THESIS STATEMENT FOR WHOLE ARTICLE (Wallace 72)
- COROLLARY TO THESIS STATEMENT FOR WHOLE ARTICLE (Wallace 77)
- INTERPOLATION: EXAMPLE OF THE APPLICATION OF WHAT THIS ARTICLE’S THESIS STATEMENT CALLS A DEMOCRATIC SPIRIT TO A HIGHLY CHARGED POLITICAL ISSUE, WHICH EXAMPLE IS MORE RELEVANT TO GARNER’S ADMAU THAN IT MAY INITIALLY APPEAR (Wallace 82)
- INTERPOLATIVE DEMONSTRATION OF THE FACT THAT THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A PRIVATE LANGUAGE (Wallace 87)
- INTERPOLATION: POTENTIALLY DESCRIPTIVIST-LOOKING EXAMPLE OF SOME GRAMMATICAL ADVANTAGES OF A NON-STANDARD DIALECT THAT THIS REVIEWER ACTUALLY KNOWS ABOUT FIRSTHAND (Wallace 99)
- EXAMPLE OF HOW CONCEPTS OF RHETORIC AND DIALECT AND GROUP-INCLUSION CAN HELP MAKE SENSE OF SOME OF THE USAGE WARS’ CONSTITUENT BATTLES (Wallace 105)
- ANOTHER KIND OF USAGE WARS-RELATED EXAMPLE, THIS ONE WITH A PARTICULAR EMPHASIS ON DIALECT AS A VECTOR OF SELF-PRESENTATION VIA POLITENESS (Wallace 110)
- ARTICLE’S CRUX: WHY BRYAN A. GARNER IS A GENIUS (I) (Wallace 118)
- WHY BRYAN A. GARNER IS A GENIUS (II) (Wallace 120)
- WHY BRYAN A. GARNER IS A GENIUS (III) (Wallace 120)
- BONUS FULL DISCLOSURE INFO ON THE SOURCES OF CERTAIN STUFF THAT DOES OR SHOULD APPEAR INSIDE QUOTATION MARKS IN THIS ARTICLE (Wallace 125)
What is interesting to note about the use of these structures is that they often go into tangents on their own. DFW will title some of his footnotes as “interpolation”, indicating to his reader that he will be going on a tangent of his current point, either with experiences of his past or evidence to support his argument. The titles of this essay beg there to be a certain level of structure to what is being written, but even these titles go into tangents of what is being said.
There are a total of 81 numbered footnotes in this essay (and that is not including when the essay goes into footnotes of its own footnotes). These footnotes can be as short as a sentence or as long as two pages with multiple directions it moves towards. There are digressions within digressions within these footnotes. Some of them will have full titles that section them off from the rest of the text. This essay is the most prominent example of how DFW will disrupt the narrative of his text with frequent tangents in the form of footnotes, building upon each other to the point of the reader forgetting where they started until DFW takes them back in a circular motion.
“The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” (Wallace 128-140) (2001)
This final essay describes where DFW was on the events of 9/11 (a moment in which everyone can describe where they were when they heard the news) and how he was nowhere near NYC when the news broke. He begins this essay in a non-linear fashion, starting with the day after 9/11 (a Wednesday) and how everyone seems to be grieving, focusing on how every person has tiny flags outside their houses and how he didn’t know about this unspoken rule, and so we follow him as he tries to find mini flags to put out and learn to grieve with the events of the previous day.
There is some structure to this essay, with bold titles to section off the text. The titles of this essay look like this:
- Aerial & Ground Views
It moves in a non-linear structure, offering different perspectives on what is being discussed and hovering around the topic. The essay makes the assumption that every reader will know about what is being discussed (which is true) furthering the reason as to why DFW chooses to begin this essay where he does.
In terms of footnotes for this essay, there are only three, which is significantly lacking in this essay. The first further describes a conversation had between neighbors and all the responses. The second describes the type of accents people around the area have. The third describes the setting of the living room in which he watches the news broadcasting the events of 9/11. The lack of footnotes is a purposeful style of DFW, where the essay is no longer disrupted with tangents of footnotes (except when it is absolutely necessary). There are many moments where DFW uses longer parenthesis to explain certain statements he makes and offer some of his insight, where in other texts, these parentheses would simply be included as footnotes at the bottom of the page. The text is purposefully unbroken to add to the effect that this event is happening all at once, with nothing to distract either the reader or those who lived through it from the event.
Wallace, David Foster. Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays. Black Bay Books, 2007.