On the Fine Art of the Footnote
From Nabokov to Danielewski, Beyond the Experimental
Ever since David Hume noted that, while reading Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, “One is also plagued with his Notes, according to the present Method of printing the Book” and suggested that they “only to be printed at the Margin or the Bottom of the Page,” footnotes have been the hallmark of academia. For centuries, then, the footnote existed as a blunt instrument, wielded by pedants and populists alike, primarily for the transmission of information, but occasionally to antagonize opponents with arch rhetorical asides. But it would take a couple hundred years until writers again took up the footnote for other, more artful purposes, discovering in this tiny technique emotional and intellectual depth far beyond the realm of the merely experimental.
Two of the most famous novels to use footnotes actually contain no footnotes at all. What Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest have are endnotes. The distinction may seem facile, but endnotes leave the text clean and present the reader with a different kind of choice as well as a very distinctive reading experience.
Nabokov’s Pale Fire consists of a Forward written by the fictional Charles Kinbote, a 999-line poem called “Pale Fire” written by the fictional John Shade and then a section called Commentary also written by Kinbote, who we soon come to realize is a lunatic who believes himself to be the King of a country called Zembla. Kinbote’s notes don’t correspond to numbers inserted into the poem, suggesting that Nabokov wanted the reader to read Shade’s poem without interruption. All of which means that Pale Fire employs academic techniques to create two separate reading experiences: first, the poem, and then the commentary. Of course, each of the endnotes corresponds to lines in the poem, so the reader does go back and forth in that section, but this is very different from the dynamic of footnotes, which create dual narratives that are experienced, as much as is possible, simultaneously.
David Foster Wallace, the reigning champion of footnotes, decided to use endnotes for Infinite Jest for practical as well as aesthetic reasons, as a way 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.
Wallace, then, was forced to give his readers the choice as to whether or not they would embark upon his endnotes, though clearly he really, really wanted every one to be read. In fact, on page 787, there is a gap between two sections where an endnote (number 324) dangles in white space attached to nothing. Note 324, the reader will find, lasts seven pages of tiny-sized text: a chapter, in other words. So basically, you have to read the endnotes, a fact that leads every reader of Infinite Jest to carry two bookmarks with them.
But in his other work, Wallace could use a footnote with real pizzazz. Oftentimes, it’s apparent that a given footnote was placed at the bottom of the page not because Wallace desired to employ the technique but because he couldn’t fit the passage into his lengthy narrative. Dude was long-winded. But even in these cases the notes serve something more important than space.
In “The Depressed Person,” from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, the narrator’s elaborate feelings about her own depression (including her guilt over “calling supportive members of her Support System long-distance late at night and burdening them with her clumsy attempts to articulate at least the overall context of her emotional agony”) constitute most of the story. The first footnote focuses on the depressed person’s thoughts on her therapist’s fingers, which remind her (i.e., the depressed person) of “various forms of geometrically diverse cages.” As the story continues, the length of each footnote increases as the depressed person becomes increasingly preoccupied with her therapist’s behavior, her face and her reactions to the depressed person’s feelings, so much so that the footnotes at times overwhelm the pages, taken up more space than the actual narrative. This reflects the dual consciousness of depression, in which one’s internal struggles often are more complex and lengthier than what is presented to the world, or even a therapist.
Sometimes, Wallace just wants to be funny. “Death is Not the End” (again from BIWHM), describes the many achievements and accolades of a “fifty-six-year-old American poet, Nobel Laureate, a poet known in American literary circles as ‘the poet’s poet,’ or sometimes simply ‘the Poet.’” The list of accomplishments reaches absurdity, especially considering that all the poet is doing in the story is sitting on a deck chair reading Newsweek. The final sentence paints a hyperbolically idyllic environment surrounding the poet, a scene in which the only noises are “the pool’s respiration and poet’s occasional cleared throat, wholly still and composed and enclosed, not even a hint of a breeze to stir the leaves of the trees and shrubbery, the silent living enclosing flora’s motionless green vivid and inescapable and not like anything else in the world in either appearance or suggestion.” A footnote stuck on the last word tells us: “That is not wholly true.”
I am reminded here of another very funny footnote. In Chuck Klosterman’s essay collection Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, he writes about a mixtape (actually, it was a mix CD but that just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?) that he once made and sent to two different women. He explains himself thusly: “My feelings for “Woman A” were completely different than my feelings for “Woman B,” but the musical messages would make emotional sense to both, despite the fact that these two women were wildly dissimilar.” When he tells us that “they both received their discs on the same day, and they both loved them,” a footnote ruefully observes: “Until now, I suppose.”
What Wallace and Klosterman’s footnotes do is offer them a chance for meta-commentary. They can—with doleful hindsight like Klosterman’s or circuitous neurosis like Wallace’s—both compose a piece and comment on it, but because they aren’t commenting within the narrative itself, and because the technique they use comes from authoritative academics, the footnotes grant these tangential asides a kind of authority not offered by, say, a parenthetical. This authority, though, is related to these authors’ internal dualities and do not, like Nabokov, create discrete parallel narratives.
The legacy established by Nabokov—that notion of using academic techniques to give form to multiple stories—has been carried forward by Mark Z. Danielewski, and by ‘carried forward’ I mean launched heedlessly into the unknown future. Danielewski’s 2000 novel House of Leaves blew the lid off of experimental forms not by commenting on itself, or even having a fictional character comment on him/herself, but by having multiple narrators comment upon multiple narratives. Here is how House of Leaves breaks down, form-wise: a blind man named Zampanó spends years writing a description of a film that doesn’t exist. Despite this, Zampanó’s document is filled with references to and quotes from very real people. When the blind man dies, his papers are discovered by Johnny Truant, a young fuck-up who moves into Zampanó’s now vacant apartment. Johnny adds an introduction and his own (sometimes long-winded) footnotes to Zampanó’s work. Also, there are occasional notes from the Editors, featuring ominous pronouncements like “We also wish to note here that we have never actually met Mr. Truant. All matters regarding the publication were addressed in letters or in rare instances over the phone.” At the very bottom of this already deep well is the story of the fictional film, The Navidson Record, which is a documentary about a family moving into a new house. Will Navidson, a prize-winning photographer, sets up cameras in every room of the home. Soon, he discovers that the inside of the house is larger than the outside. Shit only gets weirder from there.
Now, House of Leaves isn’t the first book to contain this many narrators or even this many disparate tales, but because of the way Danielewski designed his novel, it is the first time the division between the plots becomes blurred, in fact, overlapping. The many threads are clarified by use of fonts and position on the page. The stark split between the various forms—a pseudo-nonfiction work about a film, the film itself, Truant’s memoirs in the margins, and the editors’ instrusions on the book as a whole—highlight the complex structure of the novel, because they are not separated out like Nabokov’s Pale Fire but are ceaselessly laid on top of each other. This could only have been accomplished through the sophisticated (and revelatory) use of footnotes. Danielewski, in effect, questions where narratives can exist in fiction. He places the bulk of House of Leaves in the margins, evokes character through commentary, and creates tension with verisimilitude. Who, a reader may find herself wondering, is real here? Johnny feels realer than Will Navidson, even though Zampanó provides much more detail (and references) for The Navidson Record’s validity than the editors do for Johnny. Why, then, do we grant him more authority? This is undoubtedly a great challenge to the nature of storytelling, one Danielewski continues to ask in his work.
Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams take Danielewski’s challenge even further with S., a book that not only contains multiple layers of citation, but actually goes so far as to reproduce these as literally as they can. First of all, like House of Leaves, S. has a book within the book, except here the book is a physical object, replete with a fabricated copyright page and footnotes from a translator. Entitled Ship of Theseus, and written by the fictional V.M. Straka, this book is designed to look like an old library copy—it even has a Dewey Decimal number: 813.54. In the (conveniently wide) margins, a graduate student and an undergraduate write notes to each other in pen and pencil. Handwriting and ink color are the reader’s only signposts as to when the notes were written in the book’s timeline. In addition, sporadically stuffed into the pages are various notes, postcards, photos and letters, left by one student for the other. As in House of Leaves, the format and design of S. are as integral to the narrative as are the characters and themes. In fact, in the case of the two note-writing students, the characters are the form, inasmuch as that’s the only way we know them. If only for its design (and for its design’s relation to the plot), S. is a pretty remarkable achievement, blending elements of verisimilitude with more fervor (and, considering Abrams’s other job, more cash) than any other novel previously. It’s not nearly as good as House of Leaves, but it represents the next step in the genre.
To be sure, not all novels that use footnotes do so for experimental or progressive reasons. Ruth Ozeki’s lovely, meditative novel A Tale for the Time Being translates some of the terms from the letter that washes ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox. Even here, though, the footnotes create a sense of reality, since the person who finds the letter is name Ruth, who is a writer. Junot Díaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao teaches the reader about Trujillo, the unbelievably cruel dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961, though Díaz does have an ax to grind, here: he reverses conventional history, making his characters the story and Trujillo the footnote.
Still others hope to pull out more emotional elements from footnotes. The poet Jenny Boully employs radical usage of citation in her poetry, following a legacy established at least as far back as 1743 by Gottlieb Wilhelm Rabener in his Hinkmars von Repkow Noten ohne Text (Notes Without a Text). Rabener’s aim, then, was “fame and fortune,” as Grafton explains: “Nowadays, [Rabener] argues, one wins these not by writing one’s own text but by commenting on those of others. Hence he has set out to eliminate the middleman: to write his own footnotes, and become famous through them, without waiting for a text to tie them to.” Rabener’s work was satirical, whereas Boully’s intent is emotional and metaphorical.
Boully’s book The Body: An Essay also features notes without a text, except she’s interested in taking the unemotional language of academia and putting it to emotional use, in part by what the citations suggest about the missing prose above. The first footnote in the books reads:
1. Because the weather and landscape was forever shifting and birds gave birth to new birds that birthed new birds ad infinitum, this passage is, historically, inaccurate. The main argument, however, remains unaffected.
Boully is not trying to create a story by cobbling together sporadic hints; instead, she’s creating an emotional landscape through what isn’t there. The missing text becomes an empty place that meaning can fill in, and becomes a metaphor for the protagonist’s fragmented and incomplete self. Footnote number 10 contains its own footnote, and so does that one, and so does that one. Here, Boully wisely compares the Russian doll-like quality of labyrinthine citations to the inner turmoil of self-examination. Her work implicitly contradicts the notion that postmodern experimentation can’t be deeply felt and emotionally rendered.
In fact, what all of these works show—from Nabokov and Wallace to Danielewski and Boully—is that experimentation quickly stops being experimental when it works well, and gives way to progression. Expanding the limits of storytelling is not the job of all storytellers, and some attempts at this have failed to produce worthwhile results, but what the aforementioned artists have proven is that once we accept a new form—i.e., once it’s stripped of its novelty—we allow ourselves to see just how useful and radical and profound it can be. Footnotes, once the hallmark of pedantry and pretension, have now entered the realm of craft. More than a trick, footnotes can be technique. We’ve seen how they can be used to comment on a narrative or to create a new one, to overlap separate narratives, to evoke character in new ways, and to dig into difficult parts of who we are. Footnotes, in other words, no longer merely support a story; now, they can be the story.