Letzler, David. “Encyclopedic Novels and the Cruft of Fiction: Infinite Jest’s Endnotes.” Studies in the Novel 44, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 303-24.
If my memory serves me right, we’ve voiced our bafflement over Wallace’s use of endnotes since day one. David Letzler has the same fascination with these endnotes, and his essay focuses primarily on how they emphasize Infinite Jest’s reputation as an encyclopedic novel. His main questions about the endnotes involve why Wallace uses them, what they do to contribute to the novel, and how we receive them as an audience.
Straight off the bat, Letzler wants to get a general understanding across about the endnotes: “many are basically pointless” (307). Hold off on the flame wars, guys. Letzler’s examples include the eighth endnote, in which “if one does not have a background in pharmaceutical chemistry and/or practical knowledge of synthetic street drugs,” we have no way of making sense of or assigning significance to this note about a recreational drug (308). If we did have this specialized chemical knowledge, what would we gain from this repetition of things we already know? Notes like these are unnecessary. They’re dull. They don’t offer a stylistic or visual effect to the work, like the endnotes in House of Leaves, another encyclopedic novel. They’re “cruft.” Letzler uses this computer programming term to describe these notes that are “excessive to no clear purpose, simultaneously too much or too little” (308).
And because there’s so much cruft, we might be blind to the larger role that these endnotes play. Letzler states that “there actually is quite a lot of important material in Wallace’s endnotes, yet to discover it, one has to wade through lots of cruft” (310). We learn through James O. Incandenza’s filmography that there are quite a few films that speak about his personal life and anxieties, even though plenty of these entries such as the “Untitled. Unfinished. UNRELEASED” entries “do not represent pointlessness—they are pointlessness” (314). We learn about the AFR, even though we find it through Jim Struck’s plagiarism. Since “this sort of information is frequently only stumbled upon by accident, when one’s attention is too limited to realize its importance as distinct from the junk by which it is surrounded” (317), we have to modulate our attention in a way that Letzler finds to be “the novel’s most strange and profound narrative element” (310). This element being that Infinite Jest forces us to “test and even alter the way we process data” (310).
Letzler sees this idea of the endnotes forcing us to receive, filter, and order information as fundamental to Wallace’s greater project on how to process and find valuable data in the digital age. Letzler briefly talks about Wallace’s concerns with “the difficulties posed by the digital age to adequate data filtering” (320), and in many ways, he mirrors these anxieties in the novel’s endnotes, a glut of information that we have to sift through to get to what’s useful.
While I agree with all of Letzler’s arguments, especially how the endnotes reflect greater cultural concerns about how we have to handle information in a world where it’s becoming increasingly hard to find which facts actually matter, I came away from this essay unsatisfied. Perhaps I’m asking too much of Letzler to give me answers to what he’s presented (which are already very solid, substantial claims to begin with), but I felt that he could have gone much deeper in the matters he explored. Letzler notes that the endnotes and the dullness they invite, for instance, have parallels to AA’s dependence on a cliché mentality. Letzler proposes that “escaping the hyperactive mindlessness of addiction by creating an opposed vacuous mindlessness of community” is the way in which the characters end up finding balance in their lives (320), yet he is also aware that James O. Incandenza commits suicide because “attempting to create something meaningful from waste is an unstable and dangerous process” (320). While Letzler admits his lack of an answer in whether we can find a better solution in terms of finding what’s important, he could at least point towards a direction in what this better solution would look like. Instead, he highlights other ways in which the novel floods us with information and how the ways in which we process information (or don’t process it) have larger global consequences. Again, I may be overreaching my bounds in what Letzler is capable of.
When he discusses Marshall Boswell’s idea that we have to “devise some way to read through the book” w/r/t finding the important endnotes (310), he brings up the fact that “it is easier to do on a second reading, not just because one knows more about the characters, but because one has a better sense for what entries may be skipped” (316). I felt that, while he was proposing one way in which we have to process all this junk data first to get the valuable data later, he didn’t properly or wholly address the way in which engaging with Infinite Jest on this a posteriori level may tamper with the interaction we have with the novel. Does the novel lose meaning when we don’t go through the cruft? Can this second reading connect to the way we filter information in the real world? How does a second encounter with the book change our experience of it?
I know there are a few people in class who have read Infinite Jest multiple times, so I was hoping to have my post open up discussion on this front. As someone who’s picking this book up for the first time, I don’t really have a choice but to go through the cruft. How is everyone else reading the novel?