Drowning in a Flood of Information: David Letzler on Cruft in Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace: Infinite Jest. Not actually a failure: betterbooktitles.com.

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?

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14 Responses to Drowning in a Flood of Information: David Letzler on Cruft in Infinite Jest

  1. strikefacehwc says:

    I listened to Wallace’s “This is Water” again the other day for the first time in well over a year, and if you haven’t heard it yet I cannot recommend it highly enough. He discusses the importance of the mundane and the boring parts of our lives in that speech, and I think that’s partially what he’s engaged with demonstrating through this massive book. Even beyond his endnotes, so many of his long-winded descriptions could have been shortened or removed completely without damaging the plot itself, but I would argue that the plot is more rewarding as a reader because of all the “cruft” we’re made to sift through to find it.

    Wallace has also said in interviews that it was edited down significantly in terms of length, especially the endnotes. I would be curious to know exactly how much longer it was, and how that might have changed our reading of it by bogging us down with more “unnecessary” text.

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  2. mjp99 says:

    To answer your final question, although also a first time reader… crufting patiently. And based on your synopsis it does sound like Letzler is lacking a larger agenda or reading… it seems unsatisfactory that all the cruft accomplishes (considering the literal heft of the cruft) is to point to a burgeoning problem of data sifting during the 90’s.

    Does he point or bring up anything regarding the subjectivity of information – that some footnotes may prove more meaningful to different readers? That while there are points clearly helpful, or even integral, to understanding certain plot points, but some that don’t seem relevant or central, may not be central to the narrative of the book but rather the experience of it, allowing the reader to ‘identify’ like an AA member.

    Perhaps it speaks more to the drowning effect of contemporaneity, or to a degree captures it… but it is hard for me to consider anything abjectly meaningless in this novel (redundant, certainly).

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    • endorphinique says:

      So this is a very, VERY streamlined, Cliff Notes version of Letzler’s essay, and I only took the parts of it that I thought I could cover in a succinct way without taking over the blog or parroting all of his ideas.

      I shouldn’t have let this point slide away so easily after including it in my first paragraph, but Letzler’s main concern here is more about how the endnotes help give us an alternative way to construct and conceive of an encyclopedic novel. He actually compares Infinite Jest to Wikipedia frequently throughout the essay, and needs the basic premise of the novel as encyclopedic to be firmly uncontested before he can continue with any of his other arguments. Considering that endnotes are generally used to provide supplementary information on a subject that merely gives context to a larger topic at hand, but that Wallace does not straightforwardly do this in Infinite Jest, Letzler explores how the uses of these endnotes are pivotal in understanding the main goals of the text. I don’t think he even considers the possibility of their exclusion as something you could do as a reader.

      Letzler does seem to go a little far in assuming an “I am all readers” mentality and looks at the endnotes objectively instead of subjectively, but, like endnote 8 about the “Mild Designer class” of drugs he goes into, Letzler generally doesn’t find room for debate about the meaninglessness of certain endnotes. He also doesn’t think they serve the same “lace trim on a Victorian house” vibe in establishing a particular experience of the novel except for the “monumental dullness” of the endnotes, in which he goes on to discuss this experience of “unborable attention” with the novel. He again assumes that we’re all reading the novel in the same way here, and expands on this point of unborable attention with Wallace’s thoughts about it in The Pale King.

      He does, however, find room in the way we choose to read certain endnotes, such as how endnote 304 is mentioned in four other endnotes before we actually get to endnote 304 in its respective context. He discusses the different risks and values in the way we decide to order our reading of the endnotes in this way.

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      • mjp99 says:

        that makes a lot more sense, thank you for clarifying. I also have to mention my reply was finished hastily since a class decided to kick me out the comp. lab so my thought process/response didn’t get the chance to fully develop.

        It’s 2015 why can’t we save drafts of replies? I guess we technically can but copying and pasting is so 2014.. (insert copious flames)

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  3. This is an excellent engagement w/ Letzler’s essay, and you raise some interesting questions.

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  4. Steph Roman says:

    Akin to strikefacehwc above, I find the novel’s cruft a bit painstaking at times but ultimately enjoyable. I don’t think it would really even BE Infinite Jest without it. I’ve expressed discontent about the sheer number of “Untitled. Unreleased” movies in the JOI filmography, but I find that contributes to my pleasure overall. Even if the end note is a snide comment, a”no idea,” a “sic,” or something insignificant, we have to keep in mind that Wallace wrote it that way for a reason–if nothing else, the reason is to poke fun at his readers and enjoy watching them squirm and struggle.

    Ultimately, this doesn’t sound like the best choice of sources for the midterm, though….

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  5. drseuss1 says:

    I definitely agree with Letzler’s insight that Wallace’s use of endnotes makes his encyclopedic novel more encyclopedic. But I think what may not have been emphasized in his essay, judging by endorphinique’s report, is that what may be cruft to some may be insightful and relevant trivia to another. I think Wallace, in making this gargantuan end note section filled with just about everything under the sun, appeals and invites readers of virtually every discipline to enjoy his novel. Granted, most cruft in this novel is cruft to each and every reader. But exactly what is and isn’t, I think definitely changes on the reader. For instance, the pharmaceutical chemist who happens to read Infinite Jest will come away with insights and a totally different experience of the book than perhaps a mathematician or an optical physicist. The chemist may learn a lot about the structural information of unfamiliar and hence physiological interactions with those drugs from these endnotes. The physicist or mathematician may well understand the technical rules of Eschaton better than any other reader. I think this is exactly Wallace’s point! Unless you do a lot of research, Wallace doesn’t really expect everyone to understand the Mean Value Theorem. Wallace supplies endnotes, I think for one reason, to give every reader a unique experience, thus really emphasizing the encyclopedic factor of the novel.
    I gotta give Wallace props for doing an utterly absurd amount of research on just about everything…I can’t even begin to imagine doing something like that myself…Wallace is the man!

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  6. lightsabretoothtiger says:

    Drseuss1 brings up a good point: The relevance and enjoyment of the footnotes is completely subjective. No matter how we, or Letzler, or even Wallace try to qualify the value of the footnotes, there is always going to be disagreement. I think it’s important to keep in mind that not every person is going to read the novel the same way. Just from class, there are some people who don’t even read the “cruft,” and yet have a firm grasp on the novel.

    The value of the footnotes is however you perceive it to be. Some people have been dying to learn the Mean Value Theorem. Others like the meta-text of Struck’s plagiarism. Still others like the chemical properties of drugs. The range of topics covered and elaborated in the footnotes is so large, and the number of footnotes so many, I believe everyone can find a footnote they found relevant or enjoyable. That said, not every footnote is for everyone, but there is still value in all of them.

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  7. mer95 says:

    I would agree with strikefacehwc, in that I think that Wallace’s use of kruft makes “the plot is more rewarding as a reader because of all the cruft we’re made to sift through to find it”. I think earlier in the term, Brad described the book as a sort of “mystery” novel in that you have to figure out just exactly what is going on. Wallace presents the events of Infinite Jest not as a linear narrative, but reader like a series of cross referenced evidence files pulled together for some larger unknown reason. The cruft, in the vast “mystery” of Infinite Jest, serves as a sort of red herring, forcing the reader to make note of something by literally making a note of it. For example, in the reading for today I was particularly struck with endnote 269 (i), the exchange between Marlon Bain and Helen Steeply , and trying to sift through what is relevant and what is not relevant, to try to look for little clues as to how other characters will be somehow connected to each other. Is endnote 269 an important endnote, like endnote 24 (ii), or just a moment of humor, just as trivial as endnote 174 (iii) or 182 (iv)? Part of the fun is trying to decide what to vest your interest in.

    ————————————————————-
    (i) There’s a lot of weird things that could either be clues to something that will come up again in the novel, or just something Wallace has used for a moment of humor. Is it important that Marlon Bain’s parents were killed in Lateral Alice’s plane crash? Will we return to the story of the death of S. Johnson? Why does his remembrance of Helen Steeply’s name get progressively worse as the time wears on?
    (ii) James O Incandenza’s filmography
    (iii) Text: “’Absolutely no bonking’, presumably”
    (iv) Text: “Known also sometimes as ‘pukers’”

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  8. rdlebby says:

    I find myself fundamentally disagreeing with the idea of the footnotes being “cruft.” While it’s true that they don’t all seem relevant to plot (does anyone care that much about the structure of the molecules some of the characters are addicted to?), I would argue that they are as important as any other information Wallace decides to gift us with. Reading Infinite Jest, I think, requires us to turn off the mindset of looking for some overarching meaning to what we’re getting ourselves into. At first, it seems unfair of DFW to do this to us, but, I suppose, I didn’t pick up IJ for the first time with the intention of doing anything other than reading it and going wherever it takes me.

    The best analogy I can come up with, as cheesy as it sounds, is of deciding to go for a walk on a nice day, of aimlessly wandering around without planning on ending up anywhere specific at all. Maybe you’ll end up running into friends and getting lunch, maybe you’ll end up finding a really cool book store you otherwise wouldn’t have known existed, maybe you’ll end you up sitting under a tree and relaxing for a while, and maybe it’ll start storming and you’ll end up back at your apartment feeling disgruntled. Regardless of the outcome, choosing to go for a walk-or to read Infinite Jest-is to at least choose to do something. This book, I think, is about the journey itself and not the destination. For that reason alone, I think the footnotes should be embraced as puddles or trees or bookstores or friends or whatever else they end up feeling like at the times that you experience them.

    So is all of it cruft then? I don’t know. In a sense, the entire novel, not just the footnotes, qualifies. But, then again, so does life. This may not be incredibly helpful, but what makes reading IJ so enjoyable to me is just being able to go along for the ride. I don’t try to pick out the informative or meaningful bits and forget about the rest; rather, I just try to take it all as it comes. I do recommend, however, following up on the bits and pieces of the novel that intrigue you (e.g. I always translate the Latin phrases on my own before reading DFW’s versions). Look into parts that interest you, trudge through the parts that don’t, and really try to take every sit-down with it as it comes. That’s how I do it, at least (:

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    • kalihira says:

      I very much agree with you here, in that DFW’s writing seems to sort of be the literary equivalent of taking the scenic route. Value is not necessarily equivalent to how informative or relevant each footnote is, and there really isn’t a lazily written line in the entire novel. Different footnotes, or sentences, or scenes, or chapters, appeal to different people, but for the most part, there will be something held within that makes the trip worthwhile. So even if some footnotes are pointless (which I will likely debate in my head for quite a while, trying to discern where is meaning and where isn’t, similarly to the conversation about The Joke we had in class today) I will continue to sift.

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    • mjp99 says:

      very well said – I think Wallace points to this everywhere and it also ties into his thoughts on the banal and boring and The Pale Kings (apparent, from what those who’ve read it have told me) interest in this boredom, or maybe more importantly the boredom’s reliance on subjectivity… the same way the footnotes really drive home reader subjectivity depending on how you approach them.

      I completely agree we have to set aside to a large degree ‘conventional’ novel reading tendencies – i.e. find the moral in the proverbial haystack, or where the ducks go when the pond freezes etc etc etc – and I believe Wallace is very intentionally avoiding the one-directional (the self-obsession of a boy band somehow aptly applies here, without really intending to, haha) mode of conventional, whats-the-underlying-message/lesson-thing-driving-the-narrative, writing. While I do believe there’s A Lot at stake under the surface for Wallace, he complicates and disguises it so much and leaves a ton of it open to reader speculation so we are engaged, and can chose what bores or compels us, what we decide is sanctified or polluted (people have different tastes). As if he’s using the St. Theresa style transcendence of pain/pleasure dichotomy to transcend transcendence – that in the back of our minds we know Wallace will never give us the answer or arrive at the “destination” but instead gives us all of it, the detritus and the high art, pleasure and pain, product and waste, to parse through (and decide our subjective valuations of) while he does a damn compelling job sherpaing along this terribly complex and pitfall laden metaphorical “walk.”

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  9. 1ady1azarus says:

    I am extremely interested in this novel’s relationship with waste, whether it be human waste, environmental waste, or a character’s waste of potential. So prior to reading your distilled version of this essay, I conceptualized cruft as being a form of textual waste – completely useless in every regard, incapable of generating any meaningful contribution to the overall work, a blaring disruption in Wallace’s seemingly interminable narrative threads. That doesn’t seem to be at all what Letzler is saying. If I am following you, cruft does have function, whether that function is reflecting the problems of a digitalized society “flood[ed with] information,” or posing a challenge to the reader’s ability to sift data. This makes sense for me, considering that all the other waste in the novel is hardly ever entirely useless (annular fusion, Pemulis’s urine-based entrepreneurship, Lyle’s living off of the sweat of young athletes).

    I think that the idea that IJ seeks to “test and even alter the way we process data” is intuitive. Digressing from cruft here, but just consider how much non-cruft is thrown at us, all the relatively important plot stuff. I feel like Wallace is testing the efficiency of human memory by bombarding us with so many names, places, connections. And sometimes he seems to step in and acknowledge the strain he’s put on our recall, on our ability to process data, with this gigantic book of his. I’m remembering Pemulis’s discussion with the blindfolded Arslanian about Doucette’s meltdown in the weight-room. The name Doucette rings a bell but it’s likely, after being so jostled between times and places and people, that we may have forgotten what the name Doucette signifies in this story. And so Arslanian provides a description that seems rather unrealistic and artificial, something that wouldn’t be said in real conversation: “Doucette is the two-hand player whose mole appears to be material from a nostril, clinically depressing Doucette at its appearance” (569). Ah, okay, I remember that scene, thanks DFW. Basically, I feel like these blatant reminders that almost break the fourth wall are actually Wallace lending a hand and acknowledging the pressure he has put on us as his readers.

    And so maybe this is exactly why I welcome the cruft. I feel like because it is essentially pointlessness, I am at least not to be held accountable for remembering it. Cruft pushes my ability sift through information rather than my ability to retain it, and so I am happy to cruft away.

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  10. mdr50 says:

    I am roughly 650 pages into the book and I am still constantly questioning the verbose and very detailed style embraced in Infinite Jest. I expected this in light of the knowledge that Infinite Jest is an encyclopedic novel, but I am starting to think that, to at least some degree, the excessive amounts of detail have to be a means to force the reader to sift through large amounts of information in order to identify passages or paragraphs of particular importance. I think you’re right and it is reasonable to think that this has something to do with the state of finding information in our present world of advanced technology because I don’t think literally every paragraph in the story contains a very important message (especially the ones that go on for pages).
    I am also a first time reader of Infinite Jest, and I have to say that I am split on the cruft of the book. I think sometimes it is annoying to have to flip back and forth, especially when I don’t find a particular endnote particularly interesting; however, being that I am a first time reader, I still keep an open mind about it and continue to make a serious effort to understand the necessity of each endnote.

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