Performance of Author/Text/Reader Relationships in the Margins of David Foster Wallace’s Works
Note: this is the transcript of a conference presentation I gave at the Second Annual David Foster Wallace Conference in Normal, Illinois. A heavily- necessarily- and occasionally-amusingly-footnotes version of this presentation was published in Normal 2015, along with some outstanding works of scholarship.
“There’s another level that a piece of fiction is a conversation. There’s a relationship set up between the reader and the writer that’s very strange and very complicated and hard to talk about.”
“So what, we’re going to pretend, we’re going to pretend that we’re sitting in the same room?”
Presenter here. Although that probably goes without saying. You can see me, I can see you. The only thing between us is this podium and a couple metres of empty space. You’ll hear what I’m saying as I say it, where I say it; and if that’s not enough you can grab me by the lapels and look into my face and figure out just exactly what one single thing I mean.
So here I am. Nathan Seppelt, Independent Scholar from Adelaide, Australia. The paper I’m talking about today is Author Here, IYI and is basically about the ways Wallace uses marginalia – including footnotes, endnotes, prefaces and forewords, Host’s boxed notes, and even headings – to explore and perform some key questions about author/text/reader relationships.
But what if I wasn’t talking to you here today? What if we were communicating through a written text, especially one we understand as being fictional? What if I was armed with a shit-ton of philosophy and lit-theory about the death of the author, iterability of writing, artifice of text, author vs. persona, Derrida, Barthes, etcetera etcetera?
Would that give me the tools and make it easier for me to communicate meaningfully and directly with you, or complicate it?
What if I’ve been writing and reading postmodern literature that repeatedly, hollowly exposes the artifice of text and persona as written, but doesn’t say: yes, but when you peel back the artifice here’s what’s real, here’s who’s real, and really trying to communicate with you. And I’ve become so frustrated with this kind of writing that I’ve reached a personal crisis, of sorts.
I’m not actually talking about myself any more: I’m talking about David Foster Wallace. When Wallace wrote his Westward, he was at his most frustrated with texts that pointed out ‘this text is written’, but by pushing this idea to its most extreme and, really, trying to exhaust it, he found that on the other side of ‘this text is written’ is the question ‘by whom?’
I would argue that throughout the rest of his writing, beyond Westward, Wallace would strive to explore this very question. In doing so, and being the theory slash philosophy junkie that he was, Wallace takes a couple of prevalent assumptions about the nature of authors and the relationship they have with their texts and explores them through a range of performances.
Today I’ll focus on these two assumptions:
One: Either the author is responsible for, or determines, their text’s meaning; or the reader is, via their (the reader’s) interpretation of it. Wallace discusses this directly in a number of nonfiction pieces including Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky, Greatly Exaggerated especially, and even in some fiction – like ‘Pop Quiz 9’ in Octet, where he compares an author to a dramatist “coming onstage from the wings and reminding you that what’s going on is artificial and that the artificer is him (the dramatist)”.
Assumption two: That either the author is absent from/external to the text or is present/expressed within the text. This one relates to the iterability of the text and the absence of author this requires and signifies – so is pretty much on the Derrida side of the ‘death of the author’ fence. Again, Wallace discusses this and Derrida most overtly in Greatly Exaggerated: the thing I said earlier about lapels and grabbing was paraphrased from an especially good paragraph about this.
You’re probably way ahead of me already and noticed that the two assumptions I’ve chosen to focus on I’ve presented as binary oppositions: either the author is responsible for the text’s meaning or they’re not. Either the author is present or absent; they’re either within the text or outside it.
So, besides the whole good-old ‘getting to the centre of meaning by looking to the margins’ type thing Derrida so mindbendingly exemplifies in his Margins of Philosophy, there’s another really good reason marginalia is useful to Wallace and our reading of him here: marginalia, especially in Wallace’s hands, themselves defy these binary oppositions.
Marginalia is simultaneously both part of the text and outside of it: it comes from the same source as the main text and occupies the same space – we can even say that it is contained in the same artefact. But at the same time marginalia distances and excludes itself from the main text by commenting, criticising, qualifying, or clarifying the main text. Nadel says that marginalia exhibits “the double consciousness of the text”.
This special status becomes a powerful tool for Wallace as he uses marginalia to restructure his texts: what would otherwise be situated inside the main text is brought outside and vice versa. His footnotes constantly do this in small ways, but Wallace also does this on a much larger scale – particularly when he’s exploring the relationships between authors, readers and the text between them. A few examples:
‘Pop Quiz Nine’ in Octet actually, overtly focuses on the relationships between author, reader and the text that comes between them. Being #9 in a series that should contain eight Pop Quizzes this PQ appears to be written ‘outside’ the ‘Octet,’ but the fact that there are only actually three-and-a-halfish other PQs before this one places PQ9 somewhere between the fourth and fifth actual piece in the cycle, moving this discussion on author and relationships from outside the Octet – literally – to its very centre.
A little less subtly, the “THE END” that appears at the end of the single footnote to Good Old Neon does the opposite, placing the main text after the occurrence of the footnote – including the introduction of the character David Wallace, whose name matches the author’s – beyond or outside the close of the story.
Endnote 78 in Infinite Jest has a similar effect on the book’s first chapter. The note indicates that as of 15 December Y.D.A.U. – presumably the time of writing – the Year of Glad sponsorship is still pending approval.
But: IJ’s drum-tight first chapter is clearly set in Year of Glad. These are the first three words of the book. The endnote moves Hal’s first chapter beyond the whole apparatus of main text and footnotes, to outside everything else that’s going on between the main text’s and endnote’s authors and reframes the opening chapter’s two big “metafictional titty-pincher”s: “I am in here” and the casually tossed-out “holographically mimetic”. It’s important to note too that at the same time this restructuring also entails an inwards, centre-directed movement by the endnotes.
The most obvious example, though, is The Pale King’s “Author’s Foreword”.
The named Author, David Wallace, uses the foreword to address the reader directly and explicitly spell out that what we’re reading is nonfiction, that it will look like fiction, and why. He talks about a book’s normal “unspoken contract” between author and reader, the terms of which contract “always depend on certain codes and gestures that the author deploys in order to signal the reader what kind of book it is, i.e., whether it’s made up vs. true.”; and why that’s actually misleading in this case.
The sticky point is that all this is not laid out right at the start of the book as expected, but has been moved, at the publisher’s insistence, 63 pages into the main text. This restructuring means that all the codes and gestures for fiction have already been deployed and all this Foreworded explication is actually read under the contract that it’s fictional.
Wallace is more or less asking us readers to make a decision here: to disregard the implicit author/reader contract that’s coded throughout all the text we’ve read so far and accept what he says he means, and enter into the author/reader contract for nonfiction; or whether it’s the text’s own pre-existing operation to set up the “unspoken” contract for fiction that’s more important.
Now, the other thing that’s disproportionately interesting (and important) for the amount of time I’ve left for it [given that this is a transcript of a 15 min presentation] is the way Wallace uses marginalia to fracture and pluralise the author’s/narrator’s identity.
On a fairly fundamental level, he does this between the ‘real’ author and the manifestation or expression of that person within their text. The “Author’s Foreword” in The Pale King is, again, an obvious and valuable example.
The foreword begins with “Author here. Meaning the living human being holding the pencil.” The way Wallace uses the word “here” in this passage situates the author with the reader, through the text. Because the author is not obviously immediately present with the reader, his presence is mediated through the text; he can be said to be present in the text.
But then Wallace complicates it by very specifically situating himself outside or behind the text. He writes, “addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005”. By providing both the specific address and the time of his writing, Wallace is bringing himself back out of the text. And by specifying the date in particular, his “I’m here” includes the disclaimer “but only on March 24, 2005.” Which is to say he’s not really here.
By asserting right from the “Author’s Foreword”’s first sentence that he, the author, is here and then proving that he is somewhere not-here, Wallace forces the reader to consider both situations as simultaneously possible – replacing the either/or proposition of our second assumption with both/and.
Even the most unambiguous-seeming datum about the author provided in the foreword is in fact fraught with ambiguity and signifies identities around the author that multiply and converge. As we later learn, Wallace’s social security number originally signified The Pale King’s other David F. Wallace, with whom the author’s persona has a complicated ontological relationship.
The performances in Infinite Jest are way more complicated and where a lot of the real fun is. Infinite Jest is presented as a text that reports rather than one that is constructed. A big part of this is the way the authors are presented as people who have assembled the text from within the world in which it takes place. These authors’ identities are complexly fractured – mostly thanks to the endnotes – and their identities are unknown. The endnotes raise possibilities for the authors’ identities and hints at which characters they may be.
I’m going to really disappoint you and not get into who the candidates are and why, but what’s noteworthy here is that the text’s clues point inwards, within the text. In Infinite Jest, Wallace so thoroughly situates the authors within the text that he almost completely absents himself: the external, “real human” author. There’s little we know for sure about Infinite Jest’s intra-textual authors’ identities, but what we do know is that it is not someone completely external to the text: it is not Wallace. All of this is not to say that there are no tensions between authors and narrators/personae at play in Infinite Jest: they’ve just been transposed to a level where all parties are equal within the text and so are all equally, and simultaneously possible.
This (very brief) conclusion is probably a little late in the game to introduce something new, but it is something I’ve hinted at a couple of times already. One more binary opposition Wallace keeps in play with regard to everything I’ve spoken about so far: decidability vs. undecidability.
By showing that both poles of the binary oppositions Wallace explores are simultaneously possible, but conflict in complex and interesting ways, he shows that they are undecidable within (or from behind) the text. In his exploration of this binary – which ultimately is about the ability to decide – Wallace pushes it to the same question he asks of the idea that a text is written in the first place: “by whom?”