This short blog post about footnotes itself contains no footnotes

David Foster Wallace sometimes gets lambasted for his use of footnotes and endnotes – they seem to have been fingered as part of his ‘schtick’, as if he invented the use of them in fiction: as if Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine or, say, Tristram Shandy, had never existed – but it’s fair to say that he is a virtuoso of the form, and nowhere more so than in ‘Federer Both Flesh and Not’, the lead essay in his latest, posthumous non-fiction collection.

Some of my favourite footnotes: Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, Geoff Dyer’s Zona, and also Kevin Sampson’s Invisible Forms, with a thus-far unrivalled chapter on the footnote, all sitting atop Both Flesh and Not

There are two particular things I noticed Wallace doing with footnotes in this piece, which was first published in The New York Times Play magazine in 2006 and runs in the Hamish Hamilton hardback to 29 pages (though the print is rather large, meaning that the footnote point size is not far off the point size of the normal body copy in my hardback edition of Infinite Jest). It includes 17 footnotes, three of which have footnotes of their own.

The first is the use of shortish footnotes to set up a rhythm, in the reader, up and down the page. Of course it’s not a regular rhythm, but it’s a definite pleasure to exercise your eye muscles in different ways than the usual, linear left-right progression, interrupted only by that skip up to the recto page. You zip to the bottom of the page; you are duly rewarded with a nugget of additional information, or analysis; and you bounce straight back up, energised, to continue with the author’s previous train of thought.

The best of these short, pithy notes contain jokes, as in the footnote to note 3, in which he adds to his reference to a “Special One-on-One Interview with Mr. Roger Federer” the note

(Only considerations of space and basic believability prevent a full description of the hassles involved in securing such a One-on-One. In brief, it’s rather like the old story of someone climbing an enormous mountain to talk to the man seated lotus on top, except in this case the mountain is composed entirely of sports-bureaucrats.)

And you bounce back up, full of zing, to continue with the primary, or in this case, secondary narrative. (Would I be beyond the bounds of fancy to describe the up-and-down bounce that these good, short footnotes provide to the reading eye as akin to the bounce of a tennis ball, pre-serve? I probably would.)

The other exquisite use of the footnote in this essay is as the carrier of subtextual resonance. While Wallace’s main subject is the sublime, superhuman on-court grace of Roger Federer in action, the secondary subject, its rhetorical shadow, is the all-too-human physical frailty and clayishness of the rest of us, symbolised in the essay by William Caines, the seven-year-old boy with liver cancer who performs the pre-match coin toss for the Wimbledon final (Federer vs Nadal) that Wallace is covering. Wallace writes (in the body copy):

It’s like once the ritual’s over, the reality of why this child was part of it sinks in. There’s a feeling of something important, something both uncomfortable and not, about a child with cancer tossing this dream-final’s coin. The feeling, what-all it might mean, has a tip-of-the-tongue-type quality that remains elusive for at least two sets.

In fact, Wallace has already brought in his shadow theme, of his and our mortality, in his very first footnote, contrasting it to the seeming imperishability of Federer’s performance. the footnote starts: “There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body.”

Thereafter, the essay concentrates on the positive, on the match itself, on the whys and wherefores of Federer’s extraordinary brilliance, on the maths and the history that give context to it. And it continues in that vein until the last line – except for a lengthy footnote that comes in a page or so from the end.

This, footnote 17, starts off on-message, with a detailed discussion of the final’s third set, but then, one long paragraph in, it shifts a gear:

By the way, it’s right around here, or the next game, watching, that three separate inner-type things come together and mesh. One in a feeling of deep personal privilege at being alive to get to see this; another is the thought that William Caines is probably somewhere here in the Centre Court crowd, too, watching, maybe with his mum. The third thing is a sudden memory of the earnest way the press bus driver promised just this experience. Because there is one. It’s hard to describe – it’s like a thought that’s also a feeling. One wouldn’t want to make too much of it, or to pretend that it’s any sort of equitable balance; that would be grotesque. But the truth is that whatever deity, entity, or random genetic flux produces sick children also produced Roger Federer, and just look at him down there. Look at that.

And then you’re back up, to the main thread, and you’ve only got two paragraphs to go to the end of the piece, with its final phrase that to see “power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled”, but it’s that extraordinary passage in the footnote that colours it, that gives it its moral weight, that adds the second term of the syllogism – and it’s crucial that the parts are kept separate, because the unvoiced conclusion is almost certainly sacrilegious: that it’s conceivable, according to the argument that Wallace put forward in his essay, that William Caines, watching Federer play, is – fleetingly – reconciled to his own, all-too-real mortality.

Wallace does that with footnotes. That’s how he does it.

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