Paratext – Part II

There’s a certain, logical-seeming thing we have a tendency to do when we reach this stage of reading Infinite Jest. Confused, overwhelmed, under-denouemented, we delve deeper into the meaning of all the words between page three’s “YEAR” and “U.S.” on pee-ten-seventy-nine.

Such an approach makes a lot of sense. Infinite Jest contains a huge number of words; all of which (surely) are carefully chosen and have either very particular or multiple very particular meanings.

But this approach also has a crucial weakness. It overlooks the fact that a text, like Jest, is more than the sum of its internal words. A text doesn’t stand alone. It’s a node in a whole network of texts.

Think of the ways Jest draws from and alludes to other texts like Ulysses, Hamlet, Hill Street Blues, the O.E.D., Cheers, Star Wars, M*A*S*H, the works of Heidegger and Derrida. All these names are just stand-ins for different nodes in a vast textual network.

There’s another textual network that’s always already (as our good, good friend Derrida would say) at play. It’s the web of texts – paratexts – that surround a published “main” text and influence a way we read that (quote-unquote) main text.

The examples I gave in my Part I post included things like covers, copyright pages, forewords (did I say forewords?), drafts, criticism and I should definitely add things like ads, images and other maybe less-seemingly related things that nonetheless appear with or near the text that serves as our main focus.

I guess, then, that the point I’m trying to make here is that we shouldn’t ignore these paratexts when we read and try to interpret (I can’t help myself: construct) texts.

Especially not with Wallace. His Optional Foreword (which is itself a paratext to both the book and audiobook versions of the essay) to the book version of Up Simba (which is itself a paratext to the audiobook and magazine versions of the essay (and I should mention that I’m really talking about the Consider the Lobster book version, not the McCain’s Promise book version) shows a definite awareness of the paratexts that surrounded the original magazine version:

The point here is that what you’ve just now purchased the ability to download or have e-mailed to you or whatever (it’s been explained to me several times, but I still don’t totally understand it) is the original uncut document, the as it were director’s cut, verbally complete and unoccluded by any lush photos of puffy-lipped girls with their Diesels half unzipped, etc.

If that doesn’t quite do it for you, how about this from the Author’s Foreword that appears 66 pages (even though a footnote, for some reason says seventy-nine) into (again – Derrida’s partly to blame) The Pale King?

I obviously need to explain. First flip back and look at the book’s legal disclaimer, which is on the copyright page, verso side, four leaves in from the rather unfortunate and misleading front cover.

God, the rest of the paragraph just gets so, so much better; and if you read it, I promise you’ll understand perfectly why all this paratext stuff matters. (Wallace, DF 2011, The Pale King, ed.M Pietsch, Little, Brown & Company, New York, NY. ISBN 978-0-316-07423-0).

I also love this example from ‘The Best of the Prose Poem’ that appears (this is where I’ve read it) in Both Flesh and Not:

Of these 9, # that are by one Jon Davis, a poet whom this  reviewer’d never heard of before but whose pieces in this anthology are so off-the-charts terrific that the reviewer has actually gone out and bought the one Jon Davis book mentioned in his bio-note and may well decide to try to advertise it in this magazine, at reviewer’s own expense if necessary – that’s how good this guy is: 5.

(If you can track down a copy of the anthology, or at least a lit-bookleggish pdf, the ad’s right there. The temporal implications of which, w/r/t the main text [not that Wallace’s essay is the main text in the anthology], I’ll let you try to unravel.)

There aren’t (but let’s not trust my memory after last week) any direct references to paratexts in Infinite Jest (unless citations of fictional texts as if they’re actual real-world texts counts?), but Wallace’s contributions to the book’s copyright page still signals a paratextual awareness.

And now is where some central point should become apparent in this final post.


If you’ve finished reading Jest‘s main text (and endnotes – which I am, here, including in the main text) and you haven’t yet done this one thing, I’m going to ask you to do it now.

Turn to page 1079 in your English-language copy of Infinite Jest. I have no idea whether this will work with translations.

Grip the bottom of the page – right where it says “1079” and maybe even has part of that circle-thing – and turn the page.

Read the page, recto side, you’ve just turned to.


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