Footnotes don’t have to be boring digressions. In fact, they can be quite helpful. Norton anthologies are loaded with footnotes. They shed light on aspects of a work or the circumstances of an author’s time. This gives context to a story, which aids in comprehending and analyzing a work.
A dictionary might describe information in footnotes as “ancillary” or “a note of reference.” However, I’ve read footnotes that strike me as essential to the story. Many in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and An Abundance of Katherines employ literary devices that complement story. Adding to their appeal, Junot Díaz flavors his with the moxie of a street-smart narrator, while John Green fills his with dry humor. In doing so, the footnotes keep the voice of each of their narrators. The overall effect: The footnotes aren’t just ancillary morsels of information. They’re part of the story.
Footnotes That Pack a Punch
In Oscar Wao, Díaz spices his footnotes with attitude. Written in the narrator’s sarcastic voice, the content packs more of a punch than traditional footnotes. Díaz’s footnotes provide history and elaborate on story and character. In them, the narrator speaks directly to the reader. Some of the footnotes are lengthy, stories in and of themselves.
A Descriptive Footnote
Footnote6 spans two pages. In it, the narrator ponders where Oscar’s “outsized love of genre jumped off from” (21). At one point in the footnote, the narrator speaks directly to the reader, elaborating on Oscar’s story:
“You want to know what being an X-man feels like? Just try being a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mama mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.” (22)
Discussion: Here, simile describes Oscar, who is a fan of science fiction.
Establishing Theme and Tone with Footnotes
Footnote1 -“For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history. . . .” (This footnote takes up almost half of page two and about a quarter of page 3.)
Footnote2 — This provides an informational tidbit for “conspiracy-minded fools” (2, 4). The narrator links a Dominican curse, the “fukú,” to JFK Jr. (Apparently, a “domestic servant” of his was Dominican. She was preparing his favorite meal for him at Martha’s Vineyard the night his plane crashed.)
Discussion: The above footnotes draw empathy for Oscar and give readers a window into his culture. The narrator’s sarcastic tone emulates a friend telling a story, injecting his own thoughts into it. The content maintains the book’s cultural theme, as well as its informal, sarcastic tone.
At times Díaz’s lengthy footnotes may seem like they don’t push the narrative forward. Which they should if they are truly part of the story, as I’m making a case for. Such nonessential content is a supposed “no-no” in writing. But as the adage goes, “Rules are meant to be broken.” However, even if Diaz’s footnotes seem like they don’t push the narrative forward, take another look. Because they just might.
A Footnote that Foreshadows
The narrator describes Oscar’s mother’s life as a young girl. She had a crush on a boy who would go on to align himself with “Demon Balaguar.9” At the start of footnote9, the narrator says, “Although not essential to our tale, per se. . . .” He goes on to give a history of Joaquín Balaguar, describing him as a Dominican leader who was a “Negrophobe” (90).
Discussion: Oscar’s mother is dark-skinned. Therefore, the information about Balaguar foreshadows her future choices of men. This could affect (thus foreshadow) Oscar’s destiny, especially considering the Dominican-curse theme. Therefore, the entry is not frivolous. In fact, it’s essential to the story.
More reading: In my article “Novel Beginnings,” under the subhead “First Lines,” I use the first line of Oscar Wao as an example.
John Green’s footnotes in An Abundance of Katherines entertain and inform–all eighty-seven of them. Their dry humor maintains the voice of the narrator.
Many of the footnotes contain extensions of narration–a single word or a sentence or two, sometimes more. Others draw upon the senses, creating imagery and/or complementing mood and voice. This enriches the storytelling and pushes the footnotes into the literary-device zone.
Examples: Imagery, Repetition, Mood-Creation/Maintenance
Each superscripted number references the same footnote number as in the book:
16 –shows Colin’s view of the world “Venn Diagrammatically” (30). The Venn Diagram adds humor and visual interest.
17 –offers backstory about when Colin gave” Katherine XVII” perfume: “It smells like I rubbed chewed raspberry Bubblicious on my neck,” she said, but it didn’t, exactly. It smelled like raspberry Bubblicious-flavored perfume, which actually smelled very good” (33). Here, simile tickles the tastebuds and triggers our sense of smell.
53 –Colin didn’t miss Katherine I enough “to date her namesake over, and over, and over53“–the footnote reads: “And over and over and over and over and over. . . .” (95). We can’t not get the point. Repetition adds humor that’s appropriate for young readers. It also maintains the humorous mood of the story.
54 –elaborates on a comment Colin’s friend makes about Nikola Tesla, who “loved birds, but not one-legged chickens.” Tesla also “did at least as much for electricity as Thomas Edison” and “had a quasi-romantic fascination with pigeons” (98). Green adds humor and opinion to history. This footnote maintains the voice of the narrator and the comedic mood.
More reading: Take a look at my review of An Abundance of Katherines.
In Conclusion . . .
Chicago Manual of Style says during the editing process, authors may be asked to shorten lengthy footnotes. Diaz’s Oscar Wao footnotes are quite long at times. But like Green’s, they grip attention with their strong, informal voice, and they surprise with their engaging content.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and An Abundance of Katherines contain a bountiful amount of barrier-braking footnotes. And the books have won awards. Consider that a permission slip for the rest of us. Let’s dare to put our own spin on the footnote, the unsung hero of literary devices.