Friday, June 17, 2011

Funny Footnotes in YA Fiction

Which came first? The funny or the footnote?

I just finished Libba Bray's laugh-out-loud Lord of the Flies meets Survivor meets Little Miss Sunshine novel, Beauty Queens. And of all the exceedingly funny aspects of this 'beauty contestants crashed on a desert island' story, one of the perhaps most easily overlooked (literally and figuratively) is the footnotes. Like a parenthetical aside, or a crumpled note passed in class from a friend (obviously, I went to high school in pre-texting/sexting/and cyber bullying days), footnotes in YA lit are a fantastic way of rambling on and on about something particularly fascinating or funny or quirky or whatnot without doing that thing that editors (and some readers, apparently, not me, though) hate, which is slowing down the plot.

The first case of quirky footnoting I came across as a reader was actually in a non-YA book, Junot Diaz' brilliant The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Which, the super violent and majorly depressing parts not withstanding, might well have been a YA book - since it does follow the lives of several teen/young adult characters. There were some pages where the footnotes actually were longer than the regular text, which made for a fantastic, meandering read that sometimes felt like a walk through the woods of Diaz' imaginative brain - kind of like that film Being John Malkovich only, in this case, Being Junot Diaz (here, if blogger had a footnote function, I might footnote some details about the film, which included an office with a secret trapdoor that let you into Malkovich's mind - the only problem being that you eventually got dumped out at the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.) Anyhoo, to get back to what I was saying (what was I saying?), ah yes, about Diaz' book: please, people, the footnotes ALONE deserved the Pulizer in this book. That rambling myth about the Dominican curse of fuku on the Kennedy family was sheer brilliance. My favorite footnoted quote? Here 'tis:

"Here's one for you conspiracy minded fools: On the night that John Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette and her sister, Lauren, went down in their Piper Saratoga, John-John's father's favorite domestic, Providencia Paredes, dominicana, was in Martha's Vineyard cooking up for John-John his favorite dish: chicharron de pollo. But fuku always eats first, and it eats alone."

Like Junot Diaz, John Green is a lover of the footnote. (My favorite footnote filled book of his is An Abundance of Katherines). But here, Green takes umbrage to the phenomenon of funny footnotes being attributed to Jonathan Stroud, whose wisecracking demon character in The Bartimaeus Trilogy is exceptionally fond of footnotes (about Stroud, and I would put this in a footnote too, Green writes: "Now, I don’t even know who Jonathan Stroud is to be perfectly honest with you, except that he is handsome and British.")  Green seems more OK with his proclivity to footnoting being likened to E. Lockhart whose Ruby Oliver books are littered with the footnoted asides and tangents and ramblings of her verbose protagonist. I'm not entirely sure why he doesn't like Stroud, but I guess all footnoters aren't alike. (Although, to generalize for a brief moment, footnoters tend to be a little smart and snarky and not always say exactly what they mean, so for all I know, John Green and Jonathan Stroud are the best of friends. Hard to tell. Undoubtedly, despite any such mythical or real friendship, Green could not have named his novel An Abundance of Johns without it leaning toward the unseemly. These are, after all, tender-eared teen readers we're talking about. So endeth my non-footnoted footnote.)

Green suggests that footnotes are a close friend of the academic, who has spent his or her life reading tomes references in Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition, of course, please, what  do you take me for? an MLA or APA style referencer?), and so, those who eventually go on to write fiction continue to embrace the device, often using it to meander on about obscure cultural references, or nonessential witticisms (are any witticisms essential, really?), or tangential pieces of historical information. In Green's mind, the mac-daddy of funny footnoters is David Foster Wallace, whose massive tome Infinite Jest is apparently tripping over itself in the footnote department (I haven't read it, but I guess I should, since John Green says so.)

Ultimately, for me, footnotes allow for a voice which more closely approximates the way I think - in flights of fancy, "oh, doesn't that remind me of"s, and ridonkulously nerdy jokes that are only funny to, well, me and perhaps three of my nerdiest (and closest) friends. Footnotes allow for non-linear reading, a layered-ness which creates an almost three dimensional novel that one can not only enter into, but then go down hidden hallways, opening cabinet doors, discovering small treasures of humor and fact and fancy.

Which novels are your favorite examples of funny footnotes in fiction?  


  1. "Good Omens" by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

  2. Probably Jonathan Stroud's and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. And there's also an interesting attempt by Mark Dunn, where he publishes a book that he claims in the preface the manuscript got lost except for the that's all the book is, a series of footnotes. I absolutely loved his other book (Ella Minnow Pea, where a town starts outlawing letters of the alphabet--the book is a series of epistles written between friends and by the end only 3 or 4 letters are left in the alphabet, so everything is written phonetically), but I'm not sure this one worked.

  3. What a great post! I'm a huge fan of John Green, so I'll name his footnotes as my fave. However, I must point out that in my kid's biography on Cleopatra, I also use footnotes for funny details and asides, even though it's nonfiction. I kinda like that you call people who do this "smart and snarky." ;-)

  4. Is it a footnote to your trip that you are taking time to write about footnotes? :) I love Libba Bray's footnotes in BQ -- especially the ones that are specifically for her to "Break the wall" separating her from her reader. The ones where you can tell she is looking askance at you (the reader) and rolling her eyes... Love those.

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone! I will have to look up those footnoters you mention - especially yours Vicky!