Front Matter

Do you read front matter in books? I do so compulsively. The standard disclaimer that appears with all the Library of Congress mumbo jumbo tends to read (as it does in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) something like this:

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

Which of course is complete bullshit.

The front matter of his 1989 short-story collection Girl with Curious Hair spices the disclaimer up a bit:

These stories are 100 percent fiction. Some of them project the names of “real” public figures onto made-up characters in made-up circumstances. Where the names of corporate, media, or political figures are used here, those names are meant only to denote figures, images, the stuff of collective dreams; they do not denote, or pretend to private information about, actual 3-D persons, living, dead, or otherwise.

Essay collections are a little different in that they typically don’t require disclaimers about fictionalizing real people, but that’s not to say that they can’t have entertaining front matter. In his essay collection entitled Consider the Lobster, Wallace gives us this:

The following pieces were originally published in edited, heavily edited, or (in at least one instance) bowdlerized form in the following books and periodicals. N.B.: In those cases where the fact that the author was writing for a particular organ is important to the essay itself — i.e., where the commissioning magazine’s name keeps popping up in ways that can’t now be changed without screwing up the whole piece — the entry is marked with an asterisk. A single case in which the essay was written to be delivered as a speech, plus another one where the original article appeared bipseudonymously and now for odd and hard-to-explain reasons doesn’t quite work if the “we” and “your correspondents” thing gets singularized, are further tagged with what I think are called daggers.

A list of publications follows, complete with the aforementioned asterisks and daggers. Infinite Jest goes as follows:

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any apparent similarity to real persons is not intended by the author and is either a coincidence or the product of your own troubled imagination.

Where the names of real places, corporations, institutions, and public figures are projected onto made-up stuff, they are intended to denote only made-up stuff, not anything presently real.

Besides Closed Meetings for alcoholics only, Alcoholics Anonymous in Boston, Massachusetts also has Open Meetings, where pretty much anybody who’s interested can come and listen, take notes, pester people with questions, etc. A lot of people at these Open Meetings spoke with me and were extremely patient and garrulous and generous and helpful. The best way I can think of to show my appreciation to these men and women is to decline to thank them by name.

After riffing just a little bit on the standard disclaimer, he goes into that unguarded, earnest expression of gratitude complete with what is sort of a trademark serial-“and” clause that has a way, probably because it is sort of child-like, of conveying innocence and I think sincerity and honesty, which (honesty) is one of the things I most like about Wallace’s work.

So, front matter. It’s usually not worth a read but is occasionally funny, informative (in a “here, let me open up the back of the shop for you a little bit” sort of way), or even endearing.

2 thoughts on “Front Matter

  1. James Martin June 22, 2009 / 10:26 pm

    Those are some good observations. I read those disclaimers sometimes, but I hadn’t thought to do so with this novel. Thanks for pointing it out.

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