‘A fistful of smart, funny and incisive writings, which is what we all expect and are looking for in a DFW collection’ – Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace

Further grist to the posthumous mill – this all written with the qualification that I’m a huge DFW fan, pre-ordered the hardback of The Pale King, was delighted to get an advance copy of this one, and generally exhort most people I meet to just go on and try Infinite Jest, seriously, you’ll adore it – Both Flesh And Not: Essays is a collection of Wallace’s previously (in the UK, anyway) unanthologised non-fiction writings that, I think, doesn’t entirely do justice to the writer’s well-deserved and ever-growing critical and literary reputation. Despite the subtitle, I hesitate to call it an ‘essay collection’ for two reasons – the first coming out of DFW’s own wariness of the designation ‘essay’, which is nicely explained in ‘Deciderization 2007 – A Special Report’, included here, and the second being the slight, less-than-memorable quality of some of the pieces in the collection, which links back to my initial reservations about the book. There’s an aftertaste of ephemera to some of the inclusions – the all-encompassing inclusionary zeal that seems to overpower fans and editors alike when a writer dies (Roberto Bolaño being the other stand-out contemporary example, and the one that’s probably targeted at the same clever-clever self-reflective literary/academic audience as DFW is) seems to lead to a less-than-discriminating selection process when books like this are being assembled. But all that aside, there’s much to love about this book.

The New York Times piece, ‘Federer as Religious Experience’ – journalistic gold for the pic-chart cross-over of Roger-fangirls like myself and Wallace’s readers – opens the collection, reprinted as ‘Federer Both Flesh And Now’, and, if you’re not already a convert, it’s probably the one Wallace non-fiction piece that you’ve already read. An examination of beauty in sport and the evolution of contemporary power-baseline men’s tennis, a bio/analysis/love-song to Roger Federer’s career, media persona and playing technique, and a present-tense play-by-play dramatisation of the Federer v Nadal Wimbledon final of July 2006 that manages, even to me, who watched the game on TV at the time and knew how it panned out, to lend a tennis match the edge-of-the-seat quality you might otherwise expect from a high-octane action thriller – this is non-fiction at its most exhilarating. And of course it’s Wallace getting to indulge two of his known passions, writing and tennis, so there’s an enthusiasm and joy to the prose that’s hard to communicate in a second-hand account. About halfway through the book there’s another tennis piece, ‘Democracy and Commerce at the US Open’ (this one originally for Tennis magazine), which predates the NYT article by a decade and came out the same year as Infinite Jest, which to me indicates that the Tennis editors were probably capitalising on the latter’s sporting preoccupations, while the article itself is as much concerned with the ubiquity of advertisements and sponsorship (as also dissected in Infinite Jest) as it is with the sport itself, which makes the piece a brilliant companion to the novel (which you should really go and try, seriously, you’ll love it). ‘Fictional Future and the Conspicuously Young’ (1988) is the other Infinite Jest-related-essay here, if you want to sketch out a DFW topical map, looking at the influence of TV, passivity, and the existential effect of popular culture on audiences. It’s also concerned with MFA culture, which, for the non-US, non-Creative Writing audience member, is all about the proliferation of Master of Fine Art courses in fiction writing and the oft-and-loudly-repeated fear that these courses are emitting a hoard of bland, minimal, interchangeable stories and writers and discouraging experimentation, etc. It’s a debate that got going when Wallace was writing this, and hasn’t really let up since (not if you run in the same maybe dull circles as I do, anyway), so though the ideas DFW is working through mightn’t seem new anymore, it’s interesting to see how little has changed in the interim – and of course, Wallace’s articulation of the relevant arguments is insightful and convincing. He certainly pulls no punches in naming and shaming the offending minimalists. And in the pulling-no-punches ring, I’ve got to mention ‘The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2’, a savage take-down of Cameron’s action movie: this one saddened me a little, actually, as it made me reassess a film I’ve liked since I was a kid, but Wallace’s damning indictment of big-budget studio values and risk-aversion did ring true. (I’d have liked to have seen the DFW reaction to Avatar, but I’m not sure if Waterstone’s Magazine, or any equivalent, would have printed something as savage as I imagine that reaction might have been.)

There’s a couple of extended book reviews included in Both Flesh And Not – ‘The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress’ and ‘Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama’. (The book the former’s about is also referenced in ‘’Overlooked: Five direly underappreciated U.S. novels  > 1960’, which is, by the way, one of the pieces I think would have been better omitted from the collection.) They’re both smart and well-argued articles, but it’s often an odd experience, or at least I find it is, reading a review of a book you haven’t read and then attempting to assess the merits of that review: DFW certainly convinced me of the merits of Wittgenstein’s Mistress and the lack thereof in the two maths novels he looks at in the latter essay, but it was hard to evaluate the evaluation when I was reliant on DFW’s interpretation at all times. Anyway. I think the main reason they were included (and probably commissioned in the first place) is that they’re outstanding vehicles for Wallace’s background in philosophy, logic and maths: his conversance with Wittgenstein’s ideas and number theory and the history of mathematics and logical positivism makes the articles convincing, of course, but it also means that his usual high levels of enthusiasm for his own particular subjects is hugely in evidence here. On the other hand, I think the David Markson essay in particular is so laden with characteristic David Foster Wallace tics – abbreviations like w/r/t, ampersands, footnotes – that it’s either going to thrill or irk you, and in a relatively fast read-through of the whole book, I found it somewhat irksome. And I am, remember, a fan. Wallace’s style is catching – I’m clearly working in his idiom here – but it is, despite its contemporary ubiquity, still idiosyncratic to those of us used to a stuffer journalistic/academic style. So but then (as he might say), this might mean you might want to pace yourself as you work your way through the book.

As for the rest, I won’t go into every piece: you’ll find interesting analyses of prose poems, a Borges biography (pity the biographer), the essay itself as a form, and more; and there’s a few pieces the omission of which, I think, would have strengthened the book. ‘Mr Cogito, ‘Overlooked’, and ‘Back in New Fire’, for instance, probably sat just fine in the pages of their original publications, but here they feel underweight and lacking: they’re filler in a book that’s got enough heft to it to have done without what little they add. The ‘publish everything’ impulse that seems to govern posthumous literary executors doesn’t always do their subjects any great favours.

Any Cop?: Generally what you’re getting here is a fistful of smart, funny and incisive writings, which is what we all expect and are looking for in a DFW collection. Those few aforementioned pieces that knock a star off the overall rating don’t fail so much on their own merits, but because they’re not so successful out of original context and feel slight and weak in comparison to their meatier stable-mates. You can’t really go too far wrong with any book of Wallace’s, but his editors/executors/Deciderers (see the penultimate essay for some context here) might, in the future, want to consider the value of holding something back. Overall, though, this is well worth a read – more so, even (I suggest with some trepidation), than The Pale King, because this book, at least, is full of words their author had definitively signed off on.

Valerie O’Riordan

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