“Both Flesh and Not” is David Foster Wallace’s rummaging-through-the-trunk-and-oh-what-a-trunk essay collection, the third book of his published since his death.
It differs from his previous two essay / reportage / review collections, “A Supposedly Fun Thing” and “Consider the Lobster,” in that (a) obviously David wasn’t around to choose and arrange the sequence of all the pieces (though, over the years, he had many conversations with his agent and editor about what might eventually go into a third collection), (b) he consequently couldn’t follow his usual process in deciding whether to use his original drafts, the published versions, or some combination of the two (it was always a particular pleasure for him to undo, as he once wrote to Don DeLillo, the cuts made to “make extra room for Volvo ads”; his publisher, though, evaluated many versions and added back in material that had been edited out), and (c) it captures the whole span of D.F.W.’s nonfiction life in a way that the earlier ones don’t. “B.F.A.N.” includes Wallace’s first published nonfiction piece, the show-offy 1988 essay on his generation’s novelists, “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” and takes us up to the nuanced, adroit offerings of his mid-forties. Here you’ll find, for instance, “Deciderization: 2007: a Special Report,” Wallace’s deft intro to the “Best American Essays” volume of that year (in which he coins the term “total noise” to describe the current media and information environment).
Reading “Both Flesh and Not,” you see Wallace grow from a puppy to a lion—a somewhat cranky one. His need to be loved by the reader of course remains; the transaction just grows more complex, or, as Wallace would have put it, “fraught.” But Wallace never loved his nonfiction as he did his fiction. It was too easy, too unencoded; it took him too far from the Great White Novel that he was always trying to write. “I do not know why the comparative ease and pleasure of writing nonfiction always confirms my intuition that fiction is really What I’m Supposed to Do,” he wrote to his miglior fabbro DeLillo in 2001.
Why weren’t these essays collected before? The answers vary. I’m pretty sure that Wallace himself passed over “Fictional Futures,” begun at the ripe age of twenty-five. It was the first essay he had ever written for publication, and he was psyched that it would appear in Review of Contemporary Fiction alongside one by the chief source of his literary unease, John Barth (and that he’d be paid two hundred and fifty dollars). The essay sparkles with energy as it breaks down the youthful literary scene into three sections with typically ambitious, Wallacian titles—“Neiman-Marcus Nihilism,” (Ellis and McInerney), “Catatonic Realism” (everyone who wrote like Raymond Carver, except Raymond Carver himself), and “Workshop Hermeticism” (every M.F.A. writer, except D.F.W). I’m guessing that he came to think the essay tried too hard, “Pawing,” as he later wrote in a letter to DeLillo about Updike, “at the reader’s ear like a sophomore at some poor girl’s bra.”
His editor at one point counselled him against reprinting “Back in New Fire,” his modest 1996 proposal that AIDS had put the sizzle back into one-night stands, that it might prove “the salvation of sexuality in the 1990s.” Today it’s hard not to read it as a gloss on Wallace’s own guilt-ridden sex life in this period, thoughts between the enseamèd sheets. And “The Empty Plenum,” his 1990 examination of David Markson’s “Wittgenstein’s Mistress”? Why it was never before collected, I have no idea—it’s a great piece, a model. It’s one of the most exciting arguments I’ve ever read that a book that at first glance seems unappetizing is in fact indispensible. Markson, deemed to have written “one of the U.S. decade’s best,” was properly floored. We should all get such a blurb.
And if I ever get a D.F.W. tat, this is the one I’d want:
The need to get the words & voices not only out—outside the sixteen-inch diameter of bone that both births & imprisons them—but also down, trusting them neither to the insubstantial country of the mind nor to the transient venue of cords & air & ear; seems for Kate—as for anyone from a Flaubert to a diarist to a letter-fiend—a necessary affirmation of an outside, some Exterior one’s written record can not only communicate with but inhabit.
But most of these essays haven’t shown up before for reasons of chronology. They were written after Wallace’s last collection, “Consider the Lobster,” was readied for press, in 2005. That’s a good thing, because in nonfiction, pace his disdain for his own work, Wallace kept getting better. The book is properly capped by and named for his masterly paean to top-level athleticism, “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” which came out in 2006 in Play, the sports supplement to the New York Times Magazine under the title “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.”
The article remains astonishing, in big and trivial ways. Example of the latter: it contains possibly the only use in Times Magazine history of the serial comma. To deviate from the Gray Lady’s style rules, as the story was told to me, permission had to be sought all the way at the top, from the then executive editor, Bill Keller. “For David Foster Wallace, anything!” Keller was reported to have responded (it’s a quote that Keller, when I asked him about it recently, found plausible, to my surprise).
“Federer Both Flesh and Not” begins with a wonderful description of Roger Federer’s tricky setups to outwit Andre Agassi on a crucial point at the 2005 U.S. Open and expands from there to tell us about all the things Wallace cared about: excellence, elegance, originality, trying while seeming not to try, the burden of life in human form, and the view of the stars from the gutter. “What great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of,” Wallace writes of Federer, “But these dreams are important—they make up for a lot.” This was itself something of a feint. What really interested Wallace was what they could do with their minds. “B.F.A.N.” seen thus, is also a companion volume to the unfinished “The Pale King,” another complex, saddening ode to the sort of mindful, focussed person that Wallace could never be.
D. T. Max, a staff writer, is the author of Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.
Illustration by Philip Burke.
Like the tennis champs who fascinate him, novelist Wallace (Infinite Jest; The Broom of the System) makes what he does look effortless and yet inspired. His instinct for the colloquial puts his masters Pynchon and DeLillo to shame, and the humane sobriety that he brings to his subjects-fictional or factual-should serve as a model to anyone writing cultural comment, whether it takes the form of stories or of essays like these. Readers of Wallace's fiction will take special interest in this collection: critics have already mined "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" (Wallace's memoir of his tennis-playing days) for the biographical sources of Infinite Jest. The witty, insightful essays on David Lynch and TV are a reminder of how thoroughly Wallace has internalized the writing-and thinking-habits of Stanley Cavell, the plain-language philosopher at Harvard, Wallace's alma mater. The reportage (on the Illinois State Fair, the Canadian Open and a Caribbean Cruise) is perhaps best described as post-gonzo: funny, slight and self-conscious without Norman Mailer's or Hunter Thompson's braggadocio. Only in the more academic essays, on Dostoyevski and the scholar H.L. Hix, does Wallace's gee-whiz modesty get in the way of his arguments. Still, even these have their moments: at the end of the Dostoyevski essay, Wallace blurts out that he wants "passionately serious ideological contemporary fiction [that is] also ingenious and radiantly transcendent fiction." From most writers, that would be hot air; from one as honest, subtle and ambitious as Wallace, it has the sound of a promise.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.