BOTH FLESH AND NOT: ESSAYS
By David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown, $26.99, 328 pages
The editor charged with assembling a posthumous essay collection of David Foster Wallace’s work must have been in the same bind as the home cook preparing a salad out of leftovers. While “Both Flesh and Not” contains some of the author’s best work, readers will encounter items better left in the fridge.
His previous two essay collections, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”and “Consider the Lobster,” showed Wallace to be a nimble essayist. (Many people who never read a word of his fiction were inveterate devourers of his essays, articles and reviews.) However, perhaps five of the 15 pieces appearing in the present volume are representative of Wallace’s gifts as a non-fiction writer. These items thankfully occupy about half of the book’s pages.
“Both Flesh and Not” begins with the winsomely metaphysical title essay, a profile of Swedish tennis champion Roger Federer that should chase away whatever is left of the myth that Wallace was an abstruse or even a pretentious writer. “Plus,” “hot news,” “the big one” appear alongside wordier formulations couched in abbreviations and contractions. Nevertheless, Wallace displays the rare ability to make tennis appear absolutely fascinating to readers (or at least this reader) who normally find it dull.
In “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” a survey of the state of American fiction circa 1988, Wallace places his contemporaries’ work into three categories: “Neiman-Marcus Nihilism,” “Catatonic Realism” and “Workshop Hermeticism.” His short descriptions of these categories are both perceptive and cutting. Neiman-Marcus Realists, for example, are said to write about “declaimed six figure Uppies and their salon-tanned, morally vacant offspring, none of whom seem able to make it from limo door to analyst’s couch without several grams of chemical encouragement.” Wallace deserves much credit for his clear-sightedness here, as novelists do not always prove reliable judges of work that appears in their own lifetimes: George Orwell, for example, thought Henry Miller a much better writer than Evelyn Waugh.
“The Empty Plenum” (an essay-review of David Markson’s postmodern novel “Wittgenstein’s Mistress”), “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open” (another tennis essay) and “Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama” (an amusing meditation on math-themed novels that only Wallace, with his unique amalgamation of interests, could have produced), seem to me the only other essays in this volume that show their author at his best. Each of Wallace’s “Twenty-Four Word Notes” is a pleasure to read, and most are helpful, but they have been reprinted from the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, a book that is probably on many readers’ reference shelves. “Just Asking” shows us that politics was perhaps the only subject about which Wallace could be boring. That a short list of overlooked novels — fewer than 150 words of prose altogether — which Wallace compiled for Slate in 1999 has been included here is simply embarrassing.
In an effort to lengthen this collection, numerous pages have been left blank. Between each essay, lists of words and their definitions have been interposed. These lists have been taken from Wallace’s computer, and I gather that the words are meant to be impressive. “Antimacassar,” “borborygmous,” “fanfaronade,” “isochronal,” “limnology” and “rinderpest” may give some yellow belt sesquipedalians some trouble, but one doubts that Wallace’s target audience is made up of people who will have to Google “apocryphal,” “brioche,” “diadem” or “moratory.”
“Both Flesh and Not” struck me as a somewhat crass attempt to cash in on a thriving literary legacy. (It has arrived amid a rash of other Wallace-related books, including a paperback edition of “The Pale King,” D.T. Max’s authorized biography and a collection of interviews.) I suggest holding out for the inevitable collected essays, articles and reviews.
Matthew Walther is an editorial intern at the American Spectator.