Both Flesh and Not

By David Foster Wallace

Since his suicide in 2008 David Foster Wallace has been enjoying the afterlife of a literary star on the fast track to canonization. Last year saw the publication of a final, unfinished novel (The Pale King), and just a few months ago a major biography arrived (Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story by D. T. Max). Now Both Flesh and Not brings together a number of previously uncollected non-fiction pieces, solidifying Wallace’s reputation as one of the most insightful, entertaining, and formally inventive essayists of his generation.

For readers who aren’t familiar with Wallace, the title piece will provide a good introduction. “Federer Both Flesh and Not” is an appreciation of the tennis star Roger Federer, whose play provides an occasional revelation of divine grace (the essay was originally titled “Federer as Religious Experience”).

In itself this is the sort of trite observation made by a lot of sports fans about their heroes. But you have to always pay attention reading Wallace, because what’s most worth noting is often something that may at first seem marginal.

The most obvious example of how this works can be seen in his use of footnotes. They multiply at the bottom of nearly every page like coat hangers in a closet. Even the footnotes sometimes have footnotes, and the parentheses parentheses. But you can’t ignore them; they are an integral part of the text. In the Federer essay they include all of Wallace’s reporting from his own interview with Federer as well as the piece’s final epiphany – “like a thought that’s also a feeling” – of what Federer’s supernatural ability says about the human condition.

And just as the footnotes may contain the essence of an essay, it’s often in Wallace’s observation of what seem at first to be background details where the real action occurs. In another tennis piece, this time about the 1995 U.S. Open (Wallace was a regionally ranked junior tennis player and so got assignments like this), what’s happening at center court is of less significance than what Wallace observes at the line-ups in front of the ticket booths and the concession stands. And, as with Federer’s otherworldly grace, what it all amounts to is a kind of allegory: in this case for the interplay of democracy and commerce.

What we find interesting about other people are their interests, and from Montaigne on the best essayists have been writers who are interested in everything. Whatever subject comes along, they’ll find something in it that gets them thinking, and writing. In his just-published collection The Way the World Works, Nicholson Baker even draws inspiration from a trip to the town dump. In Wallace’s other essay collections there are more of these life observations, but in Both Flesh and Not most of the pieces are related to writing: either in the form of book reviews, thoughts about the writing life, or just jottings about words (one essay consists of “Twenty-four Word Notes,” while inter-chapter spreads are made up of word lists for which Wallace wrote his own definitions and usage notes).

The way Wallace analyses words is typical of his approach: an initial sense of curiosity or wonder is followed by an attempt to break the experience down, to define it correctly, to understand exactly how this thing works. In doing so the prose seems to dismantle itself, condensing into a kind of shorthand notation, and even breaking into point form at times. For a lot of writers this might be taken as a sign of laziness, but with Wallace one senses an intellectual intensity that’s making him almost impatient with language, the result of a mind that’s going everywhere, firing off ideas in all directions at once (but tagging them so they can be chased down later in footnotes).

Every essay here is a skilful performance piece, and yet … one also hopes this is the end. Both Flesh and Not is a great collection to have, but there are a few essays included, especially among the shorter ones, that also suggest Wallace’s literary remains are close to being tapped out. It would be sad to see him now become a target of serial tomb raiders, with bits and pieces continuing to be published for another decade, much like what is now happening to Roberto Bolano, or did happen to Ernest Hemingway. Posthumous publication tends to chase after diminishing returns. Even fans have to learn to let go.

Review first published in the Toronto Star December 29, 2012.

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