Grappling With the World: Both Flesh and Not

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Both Flesh and Not, the forthcoming essay collection by David Foster Wallace, arrives in strange times. It’s job seems to be to tidy up the Wallace canon, pulling together what might be the last unanthologized bits of Wallace’s nonfiction. However, the collection doesn’t carry the balance of Consider the Lobster or A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, as both of these compilations bring to bear the Wallace writing for Premiere, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Gourmet—that is, the Wallace who applies his verbal acuity to topics you and I and the guy on the bus might be interested in, to radio hosts and state fairs and cruise ships and porn awards. Both Flesh and Not, by comparison, trots out this more popular and easily accessible Wallace-at-the-scene in only two essays: “Federer Both Flesh and Not” and “Democracy and Commerce at the US Open.” If it’s not clear, both these essays concern tennis, a consistent topic in Wallace’s work from Infinite Jest onward, and “FBFAN” is considered by many to be Wallace’s nonfiction at its best. For these Wallace essays, enjoyment is found in the fact that Wallace is squarely in our world, a place that, when reading his more dense work—say “The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress,” found in this latest collection, or Everything and More, Wallace’s book-length history of infinity—one can quickly forget Wallace ever occupied.

That seems to be the rub, and why Both Flesh and Not, though not as immediately accessible as Wallace’s previous collections, remains satisfyingly important. Barring a massive restructuring in the official print, as compared to this reviewer’s advance copy, Both Flesh and Not is arranged chronologically from the second essay onwards. (It’s clear the editors at Little Brown lead with “FBFAN” for both its stature as one of Wallace’s most well-received essays and because leading with “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young” would have been “decidedly unfun”—to use a Wallacisim—as it is predominately useful for the literary/writerly/readerly crowd, and not, say, for your Uncle Joe.) In this, Both Flesh and Not runs the gamut of Wallace’s active career: the aforementioned “FFATCY” appeared in 1988, a year after Wallace’s A Broom in the System. The final essay of the collection, “Just Asking,” first appeared in the The Atlantic in 2007. Both Flesh and Not then is less a collection than a map, providing a window into Wallace’s ideological evolutions, especially as they apply to the literary landscape.

On the other hand, it’s hard to recognize the motive behind such publication, especially amidst all the other posthumous Wallace material that has debuted in the last four years, notably: This is Water (April 2009), The Pale King (hard cover; April 2011), and The Pale King (paperback w/ extended cut; April 2012); not to the mention the Wallace-centric texts: the official bio by New Yorker writer D. T. Max, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story (August 2012); Conversations with David Foster Wallace (March 2012); and David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (April 2010). That’s to say, the market is quite saturated, and it begs the question, Why now?

Anthologies are ultimately convenient for the reader, but most of the essays in Both Flesh and Not could have been tracked down by the dutiful fan, be it in their original resting places or through a fan site a la the Howling Fantods. Thus, the timing of all this seems particularly conspicuous—we, as a literary culture, can’t stop talking about Wallace, and Little Brown, sensing this, might have conveniently decided to keep the drip going. It’s all very hard to process. As other Wallace fans would probably agree, I wanted to read this collection. I wanted more of Wallace’s words. And yet, this consumerism—albeit of something admittedly (dare I indulge the argument) more “worthwhile” than the latest season of Mad Men (this a more fair juxtaposition than say, The Bachelor), is nonetheless spurred by the pleasure nodes that Wallace clearly wrote against.

That’s all to say, it’s hard not to make Both Flesh and Not about more than what it is.

So, to what it actually is. Both Flesh and Not compiles 15 of Wallace’s “essays,” quotes here necessary as the pieces summon all that term employs, from “attempt, endeavor, venture, etc.” to simply “not fiction.” The longest, “The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress,” weighs in at 41 pages. The shortest, “Mr. Cogito,” runs a page. Five (that’s 33 percent) concern a, at-the-time-of-Wallace’s-writing, soon to be released book or books and could be classified as veritable book reviews. Two others document the state of fiction writing in general, at years 1988 and 1998 respectively. “Twenty-four Word Notes” is actually Wallace’s usage advice as compiled by the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus and can be found, free of charge, in the Dictionary application on most Apple computers (check the “Word Notes” for the following entries: feckless, utilize, impossibly, beg, critique). And “Deciderization 2007—A Special Report” first appeared as the introduction to The Best American Essays 2007.

Both Flesh and Not, then, is less the classic essay collection than it is a lens into Wallace’s grappling with the very real world in whatever mode he could. Such a spectrum brings to mind his fiction, which comes to bat with a variety of styles, ironies, jokes, self-referential conceits, and verbal profundity that it was often hard to believe it came from one man, while also priming a generation of readers to anticipate just such a highly intelligent yet conversational voice, as if the reader was right next to Wallace as he plotted his thoughts out on the page. That seems to be Wallace’s legacy, and why Both Flesh and Not should be considered by both fans and not. In fact, there’s a moment at the end of “FBFAN” where Wallace, describing Federer, seems to be simultaneously describing himself:

“Whether anything like a nascent Federer was here among these juniors can’t be known, of course. Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform—and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”

Turning over the last page of Both Flesh and Not feels very much the same. And maybe that’s what is important about this book. That despite Wallace’s death, he can still reach out to inspire all of us to become better readers, writers, and citizens in this striking American life. That even though what’s compiled is not necessarily Wallace at his peak, it is nonetheless Wallace. And in a world without him, we need that more than ever.

(by Sean Conner)

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