Book review: Both Flesh And Not, David Foster Wallace
Hamish Hamilton, £20
Hamish Hamilton, £20
DAVID Foster Wallace has rightly been described as the most talented American writer of his generation and it was therefore inevitable that in the aftermath of his suicide in 2008, every fugitive piece and occasional scrap of his writing would be published.
His commencement address to Kenyon College was published as This Is Water; his senior philosophy thesis on the fatalism of Richard Taylor was published as Fate, Time And Language: An Essay On Free Will, and we were lucky enough to get the novel he had been working on since 1997, which, after toying with Glitterer, SJF (Sir John Feelgood), Net Of Gems and What Is Peoria For?, he finally decided to call The Pale King. It was a melancholy reminder that the plaudits and praises were unreservedly deserved.
Both Flesh And Not brings together various non-fiction pieces uncollected in his lifetime. There is, unfortunately, a small degree of barrel-scraping – the one page “Overlooked: Five Direly Underappreciated U.S. Novels > 1960” from Salon should really have been a footnote in DT Max’s biography of Wallace. But there is not just sufficient here to make the book worth the cover price – there are a few essays which would justify it on their own. Wallace may be best known as a fiction writer, but his non-fiction (such as the collections Consider The Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) is superlatively good; and Both Flesh And Not contains some wonders.
It also has a gimmick which would have been, well, gimmicky were it from any other author. Wallace kept a vocabulary list of unusual words, excerpts from which separate the essays. It is like, momentarily, being in his brain, as “adnexal” and “ambeer” and “skell” and “skotopia” flit around.
The best essays here each illuminate an aspect of Wallace. The tennis prodigies of Infinite Jest and his own days at Amherst are honoured in the essay which gives the collection its title, an extended meditation on the genius of Roger Federer.
Wallace’s self-consciousness about the direction of literary endeavour is made explicit in Fictional Futures And The Conspicuously Young. The pop-culture synthesist provides a brilliant hatchet job in The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2. Rhetoric And The Math Melodrama, a review of two novels about mathematicians, reminds us that Wallace also wrote a popular science book on the idea of infinity. Twenty-four Word Notes shows his linguistic inventiveness and his linguistic stringency – he was quite the grammar tyrant. (It has one of his loveliest conceits; words which “possess the opposite of the qualities they denote”. So “big” is a small word; “pulchritude” an ugly one, “monosyllabic” has more than one syllable and so on).
Finally, in Deciderization 2007 and Just Asking we have his gradually strengthening political activism, albeit one shot through with a portentous sense of never really being able to change.
A confession: I have absolutely zero interest in tennis and was dreading reading the first essay. Those who adore tennis will no doubt find much more insight and intelligence in it than I did; but I nevertheless adored it. His description of Federer vs Nadal reads the game as a competition between two kinds of tennis; the martial, brute power-baseline of Nadal against the “kinaesthetic” Federer, whose triumph is like seeing someone who can “whistle Mozart during a Metallica concert”.
At times, this seems to be a masked autobiography, with the “genius, or mutant, or avatar” Federer representing the kind of writer Wallace wished to be and was. Federer shows how to make “power and aggression… vulnerable to beauty”.
Wallace’s wonderful empathy also draws in the seven-year-old child with cancer who brought the coin to be tossed, braiding a sense of elegy into the essay: in one of the Wallace trademark footnotes (which aren’t really footnotes, just a spilling-over of a too-quick, too-full mind) he writes “but the truth is that whatever deity, entity, energy or random genetic flux produces sick children also produced Roger Federer, and just look at him down there. Look at that”.
There are a great many theological references throughout the book, which adds another level of poignancy.
Placing his essay on the contemporary literary scene immediately afterwards is smart editing; we move from the annihilatory Nadal to a similarly macho deadening in literary culture. Wallace’s key understanding was that replicating the manic, information-overloaded present was not enough. The author had a moral duty to provide some exit strategy, some redemptive solution to the anomie and hyperventilation of the now. More than any other author of our times – with the possible exception of the also-dead Roberto Bolaño – Wallace wanted to find a way out of the postmodern labyrinth. In Infinite Jest he nearly succeeded; in The Pale King he got closer. Wallace also understood that for a contemporary writer to be even marginally capable of doing this, he or she needed an acquaintance with both popular culture and high literary theory. Aspiring writers should take this essay as a challenge and guide.
Wallace’s wit, intelligence and empathy shine through here, even when he is being snarky and sardonic. I wish we could have had more of him. «