Part of the brilliance of David Foster Wallace and the writings that survive him is the sheer breadth of knowledge that they showcase, their astounding ability to move among disparate topics while maintaing cohesive critiques of issues both large and small. During his tragically brief life, Wallace wrote fiction and nonfiction, and analyzed art, philosophy, drug addiction, literature, mathematics, and sports (an avid tennis player, Wallace’s love for the game was frequently showcased in his blisteringly intellectual prose). Every sector of life Wallace touched was instantly transformed in the eyes of his audience, deconstructed and reestablished with novel dimensions of insight and empathy even as readers feel overwhelmed by the overwhelming complexity of his prose.
With the release of “Both Flesh and Not,” a posthumously published collection of essays, logophiles are invited to experience Wallace’s otherworldly intelligence once again. While this is not the last of these releases (another collection is due out in December), the combination of genius and frailty on display in the various pieces feels like a fitting end point for DFW’s body of work.
The highlight of the volume is undoubtedly the title essay, focusing on tennis legend Roger Federer. Livened by Wallace’s love of the game, the essay is a wonderful dissection of both athlete and sport, shimmering with gems both intimate and general. To someone with only a basic understanding and cursory interest in tennis, the power of the writing proves itself in its breathtaking ability to isolate its subject and reader within its depths, making it seem as though tennis, no matter the role it actually plays in your life, is the most important thing in the world. It’s one of Wallace’s best essays on the topic and maybe one of his best overall, reminding those who spend time with it of the author’s ability to elevate and elucidate even that which readers are tempted not to revisit.
Another of the book’s strong points comes later, in a discussion of the idea of the blockbuster film using James Cameron’s “Terminator 2” as its lens. While I personally didn’t agree with all of Wallace’s criticisms, the passion and acumen of the writing makes that all but irrelevant. As is so often the case with DFW’s work, the pleasure comes simply from being able to travel alongside the writer’s thought-process and witness the magnificent verbal alchemy with which he renders his view of the world.
Earlier in the collection, Wallace turns an equally critical eye to the state of literature in “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young.” Therein, Wallace frets over the possibility of a literary future where students of overly structured workshops forsake the possibility of beautiful failure for sleek soullessness. Consolidating a great deal of the author’s anxieties over what he saw as the destructive tendencies of post-modernism, the work reminds readers of just how self-aware Wallace could be and, furthermore, how dedicated he was to the fundamental nature of the craft in which he would make his name.
Both of these criticisms, even in their harshest moments, beautifully steer themselves away from the self-destructive diatribes they could become. As avid fans of DFW know quite well, no matter the topic, Wallace was always devoted to the way in which his subjects illuminated the relationships between individuals and institutions, both large and small. As a result, he was capable of packing obscene amounts of empathy into each of his critiques, reminding his reader and, at times it seems himself, of the truths for which his body of work is constantly reaching. There is never any malice or hatred, only a disciplined and intuitive understanding of need and consequence, and the way in which we humans shape and are shaped by a world that is both keenly aware of and wholly uncaring for our precarious psychic existence.
The volume’s various weak points (and they are present and noticeable) are somewhat hard to blame on the author. It is a well-known fact that Wallace was zealously choosey about which of his pieces he allowed to be published and which were to be locked away unread. This, along with a very personal relationship with his editors, lead to fastidiously organized collections with very clear goals and even clearer paths to these ends. Unfortunately, “Both Flesh and Not” makes no attempt to recreate this selectiveness, most likely from a desire to capitalize on the late writer’s legacy. As such, many of the works in “Flesh” feel very thin and unpolished, possibly because Wallace had no intention of publishing them after he finished his drafts. The upside of this, of course, is that the flimsy works do provide more insight into the variety of pieces with which the author experimented, as well as the obsession he cultivated about what he allowed the world to see.
In addition to this, a great deal of fun (at least for diehard Wallace readers) can also be had connecting these previously unpublished pieces to others already canonized in DFW’s oeuvre. The collection brings together work spanning the entirety of Wallace’s career and moves mostly chronologically (save for the opening Federer essay, which is from 2006). As such, it is possible to see the pieces of later, more polished works nestled within the folds of these essays. It is more than likely that this was part of the intention of the work, which is fitfully interested in indulging the passion of its author’s fans. Each essay is preceded by a two page spread of words and definitions, taken from Wallace’s own list of terms he hoped to learn and utilize. This exhaustive eulogy to the writer’s love of his craft may seem trivial to newcomers, but to those who have spent time with DFW, it is a beautifully fitting tribute to a man whose very survival at times depended on his ability and desire to dissect and document the hyperactive universe into which he was thrown.
More so than most writers of his generation, David Foster Wallace provided readers with a totally unique window into what it meant to be a conscious human being: what it meant to suffer and love, analyze, deduce, and obsess. As anyone who has read D.T. Max’s perceptive biography can attest, Wallace’s inner anxieties and frustrations found themselves unflinchingly represented in his work with a self-effacing honesty that few can muster, much less articulate. It’s almost painfully easy to mourn his loss and the loss of the voice that was silenced upon his suicide, but if anything, “Both Flesh and Not” is an argument against that response, and a reminder of its inevitable futility. We are each of us composed of a host of complications, intricate, horrible, and breathtaking. Few authors have been able to capture that, and Wallace was one of them. And while some might want to dwell on how these complications eventually overwhelmed him, word by word this newest release speaks to the importance of how we choose to perceive the eternal nature of such things. We are each of us a bundle of many things, both flesh and not, but it is only the flesh that fades away.
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