Both Flesh and Not, the new, posthumously published collection of David Foster Wallace’s non-fiction is about half of a good essay collection. The longer form essays included in this volume are the heady-but-accessible meditations on popular culture and life that Wallace readers have come to expect. But even these essays lack the heft of the writing in Wallace’s previous collections such as Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again.
Both Flesh and Not comes four years after Wallace’s suicide, and as a result, a good portion of the collection is filled with short reviews, notes, and other Wallace ephemera that, while interesting and fun to read in their own way, are not the well-wrought pieces of literature that Wallace fans expect. The selection of works for this volume is equally puzzling for an author who specialized in lengthiness: only five of the fifteen collected essays break 25 pages.
The lead essay “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” opens with what Wallace describes as a “Federer Moment,” the sudden realization of intense beauty and awe at the level of tennis champion Roger Federer's play. This essay, originally published in 2006, in some ways reveals a consistent current throughout Wallace's work that highlights the importance of wonder and of living in the moment. This is what drove Wallace to write in praise of athletes who “catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter.” Wallace insists that we need reminders that we are in the world. What makes Wallace such an astounding talent is that he has the power to craft sports writing that is compelling to those who do not follow sports. After reading the two essays putatively about tennis in this collection, Wallace had me personally convinced that I care about tennis (which I do not). What is moving about Wallace's work is that, for the space of a piece of writing, he inspires in his readers the same enthusiasm that he felt.
“Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” previously published under the title “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” explores what Wallace identifies as an emerging style of fiction from star-novelists such as Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis. But, as is the case with the best of Wallace's nonfiction, this essay is not really about what it is about. What begins as a critique of young postmodernists turns to the role that creative writing programs have on the kind of fiction being published and the role that other forms of entertainment, particularly television, have on people's psyches. It is in this essay that Wallace famously skewers the hollowly ironic notion that “simply by inverting the values imposed on us by television . . . they can automatically achieve the aesthetic depth popular entertainment so conspicuously lacks.” Essentially, Wallace worries about the loss of affect or, to put it more properly, the pose suggesting a lack of affect that he saw as so pervasive in popular culture. For Wallace, this affectless-affectation exposes the nihilism of postmodern irony. He worries that creative writing programs teach writers to put on certain attitudes that work to distance them from their own realities, emptying their work of meaning. In this instance, irony is anxiety-producing for those concerned with a connection to the moment and a desire for sincerity.
The concern for sincerity in literature continues in the next essay, “The Empty Plenum: David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress.” This “review” of Markson's novel is the longest piece in the book and is actually a plot summary of the novel, an explication of Wittgenstein's philosophy, and another opportunity to lecture the reader on the proper ends of contemporary literature. Much like the preceding essay, “Fictional Futures,” Wallace uses this piece as a platform from which to criticize contemporary literature by the younger generation of authors. Here, however, Wallace finds much to praise in Wittgenstein's Mistress.
Although not among the longer pieces of the work, “The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2,” is a prime example of the reason that Wallace has always been able attract such a wide audience. Riddled with footnotes (seventeen in just twelve pages) and filled with Wallace's folksy style (he refers to Arnold Schwaezenegger as “Ahnode” throughout the piece), the essay applies high criticism to a popular cultural form in a way that is gratifying to the intellectual and popular consumer, alike. Written as a critique of Terminator 2, the essay becomes a means of praising director James Cameron's other work. In one particularly compelling footnote, Wallace admires Cameron's portrayal of strong female protagonists in Aliens and the first Terminator movie. Wallace also clearly delights in poking holes in T2's silly plot devices and general clunkiness. Wallace finds value wherever it lies: in tennis, in irony, in under-appreciated literature, and in blockbuster movies, but his relevance has always been in finding legitimate cause for joy in these widely differing aspects of culture.
The balance of the work in this collection is made up of reviews, notes and other oddities that do not represent the Wallace his readers have come to expect. Many of the short works in this volume possess the requisite linguistic flair but lack the heart and purpose of his best writing. Short blurbs such as “Mr. Cogito,” on the English translation of Zbigniew Herbert’s book of poems by the same name, have limited appeal and lack vigor because, at just a page long, this piece was clearly written for cover copy. “The Best Prose Poem,” Wallace’s “Indexical Book Review,” is disjointed, written in the style of Harper’s Index of Harper’s Weekly. Wallace questions the prose poetry genre and generally destroys the majority of the contents of the journal, but he also falls over himself to praise those poems he finds value in. Wallace justifies his use of this quirky style by announcing “The words preceding each item’s colon technically constitute neither subjective complement nor appositive nor really any recognized grammatical unit at all; hence none of these antecolonic words should count against R.T.’s [Rain Taxi] rigid 1,000-word limit.” Interesting as this foray into indexical format may be, the review is too distracting and too cute to excite.
Other pieces, such as “Overlooked: Five direly underappreciated U.S. novels >1960” and “Twenty-Four Word Notes,” are fun to read but are pretty clearly pieces that were never intended to be included as “essays.” Even these pieces are valuable for their intelligence and kindness, though. There are elements of “Twenty-Four Word Notes” that I intend to include in my classroom for their terse explanation of grammatical rules and style tips.
It isn’t so much that Both Flesh and Not is disappointing as that it feels incomplete and, ultimately, is incomplete. Wallace was at his finest when he was focused, when his essays had thesis claims and when his agenda was clear (especially to himself). If there is a central reason that this collection does not completely work, it is that, unlike Wallace’s earlier collections, Wallace’s hand is not in it. Those earlier collections contained essays, fully-fledged works that Wallace himself restored from their edited and previously-published conditions to their original titles and dimensions. Now, due to the circumstances of Wallace’s death, the essays in this collection appear as they were published, and many of the short notes seem to be included simply to fill out the pages.
Both Flesh and Not will not be disappointing to Wallace's fans, but it should not be considered a proper introduction to his work. This collection aims to please readers who know and love Wallace’s work, and thus, while it might not be the best David Foster Wallace volume to be published, it still reflects the wide range of his work. There will be many readers, including this reviewer, who are grateful for it.