Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace. Little, Brown. 272pp, $26.99.
Let me say from the get-go—by way of both foundation and disclaimer—that reading a David Foster Wallace sentence is, for me, invariably an act of exhilarated, astonished enjoyment, one that more often than not leaves me giggling and wiping my brow, as if I’d just done some previously unimagined yoga pose that left me inverted and endorphinated and staring at my own anus. Proclamations that Wallace was “the voice of his generation,” are commonplace, moreso since his death in 2008; the precise quality of that voice is harder to articulate, though A.O. Scott’s description—reproduced on the back cover of Both Flesh and Not (BFN), the newly published and possibly final volume of Wallace’s prose—comes as close as any: “Hyperarticulate, plaintive, self-mocking, diffident, overbearing, needy, ironical, almost pathologically self-aware . . . the voice in your own head.”
The question begged here (and I’m pretty sure I’m using the much-abused idiom “begging the question” correctly, as advised in the item “Twenty-Four Word Notes,” included in BFN) is what the voice in one’s own head actually sounds like—and doubtless one of the reasons that calling Wallace the voice of his generation is especially apt (i.e. not merely a way to say he was the “best” or “most famous” voice but a voice that was both produced by that generation and epitomized it) is the concurrence of his meteoric career with the meteoric rise of the Internet, email, 24/7 cable news, blogs, vlogs, YouTube, reality television, social networking, SuperPAC advertising, smartphones, ChatRoulette, those clip-on earpieces that make people look like they’re walking down the street talking to themselves, and the rest of our yammering, stupefying, neverending culture of blather—a phenomenon he refers to in “Deciderization 2007—A Special Report,” another of BFN’s pieces, as “Total Noise.”
In other words, yes, as a member of Wallace’s generation, his overcaffeinated, perplexed, overwhelmed, guardedly hopeful but reflexively skeptical voice does indeed sound much like the voice in my own head, and in the heads of countless of my co-generationists, and so it’s both deeply ironic and utterly characteristic that I (we?) can’t get enough of it. At the same time, I’m desperately in need of an escape from Total Noise, an antidote that can impose “clarity, precision, plainness, lucidity” (ibid.) on its unbearable roaring. That Wallace was somehow able to do both—to yammer with clarity and precision, to be both Voice and Anti-Voice—goes a long way to explaining his uniquely addictive appeal. To those of us who feel constantly on the verge of a kind of existential, information-induced implosion, reading his work can feel, simply if melodramatically put, miraculous.
One thing that can be said with confidence about addicts: They want more. And more. And then, goddammit, they really fucking want some more right fucking now. And far be it from the publishing world, particularly Little, Brown (LB)—who, it must be said, were smart and brave enough to publish the 1,100-page monster Infinite Jest in 1996, and published all Wallace’s books from then until his death, plus now three more books in the four years since—to refuse to give the people what they really, really want, and what they will happily pay for. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
In all fairness, there are a number of possible reasons why LB, or any other publisher that found itself in control of Wallace’s remaining work, would want to make it available—and since it seems unlikely that many people who never read Wallace before will start with this enjoyable but incoherent volume, it seems to me less interesting to catalog BFN’s specific virtues and vices and more interesting to ponder why it exists at all.
Theory #1: Because it is an indispensible work of literature. How to say this respectfully? It is not. Compared to its nonfiction predecessors, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997) and Consider the Lobster (2006), BFN is a rag-bag of prose pieces few of which qualify as essays, in the sense of the word that applies to the earlier collections. Half the pieces included are reviews, at least one of which is under 250 words (“Mr. Cogito,” a review of Zbigniew Herbert’s poetry collection by that name); another, “Overlooked,” comprises even shorter capsules of five post-war American novels. A number of the remaining pieces are more like “essays with an asterisk,” including “The Nature of the Fun,” Wallace’s hilarious riff on Don DeLillo’s metaphor of the novelist-as-parent-of-hideously-deformed-infant, which has been floating around MFA workshops and the Internet for so long that my main interest in seeing it here was to learn its original provenance (Fiction Writer, 1998); the aforementioned “Deciderization,” a reprint of Wallace’s introduction to the Best American Essays 2007 anthology, and as such a very different animal from the humble-reporter-with-enormous-vocabulary-finds-himself-somewhere-incredibly-weird or tennis-as-high-speed-chess or quasi-theoretical-and-brain-aching-dissections-of-culture essays that come to mind when we think of David Foster Wallace, Essayist Extraordinaire; and “Back in New Fire,” an ill-considered pensée about AIDS and “the human will to fuck” about which the less said the better.
The pieces that best fulfill what most consumers of BFN will expect to find between its covers are “Federer Both Flesh and Not” and “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open”—both (obviously) about tennis, the subject on which Wallace was always at his most disarming and eloquent. Both are solid additions to the DFW File, particularly the Federer essay, which appeared in The New York Times’ sports magazine, PLAY, in 2006 but is offered first in this otherwise-chronologically arranged collection (other pieces go back as far as 1988) in what seems a blatant (if totally appropriate) invitation to equate Roger Federer’s jaw-dropping, literally unbelievable exploits on the court with Wallace’s dumbfounding achievements in prose. (More on this in a moment.) Both are fun reads, replete with stock-in-trade keen observations which veer from lyrical (“a sky with air so clear you can almost hear the sun combusting”) to rip-roaringly funny (“ . . . [Jimmy] Connors’ compulsive on-court touching and adjustment of his testes . . . as if he needed to know just where they were at all times”), and the Federer essay further beguiles with the opportunity it affords those of us who idolize Wallace to observe Wallace idolizing someone else, i.e. Roger Federer, a tennis player who combines once-in-a-century grace and power (“[H]e’s Mozart and Metallica at the same time”) and who has also, and consequently, dominated the imaginations of players and spectators for over a decade, and changed the way tennis is played in the process, and in no way would I accuse Wallace of making the analogy to his own impact on the literary world but really, in reading this piece right up front of a posthumous collection, what reader and fan wouldn’t (i.e. make the analogy)?
Still, enjoyable as they are neither of these essays stands up to “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” (from A Supposedly Fun Thing), Wallace’s ur-tennis essay, or “A Supposedly Fun Thing” itself, which skewers American materialism more extensively and vigorously than “U.S. Open.” Both are smart and surprising, and Wallace’s ability to describe the brutal, breathtaking poetry of a championship tennis match—as he does for the 2006 Wimbledon final between Federer and Rafael Nadal—is truly without parallel. But they never quite do to a reader what watching Federer did to Wallace (“I don’t know what-all sounds were involved, but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs”), i.e. deliver the intensity of amazement and joy which, fairly or not, we addicts have come to expect from Wallace’s work.
Theory #2: Constructing David Foster Wallace. A more interesting, if abstract and un-review-like, way to read BFN, in my view. The theory goes like this: For all David Foster Wallace’s fame and ubiquity, for all the cataclysmic impact of Infinite Jest, for all the Endowed Chairs and Genius Grants and Whitings and Lannans, it’s not yet entirely clear what his legacy will be, how (or even if) he will be read by future generations of readers and writers. After all, to be the voice of one’s generation means one is not the voice of other generations—and for every A.O. Scott there was a James Wood questioning the durability of Wallace’s “hysterical fiction” (though Wood never dismissed it outright, as some Wallace partisans maintain), not to mention more than a few readers who could not keep up with the explosion of exotic vocabulary and metastatically complex sentences and labyrinthine digressions and wished for the man to just get to the freakin point. If Infinite Jest is, as is sometimes said, the contemporary novel people most often lie about having read—something I don’t think was true of, say, The Sun Also Rises or On the Road—then what will be its, and Wallace’s, fate once the moment is past, the cachet gone, the culture evolved into something unimaginably more hideous?
It’s a reasonable question, I think, and one can imagine LB and “The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust,” to whom BFN’s copyright is registered, asking it with great interest, without implying excessive cynicism or arrogance on their part. Remember: He never won a major book prize (and let’s not rehash last year’s Pulitzer debacle). He was not one to “hold court” or claim royalty in the literary world; his essays did not instruct readers How to . . . do anything, or flaunt his critico-academic chops, as did books by his contemporaries Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Lethem. To a significant portion of the reading public, then, he was the author of a much-hyped doorstopper that they never read, a writer known for his impenetrable vocabulary and beloved of the PoMo/hipster class but (so the thinking goes) inaccessible to the uninitiated—a Name, in other words, more than a Voice, and if you believe, as I do, that Wallace was an extremely important writer who deserves a place in the pantheon of important American writers, then you have an interest in seeing that place secured for him, and in some ways BFN seems designed with that aim in mind.
Start with that chronologically misplaced Federer essay that gives the collection its name. Compared to the titles of the earlier collections, Both Flesh and Not seems suspiciously earnest, even mystical, does it not? “The Nature of the Fun” might have been more Wallace-like, more in keeping with “Consider the Lobster”—but the editors passed that one over, and jiggled the book’s batting order, so it might come right out of the gate with an adoring profile of a transformative figure in an upscale, intellectual, popular-but-not-that-popular cultural pursuit, and to announce its judgment of that figure right on the cover in great big letters and in metaphysical, even theological, terms. Why not just publish the book on Easter Sunday?
The second essay, “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” might also be seen as part of this project, but in a very different way. Going back to 1988, the year after The Broom of the System was published, this pointed examination of ‘80s “brat pack” authors like Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz, and David Leavitt reads mostly like notes toward the later essay “E Unibus Pluram” (also from A Supposedly Fun Thing) in its analysis of the effects on literature of television and advertising, and its easy-to-follow primer on postmodernism, but with the bonus of a scathing critique of MFA programs which one imagines the later, gentler Wallace would have left on the editing-room floor.
Content-wise, the most notable thing about “Fictional Futures” is how dated it is—today’s publishing industry’s fetish for Hot Young Things makes 1988’s look positively chaste, and Wallace’s laments about diminishing U.S. attention spans in the decade before the Web kind of make you want to pat him on the head. But the essay’s obsolescence and its pique (elsewhere he refers to genre novelists as “prostitutes”) serve another purpose, in that they humanize the writer, demonstrating that he wasn’t always already the Olympically brilliant voice of his generation; he wasn’t sprung from the skull. The writer we find here is thoughtful, articulate, clever, but not yet in control of the antic, pyrotechnic style that would erupt, eight years later, into Infinite Jest. The prose can be stuffy and institutional, as though Wallace were at a department meeting before his morning coffee (“Actually there are uncountable ways in which efficiently conceived and disseminated popular entertainment affects the existential predicaments of both persons and groups”). In that sense it’s a reassuring piece, one that brings this towering figure down to earth, even while putting daylight between him and a class of young literary scenesters some readers might find obnoxious.
This might be the “flesh” to the Federer essay’s “not.” BFN takes pains to stress Wallace’s everyman quality, particularly in the book’s design, which intersperses “selections from Wallace’s personal vocabulary list,” and its publicity materials, which promise “a true peek at the man behind the fiction,” and of course the blurb from A.O. Scott comparing his voice to “the voice in your own head.” Thus, too, perhaps, the inclusion of “The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2,” from 1998, which offers a glimpse of the author in full-fledged geeky adolescent fan mode, gushing over the relative merits of The Terminator vs. its sequel. Such flawed but charming inclusions debunk the impression of Wallace as having existed only in some rarefied dimension of Pure Mind, much as stories about Faulkner’s drunken mishaps humanized the author of Absalom, Absalom! He’s not inaccessible or divine: He’s you.
Theory #3: Cleaning House. No doubt some readers are wondering why all these “theories” when there’s a much simpler explanation for the publication of BFN: Because it’s there. Wallace left behind a certain amount of unpublished and/or uncollected work, not to mention legions of heartbroken readers, and so of course LB wants to get all that work in front of all those readers (c.f. Theory #4). The elegance of this theory is that it can be applied beyond the covers of BFN: to This Is Water, a 2005 commencement address Wallace gave at Kenyon College, brought out seven months after his death; to Fate, Time, and Language, his undergraduate philosophy thesis, bequeathed to us the following year by Columbia University Press; to David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a 300+-page transcript of a 1996 road trip the Rolling Stone correspondent took with Wallace; and of course to The Pale King, the unfinished novel Wallace left on his desk, which his editor, the supremely gifted Michael Pietsch, somehow wrangled into dazzling, nearly Pulitzer-winning shape.
I shall not quibble with the wisdom of these decisions. Like any addict, when you get right down to it I don’t so much care where the stuff came from, or why you want to sell it to me, just as long as I get my fix. Instead, I’ll merely observe the oddity, the unlikelihood, of some of the pieces in BFN—like the aforementioned capsule reviews, which don’t even particularly sound like Wallace wrote them (excepting his three-word review of Blood Meridian, reproduced here in full: “Don’t even ask”); like “Twenty-Four Word Notes,” culled from his contributions to the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus; like “Just Asking,” a brief cri de coeur about the Bush administration’s post-9/11 security policies, Wallace’s contribution to a forum in The Atlantic and therefore just the measliest amuse bouche next to what one imagines he could have done in a true essay on the topic.
Look, I’m not going to second-guess. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t gape, or laugh heartily at some of these pieces, particularly “Twenty-Four Word Notes,” an assignment to which Wallace, the son of an English professor, must have fallen with all the glee of a pig in a very wet, warm sty. He gets in some more sharp jabs at academia and writing programs, as well as glosses on cool words like “feckless” (a “totally great adjective”) and “pulchritude” while flipping the bird to “snooty teachers” and users of “noxious puff words” and wraps up with a dead-serious three-page consideration of synonyms for “hairy.” Bottom line: I loved it, and I’m glad LB gave me the chance to read it.
But there is a worthwhile conversation to have about the tension between what I want and what LB, or the DFW Literary Trust, should give me, between the appetites of fans and whatever posthumous dignity one suspects the departed might have wanted or deserved (and the breakout conversation about how this tension interacts with Theory #2’s construction questions), not to mention about market saturation and what I wouldn’t yet describe as “scraping the barrel” but more like “reaching deep enough into the barrel to discover that the barrel does indeed have a bottom that one day you might find yourself scraping.” In other words, there may be varying opinions about where one draws the line, but what BFN makes clear is that a line will, eventually, have to be drawn: Do we want to see Wallace’s annotated manuscripts, for example? What about his diaries? There must be acceptance speeches, job application essays, and correspondence with other writers floating around out there, not to mention critiques of student work, papers he wrote at Harvard and Amherst, love letters—there’s virtually no limit unless someone imposes one, and if it’s true (which I’ll bet it is) that this was a guy whose grocery list was probably full of astute, hilarious little asides, that doesn’t mean we should turn him into an Orphic figure whom we tear to pieces and consume in a frenzy of love and toss his head into the river when we’re done. I’m just saying.
Theory #4: David Foster Wallace, Inc. Yeah, there’s no getting around this one, but let me say that it’s not some puerile, knee-jerk, anti-capitalist, art-wants-to-be-free argument but more like a variation on Theory #3, in which the term “appetites of fans” is replaced by “profits.” As in, however cool you are with great writers and their publishing houses making a shitload of money off their work—and I am very, very cool with it—you still, at some point, want to ask whether that shitload’s inevitable odor might sort of affect your own odor, even a little bit, and whether that’s worth it.
Or, put another way, LB’s and Hachette Book Group, Inc.’s wholly understandable desire to take profits where profits can be taken may be—or may one day be—in conflict with its longer-term goal of ensuring that Wallace and his work continue to be considered among the very finest the late-20th and early-21st centuries had to offer. And yes, that may well mean leaving some money on the table in the name of curating his legacy as the author of incomparable novels, short stories, and essays. It may well—oh, hell, it does—mean making judgments about what qualifies as “incomparable.” I realize that in 2013 this plea for LB to ignore its bottom line and refrain from oversharing sounds almost Victorian. It’s just that I’m having a hard time coming up with any truly canonical authors whose names have graced an equivalent miscellanea so soon after their deaths, and I don’t really want to get into the old story about the golden goose.
Theory #5. A Life’s Work’s Arc. This last one’s not so much a theory about what LB and the DFWLT set out to do as it is an articulation of what I think is a valuable, if not fully supported, way to read BFN. That is, as a kind of career retrospective writ small, one which not only illustrates the evolution of Wallace’s voice and focus but perhaps even suggests where he was headed, where he might have gone had he stayed with us—one which reminds us of the magnitude of our loss.
Take that first essay again, the one about Federer. It’s a minor classic, full of passion about something meaningful if esoteric; Wallace’s mature openheartedness and capacity for wonder are on display as fully as his humor and verbal firepower. In one particularly noteworthy passage, he spends two pages describing a single point between Federer and Nadal during which Federer is able to “maneuver Nadal and lull him and disrupt his rhythm and balance and open up that last, unimaginable angle,” which might as well describe the way he, Wallace, so often plays with a reader’s focus and expectations to set her up for a lethal passing shot. Reading this long passage, I laughed from pure delight.
From there we go back—way back, almost twenty years, with “Fictional Futures,” the essay about Ellis, Janowitz, et al., and I’m reminded of a writing teacher of mine who pointed out that many good stories actually start near the end, at some kind of climax or dramatic crest, raising in a reader’s mind the question, “How did we get here?” before circling back to the beginning to let you observe just exactly how. (Now that I think of it, Infinite Jest is a good example of this.) Because “Fictional Futures” is eloquent and observant, but in tone and content it’s far inferior to Wallace’s later work—and it’s followed by “The Empty Plenum,” a review of David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress in which readers can see some of his recognizable tics (compulsive footnoting, idiomatically schizoid sentences like “the novel’s diffracted system of allusions . . . are a bitch to trace out,”) as well as thematic obsessions (philosophy, depression, solipsism, the possible synonymity of these) starting to emerge, though it still, in places, swims against the stream of stuffy hyperintellectualism and dorkiness.
As we move ahead in time—through “Democracy and Commerce,” “Back in New Fire,” and “Terminator 2”—the sentences get longer, more limber, more delightful; the persona moves away from stern academic towards what readers of later essays like “Up, Simba” (about John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign) and “Host” (about right-wing radio host John Ziegler), both from Consider the Lobster, will recognize as the persona of the mature Wallace: erudite and vulnerable to ridiculous degrees; authoritative and barstool-populist at once; drop-dead funny except when serious as a heart attack. What I’m saying—and I know it’s a stretch, and I’m pretty sure no one at LB thought of it this way because if they had they probably could have done a better job of it (though upon reflection Both Flesh and Not does maybe sound like a title you might give to something like what I’m describing)—is that by the end of BFN one might just feel like they’d watched a truly great artist in the process of becoming himself.
I’m probably overstating this. But the reason I’d like to see it that way is that the last two selections, “Deciderization” and “Just Asking,” take a turn I had secretly hoped for without really expecting, ever since I read “Up, Simba” in the pages of Rolling Stone thirteen years and two wars ago. In these two pieces Wallace brings his gifts of empathy, analysis, humor, and heart to bear on the terrible and terrifying politics of the years after 9/11—the lies, the arrogance, the torture, the betrayal of so many ideas we had about ourselves. He does it slyly at first—referencing George W. Bush’s “I’m the decider and I decide what is best” in describing his own role as Guest Editor of Best American Essays, his relative powerlessness, the temptation to “[strut] around in my aviator suit and codpiece”—then plaintively and forcefully in the second essay (“Have we become so selfish and frightened that we don’t even want to think about whether some things trump safety?”), and no, these aren’t exactly jeremiads, and he’s hardly setting himself up as a Frank Rich or a Keith Olbermann, but just maybe he was on his way to becoming something better and more necessary: a voice that could articulate the real, human pain and confusion our leaders have visited upon us, could break that pain down into tiny, manageable pieces that somehow, in their immense complexity, finally make some kind of sense.
“To really try to be informed and literate today,” he wrote, “is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help.” I don’t know about you, but after the PATRIOT Act and Mission Accomplished, yellowcake uranium and Scooter Libby and Hurricane Katrina and Guantánamo Bay and Sarah Palin and Birthers and Tea Parties and Second Amendment Solutions and Surges and Grand Bargains and Predator Drones and Fiscal Cliffs, that kind of help is exactly what I need. What a shame.
* * * *
It’s not a perfect book or even a great book. Still, if I can misuse a quote from a semi-relevant figure, “you go to war with the army you have,” and if these were the as-yet-uncollected nonfiction pieces available to LB then by one way of thinking that’s a good enough reason to have collected them. A volume of Wallace’s work is still better and funnier than almost anything out there roaming the post-postmodern literary landscape he was instrumental in creating. It still feels like a gift. Whether there are more gifts in store, only LB and the Trust can know. But I hope not. What I mean is, if they keep making them, I’ll keep buying them—such is the nature of addiction, whether to a substance or (and this is probably the same thing) to a feeling—but my desire to keep having this feeling over and over will eventually rob the feeling of value.
So, thank you, Little, Brown, for Both Flesh and Not. And thank you for The Pale King, and for Oblivion, and thank you thank you for Infinite Jest and for seventeen years of pure, narcotic enjoyment.
Now make me stop.
Andrew Altschul is the author of the novels Deus Ex Machina and Lady Lazarus, and an O. Henry Prize-winning short-story writer. He lives in San Francisco.
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