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Lessons in feeling: David Foster Wallace's Both Flesh and Not reviewed...

CultureCritic | 21.November.2012 | 18:10

The author of the literary Everest, Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace was an acknowledged pioneer in his field, but in the wake of his untimely death, a positive feeding-frenzy broke out on his legacy. We wanted to decide for ourselves if there's any meat to be found in his new collection of non-fiction...

Both Flesh and Not

DF Wallacism - a term created by the reviewer for the purpose of succinctly referring to a stylistic feat or profound observation ridiculously unattainable for most writers, but that were the bread and butter of the late David Foster Wallace's work.

As a particularly fitting demonstration of Wallace's devotion to his craft, the chapters in Both Flesh and Not are bookended by a double-page spread exempla of his personal glossary archives. In it you can find words such as:

excurses - long intellectual digression in a speech or piece of writing'

This can't strictly be called a DF Wallacism, as it can by no means be applied to his writing alone. He did however, do it a lot, as is evidenced once again in the latest posthumous publication of his work, Both Flesh and Not, a number of non-fiction pieces uncollected until now. If it is possible, Wallace's propensity for excurses embodied both his strength as a writer, and his weakness, just as this book gives us the artist at his best and his worst.

When it's an issue, it's because his multiform intellectualism has run away from him, so that a topic that was already pretty unfamiliar to the vast majority of his readers becomes impenetrably alien. Take, for instance ‘Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama' which swiftly manoeuvres its way from the concept of math-genre fiction, to ‘Gödel's First Incompleteness Theorem... [and] the abstract possibility of Completeness in axiomatic systems.' No, me neither.

Most of the time, though these digressions feel like privileged access to a genius' thought processes in action - and not just a scholarly genius but an observational one. See for example his neat exposure of our economic double standards in ‘Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open':

‘The fact is that when you're hungry from... match-watching and gushing sympathetic saliva from watching everybody else... chow down, the Haagen-Dazs bars aren't worth $3.00 but are worth about $2.50.' 

His footnotes, which are less like conventional footnotes and more like collateral overspill from cerebral overload, frequently provide a decoding line or two which - corny as it sounds (and Wallace can teeter on the verge of schmaltz) - perfectly articulate the immensity and complexity of modern society. A prime illustration of such a moment can be found in the first essay in the book, ‘Federer Both Flesh and Not' when he contemplates the terminally ill boy, nominated as the ‘honorary coin-tosser' for the 2005 Open, in relation to the ‘preternaturally' gifted, Roger Federer:

‘But the truth is that whatever deity, entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces sick children also produces Roger Federer, and just look at him down there. Look at that.'

There is no doubt that these instances make this brash profiteering project worth the customer's money. David Foster Wallace didn't believe in letting his readers sit idle. Even the footnotes - the afterthoughts - command you to actually look at life, for all its beauty and ugliness. What is clear from his attention to minutia is that he experienced and felt every part of living keenly, which somehow translated into a vocation devoted to making others appreciate it too.

David Foster Wallace

© Giovanni Giovannetti

Much of the time, he succeeds. The antithetical power of emerging fiction writers is revealed in ‘Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young';  ‘Back in New Fire' valiantly reinterprets the impact of the AIDS epidemic; ‘The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2' brilliantly satirises the film industry. Excepting the DF Wallacisms, such as his invented polysyllabic jargon most of us have been programmed to dismiss as beyond comprehension - ‘Catatonic Realism,' ‘Workshop Hermeticism'  - and the equally baffling but probably earth-shattering statements like ‘Time had changed Always', (to which one can only whoop ignorant approval - ‘Yeah! What he said') you feel richer for reading these pieces.

The above exceptions aren't all Wallace's fault. As a writer, he was acutely aware of his shortcomings (relative), and made no secret of the battles with his vocation. One small piece, ‘The Nature of the Fun' extends Don DeLillo's metaphor for ‘a book-in-progress as some kind of hideously damaged infant' - an object of intense hatred, love and personal investigation. In addition, he confessed great admiration for writers gifted with economy or ‘magical compression'. So, I am far more inclined to blame the editors who have included at least five pieces which Wallace would probably not have advocated, one of which - ‘Mr Cogito' - cannot be described as even half developed, and another - ‘Overlooked: Five direly underappreciated U.S. novels > 1960' - might as well have been discovered scribbled on a Post-it.

What the editors don't seem to have acknowledged is that Wallace's most powerful non-fiction (and his most accessible) is his most simple. Both the title essay and the above-mentioned ‘Democracy and Commerce...' are about tennis - one of Wallace's greatest passions, and a subject that most people might not fully understand, but have a good chance of getting to that point. It is these two pieces that do justice to Wallace's legacy. With a subject that is tangible for his whole readership, he becomes noticeably less frantic; he lets his observations sing and is funnier, more evocative and more influential than most writers of his generation.

One thread that does run through the entire collection is Wallace's search for the spiritual. He is drawn to the experts in fields who take an aesthetic and humanist approach to their craft: Federer in tennis, Wittgenstein in philosophy, Cameron in ‘special effects porn' (see aforementioned Terminator 2 piece) etc. Emotio-phobes might balk from this but it's a personal comfort to be reminded that he is in fact one of us and not a genius-spouting verbo-bot. David Foster Wallace was preoccupied with the quest ‘to connect' with everything on some level. If nothing else Both Flesh and Not provides more great demonstrations of his ability to take any topic, put it through a fine sieve, and deconstruct and reconstruct until his reader finds a connection too.

sortilege - sorcery, witchcraft, divination'; a DF Wallacism. 

Abbie Salter  

Both Flesh and Not is published by Hamish Hamilton on 29 November. To read the latest reviews, click here.  

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