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Both Flesh and Not

by David Foster Wallace

About.com Rating 2.5 Star Rating


Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace
© Little, Brown & Company
Little, Brown and Company, 2012

Both Flesh and a Not, a posthumous collection of essays, book reviews, and notes by the late David Foster Wallace is a surprisingly slap-dash and cobbled together affair, especially considering how thoughtful and well-spoken the author was. Posthumous collections are often tricky to execute, and it's difficult to experience one without considering the lack of input from the author and how things would have changed had they been alive. The sequence of texts in Both Flesh and Not exposes an immature, haughty writer and situates him alongside his refined, reeled-in later self. It's mildly interesting to compare these eras of David Foster Wallace, but when it comes down to the overall quality and enjoyment of the book, these disparate styles will frustrate and potentially turn readers away from Wallace's other works.

The collection begins with a pitch-perfect essay called "Federer Both Flesh and Not" which details the author's almost numinous experience at Wimbeldon in 2006. It is a work so sharply written and relatable that regardless of one's sporty inclinations, readers will proceed through its forty pages with rapt attention. Wallace details how watching tennis in the flesh comes nowhere close to how the sport is portrayed on television: the crowds, ambient sounds and limited vantage points all contribute to an experience that revels in the glory of human ability. Even at the top of the bleachers, amidst the pushiest of crowds, to behold, first-hand, a wunderkind player like Roger Federer and the "liquid snap" of his body as he serves a ball at 135mph cross-court... It puts one at a loss for words. This is a body that can achieve something great, seemingly without limits. Transcendently exemplifying the Illusion of human limitation and the power of first-hand experience, Wallace manages to mold and reform literary expectations, too: it's the best tennis essay you never thought you'd read.
Whatever elation, optimism, or sheer literary enjoyment gained from "Federer Both Flesh and Not" is sucked quickly through the airlock as the collection boots its readers into the bitchy quagmire that is "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young." Here, an entirely different author emerges. A highfalutin, rude, know-it-all has replaced the erudite, well-spoken man of "Federer," and this new voice has an an axe to grind for Bret Easton Ellis and his Less Than Relevant literary associates from the late eighties. Wallace accuses these writers of being too influenced by television, too focused on the cinematic and less on the literary:

"My complaint against trash isn't that it's vulgar art, or irritatingly dumb art, but that, given what makes fiction art at all, trash is simply unreal, empty-and that (aided by mores of and by TV) it seduces the market writers need and the culture that needs writers from what is real, full, meaningful."

Although drastically different, it's strange to reflect on how "televised" the previous essay feels-that in light of TV's limitations, Wallace basically broadcasts tennis in his own way:

"In the '06 final's third set, at three games all and 30-15, Nadal kicks his second serve high to Federer's backhand. Nadal's clearly been coached to go high and heavy to Federer's backhand, and that's what he does, point after point. Federer slices the return back to Nadal's center..."

Only at the end of each essay will readers find the year in which the piece was written; "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young" comes from 1988, almost twenty years before the wonderful "Federer" essay (originally published in 2006).
What are we to make of this? With such a sharp tonal divide, it seems the dates of these works are important, almost like an explanatory addendum for a lapse in quality or grace. It becomes difficult to read the subsequent essays without peeking at the dates for clues. A long, overwrought essay on a novel called "Wittgenstein's Mistress" follows next. Almost as frustrating as "Conspicuously Young," WM is filled with unnecessary acronyms and features impossibly tepid praise (curiously, this review was originally published in 1990). In a 1999 column included later in Both Flesh and Not called "Overlooked: Five Direly Underappreciated U.S. Novels >1960," Wallace says WM is one of the "all-time best U.S. book[s] on human loneliness," but here, and in his original 1990 review, he fails to convey any relatable encouragement.

Finally, five essays (and over half-way) into Both Flesh and Not, Wallace returns to a work of the same quality as the opening essay: trouble is, this one is about the U.S. Open. It's likely "Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open" and "Federer" were never meant to be situated so close ("Democracy and Commerce" originally appearing in Tennis magazine in 1996, "Federer" in the New York Times, ten years later) and it is impossible to read these without comparing the two.

The remaining works in Both Flesh and Not limp along and include a funny-but-simple essay on Terminator 2, a gently-worded series of "24 Word Notes" on commonly misunderstood elements of grammar, and two verbose reviews of books we all should skip.

At its best, Wallace's work elicits an incredulous response, wonderment over how he was able to pull off such a good essay (or novel) on such a difficult topic. At his worst, mired down by his meandering intellect, readers will wonder why he wrote some of the things he did. Both Flesh and Not, unfortunately, is divided exactly in this way: both how and why, both memorable and bland.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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