Both Fan and Not
What's not to love about a posthumous collection of Wallace's essays — and why we love it anyway
Both Flesh and Not rounds up a mélange of David Foster Wallace’s essays — sports reportage, surveys of contemporary authors, movie and book reviews, grammar pointers, and cultural criticism — never published in book form during his lifetime. Wallace committed suicide in 2008, and who can say what he would have chosen to include in this collection had he been alive to edit it. But what we have been given is by turns hypersmart and hypertender, infuriating and inspiring, allowing Wallace’s energizing, rigorous, and formally wide-open perspective to remain in the conversation about the future of American literature.
The book opens with the gorgeous title essay, about tennis phenomenon Roger Federer. “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” originally published in 2006 in The New York Times’ sports magazine and by now almost canonical, showcases Wallace’s most agile and compelling moves as a prose stylist, philosopher and innovator of the essay form (those infectious footnotes!), along with his novelist’s eye (and ear) for human vulnerability and pleasingly down-to-earth colloquialisms.
In the penultimate essay, “Deciderization 2007 — a Special Report,” Wallace presents a visionary piece of literary criticism under the guise of an introduction for The Best American Essays 2007. Ever the meta-critic, Wallace uses this intro as an opportunity to reflect on the editing process, take the temperature of his cultural moment, and pose difficult questions. Here and in other essays (“Overlooked: Five Direly Underappreciated U.S. Novels >1960,” for example), Wallace argues passionately for new writing that displays intellectual breadth, emotional vitality, and formal risk. He is especially preoccupied with “the connections between literary aesthetics and moral values.” In other words, he asks how and why we consider certain types of writing good or beautiful or literary, and what this says about our shared ethics.
These questions become useful when navigating some of the collection’s problematic moments. After the title essay, the collection moves through the remaining pieces in chronological order, starting in 1988, and the backward jump proffers some jarring claims. There is, for example, the deeply vexing “Back in New Fire,” from 1996, in which Wallace argues that since the AIDS epidemic arose from nature, it is therefore neither good nor bad. Instead, he argues, “the specter of heterosexual AIDS” might be seen as a cautious opportunity to reinvest sex with its proper gravitas by erecting new and exciting “erotic impediments” (aka safe sex practices). His framework leaves out the political dimensions of the travesty, the inadequate federal and public response to the marginalized communities most affected by the crisis — it’s akin to calling Hurricane Katrina a natural disaster that ought to be cautiously celebrated for its potential to reawaken people in, say, Rhode Island to the awesome power of weather.
Other prickly ethical/aesthetic moments occur more quietly. In “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young” from 1988, tucked away in his roll call of promising new talent Wallace mentions only three female authors, and their brief, collective cameo occurs under the banner of “bitchy humor.” It’s a fairly reductive and belittling lens, though in context (it seems) the phrase is meant to be a compliment. Overall, the piece parses well the problems of a TV-saturated culture, yet here and throughout, moments like this grate.
Perhaps these criticisms are, after all, of a piece with Wallace’s own provocation to think. As he writes: “But of course you’ll see how hard the reader is required to think about all this.” And this is where the collection’s central pleasures reside. In “Twenty-Four Word Notes” (a total pleasure read for grammar and usage geeks), Wallace tries on multiple positions in the great post-modern language debates, limning words as “both symbols for real things and real things themselves.” Another way to pose this dilemma is as follows: Does language reflect the world, or does language (at least in part) make it? Wallace plays the spectrum, proposing an ambitious, expansive role for prose in general, and fiction in particular, as innovative, evolving art forms. This constant evolution is bound to be dotted with missteps alongside the revelations, and as Wallace’s work is full of revelation, so, too, is it our job as readers to engage with his mistakes. “We are heirs to a gorgeous chaos,” he writes, listing a rowdy proliferation of literary forms and conveying his broad vision of fiction’s potential energy. In the end, it’s this expansiveness of vision that makes the tour through Wallace’s own gorgeous chaos well worth it.