Review | Friday 26 October 2012
In one of the essays collected in Both Flesh and Not, David Foster Wallace relates how a bus driver once told him that watching Roger Federer play tennis live was a ‘bloody near-religious experience’.
As most readers probably now know, Foster Wallace died in 2008, and this language of the sublime is not far from how many readers experience Wallace himself. His novel Infinite Jest is steadily gaining a reputation to rival Ulysses, and his posthumously published novel The Pale King, although left unfinished at the time of his death, still had enough mettle to be one of the three finalists in last year’s infamous Pulitzer (non)Prize.
But Wallace’s reputation rests equally on his non-fiction, his astute and moving journalism and cultural criticism that burrows into what it’s like to live in today’s media-rich, emotionally troubled world. Indeed, for some Wallace was an even better essayist, journalist, cultural commentator than fiction writer. Two collections of his non-fiction were published during his lifetime: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster, both of which should sit well-thumbed in the collection of anyone serious about reading, writing and living on this planet.
Both Flesh and Not is the third collection of Wallace’s non-fiction and consists of essays and reviews uncollected during his lifetime. ‘Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young’ is an early essay in which Wallace speculates about the influence of creative writing departments and TV on young writers. It’s a key document for understanding the development of Wallace’s ideas about fiction and media culture.
‘The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2’ is a deft critique of James Cameron’s film and what Wallace calls ‘Special Effects Porn’. ‘Deciderization 2007 – A Special Report’ is ostensibly an introduction to The Best American Essays 2007, but really ends up being a meditation on the importance of critical thinking and writing in today’s Information Age.
Also collected here for the first time is what some consider the holy grail of Wallace’s non-fiction, an essay previously unavailable in print for anyone without a subscription to Tennis magazine (...anyone?). ‘Roger Federer: Both Flesh and Not’ is a profile of Federer’s appearance at Wimbledon in 2006. But as with most of Wallace’s writing, it’s so much more. Even for those sport-phobics among us, it’s Wallace at his best. And like the portrait of a sublime Federer that Wallace paints, this is an event to be witnessed.
For all of Wallace’s genius and panache, there is still the occasional miss-hit here: ‘Back in New Fire’ is an unconvincing and slightly dodgy essay about the supposed erotic benefits of AIDS, and ‘Just Asking’, a short piece about sacrifice, heroism and 9/11, doesn’t quite hit home either.
Despite the range of material on offer, the pieces are all held together by that one dazzling constant of Wallace’s writerly universe: his voice/style/charm/panache. Whatever you want to call it, it’s an indefinable quality that makes any subject he’s writing about worth reading. His is one of the most influential yet inimitable voices to come out of America in the last 25 years or so.
Both Flesh and Not is obviously essential reading for DFW fans, but there’s still plenty of good stuff here for those yet to be converted.
Nick Levey is a freelance reviewer.