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Book review: Essays by David Foster Wallace

A posthumous collection of David Foster Wallace's work reveals its author as a complex but occasionally frustrating essayist, writes Tom Perrin.
The late American writer David Foster Wallace in Manhattan's East Village, New York City, circa 2002. Janette Beckman / Redferns
The late American writer David Foster Wallace in Manhattan's East Village, New York City, circa 2002. Janette Beckman / Redferns

Both Flesh and Not

David Foster Wallace

Hamish Hamilton

David Foster Wallace's publishers are inordinately keen to make me aware of a particular piece of praise for him: a claim from The New York Times that he was "one of the most influential writers of his generation". The line appears not only on the front cover of Both Flesh and Not, his posthumously assembled collection of essays, but also on almost every piece of publicity material related to the book. Nonetheless, it is true. The novelist James Michener told a joke about meeting young writers in the late 1940s, many of whom would take pains to explain to him how nonderivative their unique writing styles were. "It was always Hemingway they didn't want to copy," Michener wrote. Likewise, reading David Foster Wallace makes you want to write like David Foster Wallace. I have resisted the urge to insert a jokey footnote in this article several times already.

Imitating Wallace is fraught with danger. At his best, he comes across as the best conversationalist you have ever sat next to, one minute discoursing on Raymond Carver, the next being hilarious about I Dream of Jeannie. His style feels effortlessly casual, full of informal contractions ("Nobody'd claim") and paragraphs that begin with phrases like "But actually, so"; at the same time it is sublime in its complexity, his work filled not only with his infamous footnotes, but anecdotes, digressions, and flights of fancy. His arguments are lucid and clear, but his subjects are often erudite and difficult: Ludwig Wittgenstein, number theory, the relationship between sport and commerce. However, the effortless feeling that Wallace's writing exudes is an illusion. It is carefully wrought, as anyone will know who has read his essays on grammar - or seen the massive personal list of words Wallace kept (sections of which are reprinted in this volume between essays, in a neat gimmick). By contrast the attraction, and the danger, of imitating Wallace is that he seems to legitimise one's own unwrought ramblings, to make you believe that the discussion you had when you stayed up all night watching Death Race 2000 and decided it was a critique of late capitalism equal in subtlety to the work of Fredric Jameson should be published in The New Yorker. It should not.

Unfortunately, at his occasional worst, Wallace himself also comes across like a rambling amateur philosopher. The least successful thing about Both Flesh and Not is that, as a posthumous collection of essays assembled from whatever of Wallace's non-fiction was not selected for the brilliant earlier volumes (A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster), it contains a number of pieces that might happily have been left uncollected. The longest essay in Both Flesh and Not is a review of David Markson's novel Wittgenstein's Mistress, first published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1990. Reading it, one feels as if one has been cornered at a party by a bore who won't stop talking about an obscure subject of interest only to himself. Here is a representative passage: "Well, first off, it's easy to see how radical scepticism - Descartes' hell & Kate's vestibule - yields at once omnipotence and moral oppression. If the World is entirely a function of Facts that not only reside in but hail from one's own head, one is just as Responsible for that world as is a mother for her child, or herself. This seems straightforward." Articulating his point in a way that is not at all straightforward, Wallace's style is obscurantist rather than playful: capitalising "World", "Facts" and "Responsibility" only creates confusion for a reader unlikely to understand the special sense in which he must be using what he has made into proper nouns.

It is unfortunate that the 50-page length of this essay gives it a sense of anchoring the book, especially since Wallace's other similar collections are anchored around comparable long pieces, all of which represent his very best. Nothing in Both Flesh and Not really rises to the heights of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Wallace's famous account of a luxury cruise, or Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All, his report on the 1994 Illinois State Fair, or Big Red Son, his long essay on an adult-entertainment trade fair, or Up, Simba, his profile of John McCain's 2000 campaign to become the Republican presidential nominee, or Host, his tour de force essay on talk radio with its vertiginous series of footnotes within footnotes within footnotes.

On the other hand, Both Flesh and Not does provide the many readers of Wallace's writing who have not obsessively followed him through the many journals in which he published with all kinds of reasons to buy it. The Best of the Prose Poem, a book review written in bullet points and comprised in part of statistics about the book in question's dimensions, weight, and word count, is as virtuoso a piece of writing as anything else in Wallace's work. Twenty-Four Word Notes, an entry from the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus, and a perfectly serious guide to usage, is nevertheless stuffed with witty pastiches of dictionary examples: "Tomentose means 'covered with dense little matted hairs' - baby chimps, hobbits' feet, and Robin Williams are all tomentose."

Fiction Futures and the Conspicuously Young (1988) has presumably not been previously collected because of the degree to which it is an immature version of the argument about contemporary fiction Wallace advances in 1993's E Unibus Plurum. But the earlier essay also contains a brilliant analysis of the effect of MFA programmes on US fiction that has not appeared elsewhere. Here Wallace gives a wonderful account of the way MFA programmes encourage homogeneous novels: "no character without Freudian trauma in accessible past, without near-diagnostic physical description; no image undissolved into regulation Updikean metaphor; no overture without a dramatised scene to 'show' what's 'told'."

In fact, a side-effect of reading Fiction Futures is to remind readers why the genre of "hysterical realism", of which Wallace was avatar, felt so exciting and necessary in the early 1990s, a time when American fiction was dominated, as Wallace reminds us, by dour post-Raymond Carver minimalism and tastefully crafted novels emerging from MFA programmes. In this landscape, the fizz and excess of a novel like Wallace's Infinite Jest (1996) came as a blessed relief.

In recent years, Wallace's "hysterical realism", a derogatory term coined by the critic James Wood, has begun to fall out of fashion. Praising Jonathan Franzen in 2010, The New York Times implied that Wallace, among others, had trapped American fiction in the "suffocating grip of postmodernism, whose most adept practitioners were busily creating, as James Wood objected at the time, 'curiously arrested books that know a thousand different things - the recipe for the best Indonesian fish curry! the sonics of the trombone! the drug market in Detroit! the history of strip cartoons! - but do not know a single human being'." Franzen, apparently, "cracked open the opaque shell of postmodernism, tweezed out its tangled circuitry and inserted in its place the warm, beating heart of an authentic humanism." However, Both Flesh and Not reminds us that postmodern hysterical realism never lacked a "warm, beating heart" in the first place. The strongest piece in the collection is Federer Both Flesh and Not, a version of an essay on the tennis star first published (ironically) in The New York Times in 2006. In quintessential Wallace style, it certainly "know[s] a thousand things" - we learn all about the mechanics of power-baseline tennis and how it differs from both a conventional baseline game and a serve-and-volley style; all about the mechanics of tennis racquets and how changes in their design have altered the game beyond recognition; all about how topspin works and its effect on tennis.

All this information, however, works in the service of what is, for good or bad, a profoundly humanist argument. The essay's governing question is, what does it mean that, at the 2006 Wimbledon men's final between Federer and Rafael Nadal, a child with cancer has been chosen to toss the coin that decides who serves first? How can the beauty of tennis constitute any kind of meaningful consolation for the cosmic unfairness of childhood cancer?

The essay concludes with the claim that to watch Federer play, "to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled" to the callous injustice of the universe. Quoted in isolation, this sounds like a false, sentimental moment of closure. In the context of the essay, however, it comes across as a reasonable answer.

The quantity of information Wallace gives on the mechanics of tennis allow us to have some kind of appreciation of Federer's superhuman talent: how Federer's points are set up by returns chosen three or more shots ahead of his eventual winner, or why it is that the returns he hits from certain positions on the court are all but impossible to accomplish. Broadly, Wallace's technical descriptions of the mechanics of tennis lend a necessary specificity to his claim that Federer's game is beautiful.

This essay shows as well as any other how Wallace's hysterical realism, rather than excluding humanity from his work, is in fact what makes its humanism plausible.

Tom Perrin teaches literature at Huntingdon College in Alabama. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement.

Updated: November 17, 2012 04:00 AM

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