Meeting David Foster Wallace for the First Time (Again): A Review of David Foster Wallace, Both Flesh and Not

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book review

Stephen Kampa

Meeting David Foster Wallace for the First Time (Again)

A Review of David Foster Wallace,

Both Flesh and Not: Essays

New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2012, ISBN 9780316182386
336 pp., USA $17.00, paperback



I find myself in the not-uncommon position—for me, anyway—of being a lover of books and language, a constant reader, and a self-proclaimed eclectic who has never read a particular major author: in this case, David Foster Wallace. I have reasons.
  For one, I remember many years ago making the nearly obligatory attempt at Infinite Jest that any self-respecting literary aspirant then made, and I never got past the hundredth page. I recall almost nothing specific from the novel—with the exception of one detail I now find snortingly funny, that years had finally been sold for advertising, so that instead of calling a year “2013,” say, characters would call it “The Year of the Depends Undergarment”—but I do remember my general impressions and the way they kept me from continuing. Too much faux (and faux-faux) pedantry, those exasperating footnotes, the impossible plot (wait, there was a plot?), and worst of all, the sense that the author was not only playing a game—as all writers do, whether they’re honest about that or not—but that he also wanted me to see it at every turn, wanted me to watch myself be meta-manipulated in an act of auto-voyeurism. I imagined him as a magician who patiently, superciliously explains his trick while he’s performing it, so that you’re most amazed by the fact that you still feel a little fooled by his legerdemain until he says, “Let me turn that around so you can really see how it works.”
  For another, it seemed like the sort of reader (or, more often, writer) who embraced Wallace was not only the sort of reader/writer with whom I rarely agreed, but also the sort of person with whom I rarely wanted to spend time. You know, the same guy (why were they so often men?) who would relentlessly drop the names of obscure bands, bands whose reputations derived from their novel instrumentation: handmade pizza-box dulcimer, sampled Gameboy theme songs, didgeridoo, and stationary bicycle. Jaded. All their comedy self-vaunting. Never good with relationships.
  I think, though, most of my resistance arose from the suspicion that Mr. Wallace was playing literary games with no real stakes; that is to say, I was afraid he had no heart. Even if all writing requires that writers play games—everything from simple chess-like problems of plot to the anagrams and acrostics of a George Herbert or a Nabokov—I back away from books where I sense that winning or losing the game would have no effect on either writer or reader. (Games can have massive stakes; they can even be dangerous. Think Russian roulette.) I could not tell from the little I read whether Mr. Wallace believed in anything, or at least felt bereft at the lack of a belief-object, and that meant to me that I didn’t need to keep reading. I am happily afflicted with the conviction that great art has, at its very roots, not artistic concerns but human ones.
  So, oddly enough, when I was looking at the library for something to read once I felt done reading for the day—something I could read without being heavily invested—I picked up Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace. Essays, I thought, meant less commitment—I wouldn’t be swept up by narrative momentum (wait, there was a plot?)—and an author that I didn’t like meant I could pay less attention. Sort of a beach read, if your beach happened to be a wrinkled gray-brown couch. With beer handy. Or beers.
  I was most surprised to find Mr. Wallace companionable—hardly the heartless aesthete I’d inferred him to be, but rather the sort of person I’d want to sit down with at the pub after a long day of teaching and talk about (not necessarily in this order) (a) life, (b) art, (c) words, (d) teaching, (e) necessary kung fu films, (f) unnecessary poets, (g) what happens when you die, and (h) why it matters if we love at all. I should have known from the brief “Publisher’s Note” at the beginning of the collection that this would be the case—it states, after all, that Wallace “possessed an insatiable love for words and their meanings” and that he “constantly updated a list of words that he wanted to learn,” and as proof of this excerpts from said list interleave the essays in a surprisingly touching display of one writer’s devotion to what always comes first and foremost, his native language. But, partway through his first essay I stopped, put down the book, and started writing the first three paragraphs of this piece. I wanted to get down my prejudices intact because I knew they weren’t going to survive the reading of the whole thing.
  I found myself interested in things that do not interest me—tennis, for example, which is what two of the essays (including that first) are about—and Wallace sent me not just back to books I’d ignored or to books I’d never heard of, but in a passionately argued analysis of “F/X Porn,” he convinced me I needed to see The Terminator and Alien, two films I’d blown off for years. His voice ranges from the astonishingly, obviously intelligent to the intimately colloquial, and his perceptions about writing—the act, the life, the biz—are bold and at times prescient.
  In “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” for example, he does a laudable job of identifying three things that distinguish the young writers at hand from predecessors: “the impacts of television, of academic creative writing programs, and of a revolution in the way educated people understand the function and possibility of literary narrative.” He analyzes the first so well that it almost seems prophetic of reality television culture:

      Think, for instance, about the way prolonged exposure to broadcast drama makes each one of us at once more self-conscious and less reflective. A culture more and more about seeing eventually perverts the relation of seer and seen . . . We, the audience, receive unconscious reinforcement of the thesis that the most significant feature of persons is watchableness, and that contemporary human worth is not just isomorphic with but rooted in the phenomenon of watching. Precious distinctions between truly being and merely appearing get obfuscated.

I could forgive that “isomorphic” because of the exciting precision of the argument here. He continues:

      Then consider that well-known, large, “ignorant” segment of the population that believes on a day-to-day level that what happens on televised dramas is “real.” This, the enormous volume of mail addressed each day to characters and not the persons who portray them, is the iceberg’s extreme tip. The berg itself is a generation (New) for whom the distinction between (real) actor artificially portraying and (pretend) character genuinely behaving gets ever more tangled. The danger of the berg is badness and cost—a shift from an understanding of self as a character in a great drama whose end is meaning to an understanding of self as an actor at a great audition whose end is seeming, i.e., being seen.

If I’ve quoted at length, it’s because from here it’s about a half-hour to Jersey Shore, where the only virtue may be not watchableness but watchedness. Moreover, if you doubt the validity of the argument having larger social ramifications, I would challenge you to remember any of the times you’ve seen a young member of the family—a sibling, child, younger cousin, niece or nephew, grandchild, whatever—scrolling on an iPhone through pictures or videos of more watchable moments than the family gathering they’re currently attending. As if that little bit of minor prophesying weren’t enough, the essay also includes a lacerating evaluation of creative writing programs, one that I suspect has only become more valid in the intervening decades. My favorite image in the essay—and one of my favorites in the book—comes from this section, where Wallace lists as one of the obvious dangers “faculty power struggles that summon images of sharks fighting for control of a bathtub.”
  That sense of humor—from tickling to gut-socking, bemused to defiant—everywhere, finds expression. Wallace has a way with phrasing and few fears: “As of 2003,” he writes in “Twenty-Four Word Notes,” “misusing that for who or whom, whether in writing or speech, functions as a kind of class-marker—it’s the grammatical equivalent of wearing NASCAR paraphernalia or liking pro wrestling.” Not watching; liking. But he also builds comedy into the very form of some of these pieces, which can then set him up for even more effective one-liners. His review of The Best of The Prose Poem begins

  • Physical dimensions of The Best of The Prose Poem: An Inter-national Journal anthology in cm: 15 x 22.5 x 2.
  • Weight of anthology in grams: 419.
  • Total # of words in anthology: 85, 667.
  • Total # of words devoted to actual prose poems: 69,986.
  • Rain Taxi’s length-limit for review of Best of The P.P.: 1,000 words.

and includes this item a few lines down

  • Tactical reason for review form: The words preceding each item’s colon technically constitute neither subjective complement nor appositive nor really any recognized grammatical unit at all; hence none of these antecolonic words should count against R.T.’s rigid 1,000-word limit.

and then adds, in case you’ve missed one of the jokes:

  • Other, better-known and/or currently fashionable transgeneric literary forms: the Nonfiction Novel, the Prose Poem, the Lyric Essay, etc.

All well and good, and the piece has as a virtue not just its I’ll-get-the-better-of-The-Man gamesmanship, but also its sound critical sense: when Wallace adduces an example of flabby, clunky, or bad writing, you are guaranteed it will be flabby, clunky, or bad. (It’s easy to forget how rare that can be in a review.) But the coup de grâce for me, the laugh-out-loud one-liner that I didn’t see coming throughout the review—no matter how often the anthology editor’s name was mentioned—was this one:

  • Probability that, if this reviewer were named Peter Johnson, he would publish under “Pete” or his first two initials: 100%.

Even retyping that ad nominem attack, I laughed until there were tears in my eyes.
  I need to spend just a bit more time on critical sensibility. Despite being billed as an experimentalist, Wallace more than once surprised me with a formulation that seemed to me entirely traditional; yet he derives from these dicta techniques and ideas that lead him (in the little fictive snippet I read so long ago, or even in the way he tackles the nonfiction forms here) in interesting, unexpected directions. In the same prose-poem anthology review, itself so unorthodox, he writes in a footnote,

      In regarding formal conventions primarily as “rules” to rebel against, the Professional Transgressor fails to see that conventions often become conventions precisely because of their power and utility, i.e., because of the paradoxical freedoms they permit the artist who understands how to use (not merely “obey”) them.

And as mentioned above, his sensibility is discerning to the point of being seemingly infallible: when he critiques the language of two “Math Melodrama” novels, he zeroes in on precisely those sentences that best exemplify the fact that the work of translation should have been delegated to someone other than the novels’ respective (“semi-bilingual”) authors. Not every reviewer does this. When I read poetry reviews, I am sometimes astonished at the banality of lines that a reviewer has quoted as an example of so-and-so’s lyricism, and I will never, never forgive the incompetent reviewer who presented two perfectly scannable—indeed, rhythmically nuanced—lines of verse as evidence of a great poet’s inability to handle meter. Furthermore, some reviewers or critics whom I suspect of being able to do justice (whatever that might look like) to a work often refuse to do so, most likely for political, personal, or careerist reasons. It makes one all the more grateful to read prose by someone who is able and willing to call the good good and the bad bad.
  In this, Wallace reminds me, oddly enough, of Randall Jarrell, who rhapsodizes of what he loves and excoriates what he hates; there is in Wallace that same utter devotion to what he thinks marvelous and the same foregone-conclusion dismissiveness to what he thinks is dreck. In this book, at least, there are ample discussions of both. (Here it might be worth noting that one reason I cannot trust William Logan—and think him no fit inheritor of the mantle of Jarrell, no matter how obviously he models himself on that great writer—is that while he is as unsparing as Jarrell was of the mediocre, he appears to have no great enthusiasms. Jarrell, it should be noted, gushed when he loved something—gushed to the point even of slight embarrassment on his behalf—and whether that made his prose more elegant or not, it certainly made his judgment more reliable. One never suspected him of a pandemic animus.) If Wallace thinks that The Terminator was “one of the two best US action movies of the entire 1980s” and “a dark, breathlessly kinetic, near-brilliant piece of metaphysical Ludditism,” he’ll tell you so; conversely, if he thinks Terminator 2: Judgment Day is “empty and derivative, pure mimetic polycelluloid,” he’ll tell you that, too.
  Now, in my book, to spend this much time praising an author without acknowledging his foibles is the microcosmic version of the all-or-nothing critical stance decried above, and Wallace does have foibles. Foremost are his mannerisms, everything from the incessant footnotes (like a child interrupting a conversation every three or four sentences) to the overabundance of abbreviations, including nonce ones. Perhaps to a lesser degree, as is to be expected of a writer with such impressive intellectual gifts, Wallace occasionally indulges in unendearing displays of learning; put simply, he shows off, and in those moments, he reminds me of the precocious undergrad everyone wishes would graduate already and move on to the Real World where someone with back hair will teach him a lesson about showing off. It’s not a generous impulse on everyone’s part, but there it is. To be honest, though, as I have come to terms with the fact that there are far more people than I’d ever realized who are much, much smarter than I am, I feel less threatened by these intellectual barrel rolls and loop-de-loops. Wallace is curious, and he satisfies his curiosity by learning, and after he’s learned something he longs to share it; if that lovely propensity occasionally manifests its obnoxious side, I’m glad to take the bad with the good.
  In reading this collection of essays, I met a writer who could panegyrize dogs and kraut (“. . . but then you find out they’re really long and really good, and that the kraut is the really smelly gloppy kind that’s revolting when you’re not in the mood for kraut but rapturously yummy when you are in the mood”) as easily as he celebrated a novel that was “a dramatic rendering of what it would be like to live in the sort of universe described by logical atomism”; who could meditate seriously on the “erotic malaise of the ’70s” and affirm “real sexuality is about our struggles to connect with one another, to erect bridges across the chasms that separate selves” and conclude, “Sexuality is, finally, about imagination”; who could criticize American consumer culture even as he used it as a wellspring for comedy; and who felt the pressing political pressures of the last years of his life as an impetus for imagining—again, that belief in the power of imagination—what the future might bring.
  The book’s title, Both Flesh and Not, comes from the first essay, “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” and that title from a description within the essay of the eponymous tennis great: “. . . he looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light”; but the title also reminds us of the hope of any writer to be both a body of blood and bones and a body of work, and it is surely every writer’s hope that the latter will survive long after the former is gone. I believe the best writers know somewhere within that this kind of immortality is, at best and worst, irrelevant: at best, if one survives death and enters into something else, one’s body of work will likely mean little there, and at worst, if one’s consciousness simply ends at the moment of death, a body of work will mean less than nothing to the person who created it. So much for immortality. Why write, then? Why hope that the not-flesh body survives? It has to do, I think, with the deep realization that we are gifts to each other in both bodies—gifts of wisdom, at times, but more often gifts of companionship and laughter, gifts of shared grief and hope—and that the body we leave behind, the body of work, can continue to be a gift long after the fleshly one has been fully given. Judging by this book, Mr. Wallace’s body of work is indisputably such a gift.