Book Review: Both Flesh and Not, Essays by David Foster Wallace

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01/16/2014 by Stephen Silke

Both Flesh and Not

More than worth it.

Wallace reaches strange heights of contemplative dissassembly in this posthumous collection of essays thankfully published by Little, Brown.

D.F.W. newbies who haven’t followed his journalism or his journal-writing will appreciate this collection. It is a clever pastiche of disparate “essays” and criticism plus bonus lists from Wallace’s word journal with his personalized definitions.

This book surprised me simply by the diversity of creative structures used to create its essays. There is the straight-up academic essay, a book review in bulleted items presented as an interesting list of facts, an actual list of “five direly underappreciated novels,” short little flash essays that felt like heavily edited notes to self, and color commentary of a U.S. Open tennis final by way of a marketing and consumerist meta coloring, among others. It’s diversity and wealth of pop and academic references from the 1990’s should resonate thoughtfully with the thirty- and forty-something crowd.

One shocking revelation is how preachy and persuasive he can be. His essay “Back in New Fire” puts HIV in sobering perspective partially by conflating the Arthurian damsel quest against modern day casual sex. He *gulp* argues that HIV makes us value the act of love more. (!) This is why David Foster Wallace is near and dear to so many–and important to read. He doesn’t shirk taboo. He writes about the interestings. In “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” Wallace makes a persuasive case for our culture’s  wrong-headed interest in sustaining the chimera of a permanent present, and in “The Nature of Fun,” he references and summarizes darkly what it is like to write a novel (thanks to DeLillo).

Wallace employs his own creative and heavily footnoted style to bring us one smart observation after another, but I warn, if you skip over the footnotes, you miss “Bonus Factoid[s]” like this tip to occupy the time of a bright child for most of a quiet morning by challenging him or her to make a sentence using the word that six times in a row. Answer: “He said that? that that that that that writer used should have been a which?”

I will concede that the bulk of this writing may not appeal to one uninterested in language, or one who does not value smart and funny essays, and yet the best essay of the lot, I’m sure would please the librarian, the math geek, and the sports fan. It’s the essay that lends itself to the title of the book–“Federer Both Flesh and Not”–where Wallace is at his best and I would argue the most interesting sports-themed article I’ve ever read. It’s descriptive skill, analytical acumen, and insight into what makes a top performer tick is breathtaking. If you read one sports essay, or only one David Foster Wallace essay (and you somehow missed “Consider the Lobster”) read this one. Like Federer transcending work-a-day human limits, it transcends paper.

Both Flesh and Not
David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown, 2012
5 of 5 stars


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