Updated Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 07:01 AM
“Both Flesh and Not”
by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown, 272 pp., $26.99
You’ll need a glossary to get through the late David Foster Wallace’s brainy, brawny collection of previously published essays, “Both Flesh and Not.”
Fortunately, the editors of this book, which is being published four years after the author committed suicide at the age of 46, have included pages filled with obscure words and their definitions from Wallace’s extensive vocabulary lists.
Wallace cemented his place among the best of modern American authors with “Infinite Jest,” his wildly inventive and heavily footnoted 1996 novel about contemporary life, but here we have 15 essays with copious footnotes of their own that help us better understand the man behind the cult hero, a writer who seems obsessed with the possibilities of language and the potential of humanity.
In the opening essay “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” ( Wallace’s professorial charm and effusiveness shine through as he explains, with technical details, cultural context and personal observations, why tennis Grand Slam champion Roger Federer is so awesome — and why watching him and other greats play is awesome, too.
He displays just as much giddy, geeky erudition when discussing the “Terminator” movies and the advent of “Special Effects Porn.”
Wallace was always concerned in his work with how people could lead better, fuller lives, and he is merciless in discussing anything he feels prevents that from happening, like TV dramas: “Think, for instance, about the way that prolonged exposure to broadcast drama makes each one of us at once more self-conscious and less reflective,” he writes in “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young.”
The author battled depression for much of his life but he didn’t write about it, opting instead to explore the subject through characters in his and others’ work.
In the brief “Overlooked: Five Direly Underappreciated U.S. Novels > 1960,” Wallace tellingly lists not one but two books dealing with the subject of human loneliness, William H. Gass’s “Omensetter’s Luck” and David Markson’s “Wittgenstein’s Mistress.”
In a separate essay about the latter novel’s significance, Wallace gives us a heady but stirring manifesto on the necessity of great literature in contemporary life. Works like Markson’s, he says, “serve the vital and vanishing function of reminding us of fiction’s limitless possibilities for reach and grasp, for making heads throb heartlike, and for sanctifying the marriages of cerebration & emotion, abstraction & lived life, transcendent truth-seeking & daily schlepping, marriages that in our happy epoch of technical occlusion and entertainment-marketing seem increasingly consummatable only in the imagination.”
Wallace is most engaging in his less stubbornly academic musings, though. His “Twenty-Four Word Notes” comically riffs on the proper meanings, uses and misuses of two dozen words.
Whether picking apart a Jorge Luis Borges biography or writing about films and books that glorify math, Wallace comes off as a man who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. He’s certainly a contender for the title.
But for all of Wallace’s obvious passion for language, learning and experience, it seems he never came close to the level of intellectual and emotional fulfillment he clearly believed humans are capable of achieving.
He hanged himself on the patio of his home in California, presumably the same home where he found such cerebral excitement and fist-pumping joy in watching tennis.
Wallace tragically cut his life short. But his language and imagination run long. We can be thankful for that, at least.
Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.