Both Flesh and Not – David Foster Wallace

Both Flesh & Not CoverBoth Flesh and Not is the first of what I assume will be several posthumous bringing-togethers of David Foster Wallace’s shorter non-fiction.  This collection offers a somewhat disparate array of brilliant and not-so-brilliant essays plonked in concert with seemingly little concern for chronology, consistency of subject matter or overall theme.  As such, I’ve decided to structure my review accordingly:

Both Flesh and Not – The compilers hit the ground running with what is arguably DFW’s most well-known essay; a long and performative piece about Roger Federer’s tennis genius which acts as a way-in for DFW to examine the state of modern tennis in general.  Possibly the best example of his tripartite prose style, Both Flesh and Not melds hyperbolic and lyrical writing with high-level technical language and a penchant for multi-page, off-tangent footnotes.  The overly long and microscopic focus on, for example, a particular ground-stroke of Federer’s or the ballet of his backhand, is equal parts tedious and hypnotic, but plough through the jargon long enough, and you’ll eventually be rewarded with such gems as:

The truth is that TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love.

Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young – In which DFW successfully equates the 1980’s rise of utilitarian, adjective-hating, snarky prose with “the aesthetic norms of mass entertainment”.  The idea that “Television’s greatest appeal is that it is engaging without being at all demanding” would later become a significant and oft-repeated part of his critical ideology.  It’s unfortunate that a beautifully written and thought-provoking essay is occasionally undermined by such essentialist bullshit as “Today’s trash writers are entertainers working artists’ turf”, but all is forgiven by a thinly-veiled yet wonderful end-game jibe at his bitter rival (or so the press would have you believe) Bret Easton Ellis: “many of our best-known [young writers] seem content merely to have reduced interpretation to whining”.

The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’ – A difficult and meandering book review that’s not for the philosophically uninitiated.  Some of it I got, a lot of it I didn’t get. But mostly, I imagine, there was stuff that I don’t even know I wasn’t getting.

Back In New Fire – The infamous AIDS essay, and, it seems, the absolute low-point of DFW’s writing. Here he lambasts the sexual revolution of the 1960’s for taking away any sense of danger or thrill or human connection from sex.  He imagines your typical chivalrous knight assailing a castle to win a fair maiden (yes, this really is his metaphor of choice for talking about sex…) but instead of a dragon to defeat (religion, parental control, societal perceptions, unwanted pregnancy etc.), thanks to modern contraception and an openness about sex, there IS NO DRAGON.  The knight can saunter in and his maiden will be waiting, legs akimbo. No risk, no taboo. Sex is now easy, so where’s the thrill etc?

Ignoring for a second his problematic rendering of sexual relations as exclusively a man assailing a maiden in a castle, he states:

 The casual knights of my own bland generation might well come to regard AIDS as a blessing, a gift perhaps bestowed by nature to restore some critical balance, or maybe summoned unconsciously out of the collective erotic despair of the post-60’s glut. Because the dragon is back, and clothed in a fire that can’t be ignored.

He goes on to add “I mean no offense”, and follows this with (somewhat dishearteningly) “but” [isn’t that word just the death knell of tolerance?] “our own history shows that – for whatever reason – an erotically charged human existence requires impediments to passion”.

 It’s… it’s not his greatest moment, to be honest.

The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2 – In which DFW reveals himself to be quite the film critic by rightly pointing out the myriad ways in which the first Terminator film is far superior to the utter bathetic dross that is Terminator 2.  I, however, love this essay for the following observation, so beautifully put:

It was flat-out criminal that Sigourney Weaver didn’t win the ’86 Oscar for her lead in Cameron’s Aliens.  No male lead in the history of U.S. action film even approaches Weaver’s second Ripley for emotional depth and sheer balls – she makes Stallone, Willis et al look muddled and ill.

Overlooked: Five Direly Underappreciated U.S. novels > [sic] 1960 – In which DFW reveals himself to be a better film critic than literary critic.  These five short pieces on his favourite novels are uninspiring, un-insightful, flat and somewhat of a faux pas.  His one-sentence review of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (“Don’t even ask”) is glib and immature, it seems.

The Best of the Prose Poem – Very funny book review taking the form of a bullet-point list, said form employed because, DFW argues, none of the words preceding each bullet point’s title “constitute subjective compliment, appositive not any recognised grammatical unit” hence allowing to him to vastly exceed his “rigid 1,000 word limit”.

Twenty-Four Word Notes – 24 micro-essays, each concerned with an individual word or some esoterica thereof.  Here Foster Wallace insists that the word whom, as a relative pronoun, should never be replaced with that (as many people do replace it), and that any progressive linguist who suggests that the increased popular use of that in place of whom is representative of the word whom being phased out of the language is wrong WRONG WRONG.

This sort of argument is interesting in theory: ignore it in practice. As of 2003, 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.

Well, that’s a nice helping of intellectual and cultural elitism if ever I’ve heard it.  I wish I could say he was being ironic or tongue in cheek. Alas.

Just Asking – Brilliant short, provocative essay that asks what price are we willing to pay for freedom of movement/agency/speech within a state, free of government intervention, over-zealous policing etc. and etc. “What if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite everyone’s best efforts, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of terrible suicidal attack that a democratic republic cannot 100 percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?”.

Bonus: The ‘Best Footnote of the Book’ award goes to the medial-question-mark-in-sentence trick, which allows DFW to form a coherent sentence using the word that six times in a row: “He said that? that that that that that writer used should have been a which?

Tomcat.

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4 responses to “Both Flesh and Not – David Foster Wallace

  1. I have never fancied reading Foster Wallace, and this has doubly put me off. The stuff about AIDS obviously the most as it just sounds vile and rather dodge, but also a little bit like a beg of ‘read me I am so controversial’ which I can never be arsed with to be honest.

    Also essays about tennis and Terminator 2, erm that is a no from me.

    Great review though. Also why do I find myself being a bit baser and darker when I comment on your blog 😉

    • Many thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂
      Maybe it’s my blog’s colour scheme that brings out the darker Simon?

      As for DFW, if you ever do feel like reading some of his stuff, this is probably not the best place to start – it’s a poor reflection of his otherwise sublime output. I can’t recommend ‘Infinite Jest’ enough, however – it’s long and difficult, but put in the work and the book is very rewarding.

  2. I’ve never been particularly tempted by DFW (or Hitchens for that matter, not sure why one makes me think of the other, hype perhaps). This just sounds godawful. I’m totally with Savidgereads’ reaction.

    The aids piece and the Nascar comments sound like they manage to be offensive without being funny, insightful or challenging, which is peculiarly pointless.

    • This would definitely be bad place to start with DFW. But I can’t recommend ‘Infinite Jest’ highly enough – it’s hard work, but his super-sized brain performing an amazing rejection of post-modernism and literary irony is really something else.

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