Good essayists make strong arguments. Great ones know how to argue with themselves. Thought isn’t linear, after all. It zooms off in unexpected directions at the slightest breeze. Doubts and trivia warp its travel, so too does the act of putting it on the page. No one understood this better than David Foster Wallace.
Perhaps it really was his childhood that taught him this. The author of “Infinite Jest” nearly said so in an essay about growing up in Illinois, trying to hit tennis balls into driving, trigonometrically complex wind. But thanks to D.T. Max’s biography, which documents the writer’s life-long battle with depression and addiction, it seems clear the tornado was actually inside Wallace’s mind.
It is useful, then, to have a new collection of essays short on the heels of that necessary biography. It would be easy, certainly, to read every Wallace book into a battle for his life, as they may have been, or felt, in the writing. What makes Wallace’s work so likely to stand the test of time, though, is how rigorously and aggressively it bent forms into the shape of modern thought.
BOTH FLESH AND NOT: Essays
Wallace feels most successful here as an essayist because no one else wrote like him. As a novelist, Wallace at least had fellow travelers: all the great post-war, postmodernists, John Barth, William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon et al, most of them alive during his career, not to mention Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo, and William T. Vollmann. As an essayist he really was alone in pushing an even newer journalism into the 21st century.
“Both Flesh and Not” gathers essays Wallace wrote concurrently to the two collections he published during his life but did not collect while living, and it charts the astonishing journey of how he made this happen. It begins, beautifully, with a 2006 essay about watching Roger Federer play tennis. The piece builds on gusts of observation. There are the stands, the day, at Wimbledon, the players and their rituals, and then he comes to this:
“Like Ali, Jordan, Maradona, and Gretzy, he seems both less and more substantial than the men he faces. Particularly in the all-white that Wimbledon enjoys getting away with still requiring, he looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.”
This is grace, in motion, and in the observation of it. Wallace had the most sensitive cultural antennae of his generation, and in these essays he goes to war with them, using them time and again, at first, to describe every facet of a thing, to show you its many corrugated surfaces and contradictions, before admitting it is the thing’s mystery that makes it beautiful.
It took Wallace years to figure out how just so how far he could push the reader, how much he could let us know he knew. A piece on the young brat-pack writers of late 1980s America seethes, for example, with a kind of well-meaning jealousy. Wallace breaks his contemporaries into categories, briskly sums up the coming doom, and even throws a zinger at Amy Hempel, of all people.
Another essay, on David Markson’s “Wittgenstein’s Mistress,” tilts that novel round in Wallace’s mind so many times it starts to feel like a book Wallace has practically written for us. Ultimately, though, he relents and concludes what makes the book so good is the hardest thing to describe; the emptiness of consciousness.
Grouchiness, greed, lust, and all the strong emotions are good things in essayists. They make an essay feel true because they remind us that thought isn’t clean. It’s a war of suppression sometimes, in other moments one of attrition. In the 1990s Wallace found a way to channel his worst best self into pieces to hilarious effect.
An essay on the fun of writing admits the circular loop Wallace traveled from play to pride to shame over the pride back to a more complicated sense of fun as a writer. In “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open,” Wallace spends half an essay gloating over his great access to a tennis match, and then the second half bemoaning how commercialized the game has become. It is a pitch-perfect study in disappointment.
As a posthumous collection “Both Flesh and Not” contains its share of the curios, blips, and sketches. There’s an essay on romance in the post-AIDS world; there’s a list of the five novels Wallace felt were most overlooked in American letters. The collection is bulked out by lists of words Wallace wrote down and memorized, words like “cinerarium,’’ “numismatist,” and “vermiculate.”
Unlike “The Pale King,” which felt stitched together, because it was, “Both Flesh and Not” feels like a Wallace book. It feels like the ghost book to his other two essay collections. There is not an essay here to rival “Up, Simba,” his study of John McCain’s campaign and the making of political imagery.
Nor is there one quite so funny as his legendary trip to the Illinois State Fair. But every one of these pieces, even the tiniest introduction to a collection of prose poems, hums with Wallace’s contrary energy. There is his humor and his self-loathing and those Midwestern dips into the vernacular, like reminders to himself not to forget to be humble. In short, they show a mind at work, and it was one of the best this country has seen, warts and all.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.”