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Book Review: Both Flesh And Not

Kevin Stachelek |
November 8, 2012 | 1:53 p.m. PST


Both Flesh and Not (Hatchett Book Group)
Both Flesh and Not (Hatchett Book Group)
When asked for an introduction to the work of David Foster Wallace, I point immediately to the mammoth "Infinite Jest"—a 1,000 page novel about addiction and entertainment and addiction to entertainment that is impossible to put down.

But a truer appreciation of the man and the writer is found in his essays. There his lexical fascinations, ranging curiosity, and recursive loops of logic are not bounded by the demands of plot or characterization. And the footnotes are even more rewarding.

Wallace’s untimely death, roughly four years ago, is still rippling through literary circles. Journalistic profiles, a comprehensive biography, and DFW’s own unfinished final novel have generated greater interest in the memory of the man than his own not inconsiderable real-life literary efforts could have managed.

"Both Flesh and Not", a collection of essays, notes, and literary reviews, seems to be the most recent in what seems to be final tribute of Wallace's work.

The collected essays and fragments range from New York Times articles to Science editorials to word lists and dictionary entries. Fans will recognize most from essays in prior collections. Some already appeared in almost identical form elsewhere.

The opening essay on the beauty of sport as embodied by Roger Federer mirrors a 2006 NY Times article “Roger Federer as Religious Experience." Others bear a fainter resemblance: a review of “conspicuously young” writers of the US 1980s draws from a lengthier essay in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again," called “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction."

Finally there are the highly specialized yet strangely compelling writings on high-level mathematics and prescriptive grammar—long-standing fascinations present throughout his work.

All the selections are characteristically brilliant and distinctive records of thought, and as an introduction "Both Flesh and Not" may be the best summary of DFW’s essays available. To an already devoted reader though, the collection offers just a little bit more to digest.

This little bit is mostly taken up by a lengthy review of David Markson’s experimental novel "Wittgenstein’s Mistress." The review occupies Wallace for nearly fifty pages and will likely be unfamiliar to beginners and fans alike. The novel apparently consists of the solipsistic ramblings of a woman who may or may not be the last human on earth. In Wallace’s eyes though, it seems to be the book he wished he could have written.

The connection is obvious; Wallace’s debut novel "The Broom of the System" was explicitly engaged with the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The 'title character' of Markson’s novel. In later years, Wallace would all but disown "The Broom of the System."

This published review seems then to represent his most detailed and dedicated treatment of purely philosophical material in all his work. And it offers not only philosophical hand-holding, but an indication of DFW’s own literary ambitions.

If it were only the esoteric pleasures of philosophy and experimental fiction on offer, the review would just be a nice way to fill empty air in the middle of the book. What the review does, and what the whole collection attempts is deep bit of insight into Wallace’s development as a writer. There are bumps along the way like a painfully rationalizing, ambiguously earnest commentary on the AIDs epidemic.

Considered altogether though, "Both Flesh and Not" delivers an appropriate summary of the exhilarating, exasperating, and overwhelming nonfiction of a remarkable writer. 

Reach contributer Kevin here



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