Monday, January 28, 2013
"Both Flesh and Not:" David Foster Wallace and the Posthumous Legacy
It's been over four years since David Foster Wallace's suicide, and shockingly/curiously/strangely enough, last year's publication of Both Flesh and Not: Essays is only his third posthumous release (2010: This Is Water; 2011: The Pale King). Posthumous releases have always been a slippery slope for me. I genuinely believe that the Wallace releases have not been done to capitalize on his legacy, but to add to it. The Pale King, even in its uneven, unfinished state, is a terrific read. I still haven't read This Is Water, but I know many people have been touched by its message. Three books in four years isn't that much. For example, as much as I admire the writings of Roberto Bolano, I long ago gave up on maintaining any consistency in his posthumous releases. They keep piling up, and even thought they're not throwaway or haphazard novels, the sheer number of titles have been overwhelming, and I feel I've read an excellent portion of his bibliography. I'm not saying I'm going to stop reading his works, but it's going to be done on a more casual schedule. Returning to Wallace, I'm down to two unread books: the aforementioned This Is Water and his debut novel, The Broom Of the System. I read Both Flesh and Not almost on a whim, because, while I made note of it, I thought I'd be reading it in the middle or end of this year. But while making my way through some other works, I checked it out and found it to be a very fast read. However, the layout and selections gave me the feeling that it was a rushed production, and while I'm (again) shying away from thinking it was put out solely for the 2012 holiday book season, there was the occasional pause.
But don't get me wrong: there is beauty and intelligence in these selections. The book opens with a piece I've been anxious to read for quite some time, even though I'm a very, very casual tennis fan. "Federer Both Flesh and Not," Wallace's 2006 profile of the athlete, is a terrific opener, combining the best traits of his essay and non-fiction writings. The piece, set at Wimbledon, examines Federer as a person and as an athlete, and the physics/philosophy behind the game. Some examples of Wallace's writings, both fiction and essay, are studies in a mind that takes in everything, sometimes to the point of being daunting. However, for all of the information packed into this opening selection, nothing is out of place or too much. Wallace has so many angles to cover, and he seamlessly goes back and forth between great, standard journalism and smart ruminations on the sociology of athletics and being a spectator.
"Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.
The human beauty we're talking about here is a beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What is seems to have to do with, really, is human beings' reconciliation with the fact of having a body.
Of course, in men's sports no one ever talks about beauty, or grace, or the body. Men may profess their 'love' of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive stats and technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war's codes are safer for most of us than love's (Wallace 8-9)."
This leads to a description of the physical and stylistic differences between Federer and his main rival, Spanish player Rafael Nadal, and, taking the game further, to a mathematical analysis of how tennis is played. To anyone unfamiliar with Wallace, this would make a fascinating essay, but to readers at least vaguely familiar with Wallace's penchant for mathematics and tennis, "Federer Both Flesh and Not" goes into virtually all of Wallace's obsessions.
"There are also the issues of how close you're allowing the ball to get to your body, what grip you're using, the extent to which your knees are bent and/or weight's moving forward, and whether you're able simultaneously to watch the ball and to see what your opponent's doing after he serves. These all matter, too. Plus there's the fact that you're not putting a static object into motion here but rather reversing the flight and (to a varying extent) spin of a projectile coming toward you--coming, in the case of pro tennis, at speeds that make conscious thought impossible. Mario Ancic's first serve, for instance, often comes in around 130 m.p.h. Since it's seventy-eight feet from Ancic's baseline to yours, that means it takes 0.41 seconds for his serve to reach you. This is less than the time it takes to blink quickly, twice (Wallace 22-23)."
Having this as the opening essay in the book leads to questions of formatting. A few essays later, we're treated to "Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open," a 1996 work that focuses more on the people watching and organization of a professional tennis tournament. Having two essays on tennis in this book is fine; nobody would question the inclusion of the multiple literary essays and reviews also featured in Both Flesh and Not. However, these would have been best served back-to-back. They come from different decades as well as different points of view. At times, "Democracy and Commerce" makes tennis an afterthought. The marketing and concessions are just as fascinating, if not more so, than the games happening in the stadium. Sports and capitalism have always gone hand in hand, yet Wallace highlights the seemingly obvious and makes this idea seem novel.
"The first thing you see when you come inside the Main Gate is teams of extremely attractive young people giving away free foil packets of Colombian Coffee from really big plastic barrels with outlines of Juan Valdez & devoted burro on them. The young people, none of whom are of Colombian extraction, are cheery and outgoing but don't seem terribly alert, because they keep giving me new free samples every time I go out and then come in again, so that my bookbag is now stuffed with them and I'm not going to have to buy coffee for months. The next thing you see is a barker on a raised dais urging you to purchase a Daily Drawsheet for $2.00 and a Program+Drawsheet for a bargain $8.00. Right near the barker is a gorgeous spanking-new Infiniti automobile on a complicated stand that places the car at a kind of dramatic plunging angle. It's not clear what the relation between a fine new automobile and professional tennis is supposed to be, but the visual conjunction of car and plunging angle is extremely impressive and compelling, and there's always a dense ring of spectators around the Infiniti, looking at it but not touching it. Then, over the Daily Drawsheet pitchman's right shoulder and situated suspiciously close to the Advance Ticket Window, is what has to be one of the largest free-standing autotellers in the Western world, with its own shade-awning and three separate cash stations with controls of NASA-like sophistication and complexity and enormous signs that say the autoteller's provided through the generosity of CHASE and that it is equipped to disgorge cash via the NYCE, PLUS, VISA, CIRRUS, and MASTERCARD networks of auto-withdrawal (Wallace 149-150)."
The aforementioned literary essays compose the bulk of this collection, and the first one is a fascinating exploration of late 1980s writers and the implications/drawbacks of creative writing programs (this interested me even more than it normally would, given that I'm in the process of applying to writing programs myself). "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young," published in 1988, explores the yuppie/nihilistic fiction of the likes of Bret Easton Ellis (wickedly described by Wallace as "Neiman-Marcus nihilism, declaimed via six-figure Uppies and their salon-tanned, morally vacant offspring, none of whom seem to be able to make it from limo door to analyst's couch without several grams of chemical encouragement (39-40)"), and the influence of television and mass culture on the world of fiction. This essay works as a still-fresh look at the writing styles of that era, without feeling dated or "time-capsule"-like. Quite a few of these themes are still explored in today's fiction, and Wallace himself was no stranger to examining how mass entertainment serves as a sort of drug and distraction from the act of reading and other areas of life in general (see, obviously: Infinite Jest). Wallace does this examination very compellingly, to the point that I hope to see a future volume consisting of his literary criticism alone.
"For instance, it's not hard to see that the trendy Ultraminimalism favored by too many C.Y. [conspicuously young] writers is deeply influenced by the aesthetic norms of mass entertainment. Indeed, this fiction depends on what's little more than a crude inversion of these norms. Where television, especially its advertising, presents everything in hyperbole, Ultraminimalism is deliberately flat, understated, 'undersold.' Where TV seeks everywhere to render its action either dramatic or melodramatic, to move the viewer by displaying constant movement, the Minimalist describes an event as one would an object, a geometric form in stasis; and he always does so from an emotional remove of light-years. Where television does and must aim always to please, the Catatonic writer hefts something of a finger at subject and reader alike: one has only to read a Bret Ellis sex scene (pick a page, any page) to realize that here pleasure is neither a subject nor an aim. My own aversion to Ultraminimalism, I think, stems from its naive pretension. The Catatonic Bunch seem to feel that simply by inverting the values imposed on us by television, commercial film, advertising, etc., they can automatically achieve the aesthetic depth popular entertainment so conspicuously lacks (Wallace 47-48)."
I won't get into any analyses of Wallace's book reviews, since I haven't read any of the works he discusses. However, his reviews are wonderful in their enthusiasm and their constructive criticisms. Nothing gets past Wallace as a critical reader, and his reviews are truly illuminating; at the very least, one of the essays makes me ache to read David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress. Another inclusion that I question is Wallace's introduction to the 2007 edition of the Best American Essay series. The writing is excellent, yes, but taking it apart from the collection makes it seem slightly pointless. For someone with such a vast history of publications, I'm sure there could/should have been other pieces besides this one. It feels like a page-filler, a case of "well, we might as well toss in this one." Picking a highlight of Both Flesh and Not is difficult (and, really, pointless), but I absolutely adored "Twenty-Four Word Notes," a list and explanation of misused phrases, full of mistakes writers (especially young ones) make in an effort to sound more "intelligent." In these examinations, Wallace is serving as a teacher to the reader, and one can only imagine what it was like to be in one of his classes. The opening word is "utilize," and I'm sure I've used it myself more than I'd care to admit.
"Utilize A noxious puff-word. Since it does nothing that good old use doesn't do, its extra letters and syllables don't make a writer seem smarter; rather, using utilize makes you seem either like a pompous twit or like someone so insecure that she'll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look sophisticated. The same is true for the noun utilization, for vehicle as used for car, for residence as used for house, for presently, at present, at this time, and at the present time as used for now, and so on. What's worth remembering about puff-words is something that good writing teachers spend a lot of time drumming into undergrads: 'formal writing' does not mean gratuitously fancy writing: it means clean, clear, maximally considerate writing (Wallace 261)."
Dividing up the chapters are words and definitions compiled by Wallace, found on his computer after his death. I've never viewed dictionary entries as moving, but knowing that Wallace was so fascinated by language and felt the need to compile these words for future use (or just general reference) does make for a nice tribute and insight into his work. Of course, I haven't touched upon every essay or example featured in this latest volume. Personally, I'm a bigger fan of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster. I believe these essay collections are more rounded and insightful. Not that Both Flesh and Not is bad, but I feel it needed just a bit more selection and diversity. Of course, admirers of Wallace will read anything they can get their hands on. If Wallace's estate eventually publishes the remainder of his essays, this will be a good start. But if years pass with no future essay collections, it would be in the best interest to start with the collections published in his lifetime. But overall, this is irresistible and, while leaving me wanting more complexity, it gives excellent access to some of his smaller, more heralded publications.
Wallace, David Foster. Both Flesh and Not: Essays. Copyright 2012 by David Foster Wallace Literary Trust.