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Booking It: Both Flesh and Not

By Michael Gaffney

Both Flesh and Not collects 15 of David Foster Wallace’s multiform nonfiction pieces, including essays and book reviews published between 1988 and 2007. Although most of these essays do not demand to be read in the same way that essays in Wallace’s earlier collections do — this reader recalls fervently reading “Getting Away…,”  “A Supposedly Fun Thing…” and “This Is Water”  —  there are a number of gems in this collection that are thought-provoking and great reads.

Many of Wallace’s best essays, like the examples above, fall into two separate but never totally distinct categories. There are Wallace’s overflowing, catalogue essays that more or less feature a giant eyeball, as Wallace described it, floating around a scene and describing everything possible. In this collection, one truly finds only one such essay: “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open.”

Here, Wallace explores the 1995 U.S. Open, and he frequently deploys his characteristic descriptive tactics to enliven the event. One finds poetic exaggerations like “air so clear you can almost hear the sun combusting,” and the typically dark humor: Wallace, looking up from the bottom of a stadium, sees stands “so vertiginously steep that a misstep on any of the upper stairs looks like. It would be certain and hideous death.” He writes in this essay with frequent contractions, sprawling footnotes, and an absence of a single guiding thesis. This style amazes the reader because it displays the structure not only of Wallace’s mind but also the way the world sometimes feels overwhelming and abundant.

Wallace describes this feeling as “Total Noise” in “Deciderization 2007 — A Special Report,” which falls into the second category of essays, which like “This Is Water” are generally serious and overtly philosophical. Beginning as an introduction to Best American Essays 2007, “Deciderization,” in meditating on nonfiction’s job to decide what to represent, veers into a discussion of practical philosophy about what it means to have freedom and be an adult in the contemporary U.S.A, where other “Deciders” are constantly choosing what ideas we should be exposed to. “The real measure of informed adulthood,” Wallace writes, consists of “acuity and taste in choosing which Deciders one submits to.” He finds a ray of hope in the postmodern condition’s pre-chosen reality because one can still learn to winnow and triage, to have the freedom of choice.

One of Wallace’s last nonfiction pieces, “Federer Both Flesh and Not” represents a marriage and perfection of these two kinds of essays; although still a catalogue, this essay eschews the humor Wallace relies on in his other essays in favor of a more serious and reverent tone. At certain times the essay reports on the final 2005 Wimbledon match between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, and at other times attempts to explain just what is so incredible about Federer.

For Wallace, Federer interrupts the “dogma” of power baseline tennis, playing with “consummate finesse” and beauty that he finds not only uncommon but genius and “ineffable.” The essay concentrates on the extreme minutia of tennis and Federer’s game, and although this might be less interesting for a non-tennis-loving reader, his descriptions are precise, and they expand out toward a more general sense of aesthetic awe.

As for the other essays in this collection, many will only interest those particularly captivated by Wallace’s writing. Of the five book reviews, Wallace’s review of David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress illuminates the novel in the most interesting and intricate way. This review in particular shines a great deal of light on Wallace’s hope for his own fiction. “The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2,” though somewhat dated, observes the trend, only now fully realized with Michael Bay, for post T2 films to entirely focus on F/X while ignoring plot.

The too-short and highly-relevant final essay of the collection, “Just Asking,” considers a post 9/11 problem of freedom, and is an elegant final conclusion to this collection, which is full of essays that ask readers to think so deeply and profoundly. Although this collection rarely hits the emotional pitch that some of Wallace’s fiction does, fiction that makes “heads throb heartlike,” it does excogitate with both lucidity and profound belief. Each essay is, in Wallace’s words, a “quantum of information and a vector of meaning.”

Recommendation: For Wallace fans, this is a great read and a neat and clean way to carry around essays that most have already read. If you’ve never read Wallace before, though, I recommend reading A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again instead. I can almost guarantee it will make you want more.

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