I’m embarrassed to admit that Both Flesh and Not is my first David Foster Wallace book and that I find it a little underwhelming, but maybe that’s just my jealousy talking.
I’d been earnestly meaning to get to his books for the longest time, what with Infinite Jest staring at me icily from the bookshelf, sandwiched between two other tomes of lesser reputation that I’d already paid court to. I just couldn’t live with myself, what with the countless praise heaped upon him, and then his death and my survivor’s guilt, I just couldn’t live without getting in the critical game, you know, forming some opinion about the “best writer of our generation.” And thus I’ll begin:
A) The first essay of the collection, Federer, is an unreserved work of genius. A daunting achievement by its author. The brainy voice, brainy even by today’s exhaustive scholarly standards, unmistakable. PopCal subject comprehensively observed and unpacked. Writing about one of the foremost athletes on the planet brings the infatuated best out of Wallace, and the essay is equally a showcase for his own unique hyper-intelligent writing talents, as it is a dissection of tennis and a paean to the play of Roger Federer. Federer is a manual on how to write a stylish, plenary essay. Not many can take pen to paper like Wallace can. He conjugates the game into unimaginable dimensions, speeds it up, slows it down, turns it inside out, and scrutinizes it with a staggering depth of passion. Such a shameful display of sincerity from a postmodernist, tsk, tsk.
Wallace wastes no time taking Federer to task. No, he cannot swing a racket like Federer, but that doesn’t mean he will let sleeping dogs lie. Perhaps being envious of the Austrian’s native talents, Wallace is ever eager to upstage Federer, and the sport of Tennis, in order to reveal where his own genius lies, promenading it over the page like a transgender Monroe-lookalike strutting along the Copacabana (weren’t entropic similes Wallace’s wheelhouse too?). The performance is spellbinding. Despite being something of a tennis aficionado in his youth, Wallace admittedly could never play the game the way Federer can; but neither can Federer intellectualize tennis the way Wallace can. So whose talent is the greater? The leonine athlete who is mute? Or the cerebral writer who is limp? The sporting atmosphere is present and foreboding. Grandstanding not a problem. It is the underlying motivation of the essay. Wallace’s erudition over the page is preternatural, but is it Olympian like Federer’s play on the court? Can Wallace upstage the champion at his own game with a little psychomachia?
(Myself, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll never hit a tennis ball like Federer or wield a pen quite like Wallace. I’ll never replicate Wallace’s restless, kaleidoscopic, worldly presence on the page. Or even attempt to for that matter. It’s not for me. Do I feel intimidated by the scope of his knowledge? I’d love the recondite-encyclopedic-Wallace in my bag, in some shape or form, along with the minted Shakespeare-quill-of-metaphors and the Joyce-thesaurus-of-the-night. But I’d never want to write like him: so writerly, so academic, so pushy and neurotic. So good for him. The guy is hyper-articulate and we’ll leave it that. Where I falter, dribble and sputter, he sings like a soprano.)
B) Had I read Fictional Futures a year earlier I would not have enrolled at the creative workshop at ——— under the unsympathetic tutelage of ———- ———- and saved myself three-thousand dollars that could have paid for an organic cotton mattress to cure my ailing herniated back and treat the black rot accumulating under my eyes (not as graven as it sounds). Wallace cast as the big brother I always dreamt of? In this instance, yes. Basically, a flat caveat emptor issued from his bloodless lips post mortum, post festum.
C)The Empty Plenum is the best book review I’ve ever read about a book I never read but really want to read but now almost don’t have to read because David Foster Wallace (hereafter DWF) read it and digested it for me. I loved the essay until the very end when he started mincing words about “degrees of success”. A very thoughtful reading, impressively rendered through maximalist leanings and stuff (a creative dry spot, yes, but I’m not doing the whole meta-analysis of a meta-analysis today).
D) I’m not sure why the editors included Mr. Cogito. I don’t know Mr. Cogito so I skip the very cogent review of—
E) I nearly put down Both Flesh and Not while reading Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open. It’s that bad. In summary, it’s either DFW spinning his wheels and then running amok or DFW running amok and then spinning his wheels. Depending on your perspective. Nearly cancels out the luminaries of Federer.
F) Back in New Fire is DFW as Grandpa-Know-It-All or Uncle-Kill-Joy. I caution you not to read it. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I could “Meet me at Montauk” it, so I could masochistically relive it, and erase it all over like Joel Barish (only not as creeping, cowering, life-defeated, and pussy-whipped).
G) The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2 is great fun for the family and the authoritative dress-down James Cameron had coming after the execrable mess-on-your-prom-dress that was Avatar. Fact: Avatar was so painful to endure that I wish the avatar of James Cameron had the moral decency to off-himself by stuffing some kerosene-soaked toilet paper down his throat and then lighting it on fire with flaming-hot poker, redefining for all time the friendly neighbourhood porch prank. I forgive DFW the aforementioned miscalculations and misfires in this collection of essays in light of his very-telling and ultra-true analysis of the rise and fall of James Cameron, dunderhead extraordinaire: from eagle to dodo in the span of decade. Had DFW only lived to see Avatar we could have flamed it together atop the delectable mountains of our choosing. It’s only when DFW places a similar deconstructive lens to the filmic work of Terry Gilliam and Kathryn Bigelow, do we go our separate ways. He just doesn’t know when to shut his trap and enjoy the camaraderie silence of an unspoken truth, does he?
H) The Nature of the Fun makes for uncomfortable reading. I was hoping DFW would be above this sort maidenly hobbying. I’d rather a list of his personal toilet effects than this drek.
I) Overlooked is an instance of DFW as a reader being completely sympathetic and humanistic in his idiosyncratic assertions. I’ve read or own all the books (tantamount to the same thing?) he mentions in this tract and I even love one or two of them and I’m very glad DFW does as well, so again I get to revel in a kind of cliqued and privileged sort of understanding between us pale-faced, well-meaning authors: one living, the other dead, but far from lifeless (why does this always happen to writers I reservedly fall for?), one laconic, the other loquacious, one broken-up like Orpheus, while the other adjunct like a living encyclopedia, like an oscillating word made flesh, or the pellucid word made hardware.
Good night sweet prince and all the rest. Of making books there is no end and much study wearies the body and all that claptrap. One DFW volume down (pat on the back) and several more to come.
(The remaining essays in this volume are mere hobby horses of the author at best and not worth reviewing. Trifles really.)