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The Better of What’s Left David Foster Wallace’s Both Flesh and Not

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The Better of What’s Left: David Foster Wallace’s Both Flesh and Not

Now that it’s no longer the next David Foster Wallace book, The Pale King, the unfinished novel that was famously not awarded a Pulitzer in 2012, can settle into a sort of legacy within the author’s career. Published less than three years after Wallace’s death, The Pale King, for all its merits, is a rare glimpse into what it means to be a work in progress in a mind that many readers couldn’t help but idolize, and the timing probably couldn’t have been worse. For years we waited for the author’s next book, only more so after his death, but what we received was a ghost of a story, a reminder equally of Wallace’s tremendous gifts as a writer and the constant challenge of cultivating them over and over again, an artifact both satisfying and incredibly not. Suddenly the intensely weird and almost perfect late-career short stories and the wonder that is Infinite Jest were made to seem that much more worked-on, coming less from the heavens than from spiral notepads not unlike anyone else’s, just when the fervor of Wallace-saint and Wallace-genius had reached its pitch. Reading through the long, dreary hours of tax accounting and made-up IRS administrative history, you could never tell whether the way a certain section was structured pointed to the author’s growing views about the purpose of fiction or if that was just how the ideas happened to occur to him this time. I even found two punctuation errors. In the end it was an appropriate mess for an author who so enjoyed spotting paradoxes in everything he wrote about.

The latest addition to Wallace’s catalogue is Both Flesh and Not, a collection of nonfiction writing made up of about half newer material along with some older material that was never previously collected for one reason or another, and despite the author’s distaste for psychological criticism (something he expounds on in the book in a nasty review of a Borges biography), the collection continues the project of illustrating how his mind worked when given a pen and paper and (in this case) a topic.

It’s clear very early on in the collection that much more is almost always at stake than the topic itself, from the show-offy put-downs of those literary predecessors and peers with whom the author seemed to feel in competition, to the sudden adoption of the aw-shucks persona in his most famous long-form reportage, to the examination of contemporary male sexuality (around the time much of his darkly sexual story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men was written), to the more recent political and ethical missives. This was an artist who moved in phases, and with its mostly chronological structure, Both Flesh and Not does a fine job distinguishing them.

Those of us who start at the beginning and make it all the way to the end without skipping forward can thank the small but necessary inclusion of the title essay (published in the New York Times Magazine as “Federer as Religious Experience”) right up front. From there on, the essays are arranged by year, 1988 to 2007, and while there’s no stated editorial reasoning for cutting ahead, the Federer essay’s initial presence announces what’s in store both for author and reader, generating just enough momentum to get through the next few pieces (a dismissive and wrong-headed cataloguing of peers, a heartfelt but nearly claustrophobic review of the experimental novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and a flat little thing about poetry). By doing so, the book’s editors have made a true event of the (chronologically) first great essay, a dizzying trip to the U.S. Open tennis tournament, and rightly so; aside from being a wonderful piece, it marks a new maturity in Wallace’s own writing, and the burgeoning of what was at the time a novel approach to journalism.

What’s in store from there is a series of four or five other essays as long and verbose and warm-blooded as anything in the author’s two previous nonfiction collections, interrupted only every so often by a clunker like the thing about the AIDS epidemic as a teachable moment. There are reviews of experimental fiction and genre fiction that become treatises on the relationships between authors and readers, the expectations of control and submission and the prejudice of literary ancestry. There is the author’s introduction to the volume of Best American Nonfiction for which he was appointed guest editor, which starts out in typical Wallace form, exhaustively scrutinizing all angles of the apparatus (first “Best,” then “American,” and so on), but which then grows into a kind of testimony about what it meant to be alive in America six or seven years ago, and the delight and relief a reader might have felt at that time, encountering something that felt like truth. There’s an exquisite list of problematical words and the nuance of usage, “if” and “that” and “feckless” and a dozen others.

Though it’s not meant either for purists (as it leaves out a couple of other magazine pieces) or first-time readers (both of the previous nonfiction collections are much better), Both Flesh and Not exists as a fascinating microcosm of a career worth critical study, and a curious hodgepodge of the better of what’s left of Wallace’s life work.

David Foster Wallace’s Both Flesh and Not was released on November 6 by Little, Brown and Company. To purchase it, click here.