Both Flesh And Not Paperback – 5 Sept. 2013
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During his lifetime, Wallace published two collections of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997) and Consider The Lobster (2005). It is difficult to convey the flavour of these books, but if you wanted a preview I'd suggest having a look at one of the videos of the author reading his work on YouTube (for example, the 28 minute video 'Another Random Bit'.)
Wallace was certainly an uneven writer, and some of his work is infected by the pretentious diction of Academic English. Nor was he a particularly successful critic: his least interesting essays are those dealing with other writers.
But his best work (for example, the pieces on the Illinois State Fair and cruise liners in A Supposedly Fun Thing) is truly remarkable, as good as anything that Orwell wrote.
Both Flesh and Not (2012) collects fifteen essays which appeared in various American periodicals between 1988 and 2007. The range of topics is characteristically diverse - tennis, fiction, cinema, Wittgenstein, mathematics - although the average standard is perhaps lower than in the first two collections. In a sense, this is not surprising: the essays in Both Flesh and Not are (for the most part) those that were not selected for inclusion in the earlier collections. As such, they are, in a sense, the Second Team.
Still, they are well worth reading. Wallace is one of the few recent writers of whom one seriously wonders if he was a genius.
The title takes its name from one of Wallace’s best-known essays, “Federer Both Flesh and Not”, first published in the New York Times in 2006 under the more prosaic title of “Federer as Religious Experience”. It is difficult to do justice to the work, which opens the anthology, in a paraphrase and this resistance to paraphrase is merely one of several literary qualities. Another is the way in which Wallace operates on so many levels at once, complementary as well as juxtaposed. Superficially, the essay is about the Men’s Singles final between Federer and Nadal at Wimbledon in 2006 (Federer won in four sets). It is also about: the contrasting personalities and styles of Federer and Nadal, and their respective roles in the history of tennis; the difference between watching championship tennis in the flesh and watching it on television; and William Caines, a seven-year old survivor of liver cancer. Philosophically, the essay offers a reasoned argument for Federer’s international ascendance and constitutes a rejection of the various dualistic perspectives that focus on the soul at the expense of the flesh. Flesh not only limits human beings, as the frailty of William Caines’ flesh bears testimony, but also produces ‘the aesthetic stuff’ that Federer demonstrates and which Wallace, himself a successful high school tennis player, describes with such passion and finesse. Humanity is vulnerable and beautiful, both flesh and something more, but always still flesh.
Tennis reappears in the fifth piece, “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open”, which is a report on the 1995 New York City tournament. What is most striking about this essay, in the light of Wallace’s personal life, is the ferocious optimism of his tone. He clearly loved tennis, and was also clearly pained by the absolute commercialisation of the tournament, from its ever-present subtitle – ‘A U.S.T.A. Event’ – to the drug dealers doing brisk trade outside the stadia. Wallace itemises one profit-making venture after the other (which is particularly ironic given that the United States Tennis Association is a non-profit organisation), but does so without rancour or any waning of his enthusiasm for the sport. He nonetheless concludes with the subtle implication that the Italian man with whom he shares a bench has the last – and most appropriate – word with, ‘“God**** rip-off”’. The optimism of the essays is thrown into relief by what we now know of Wallace’s lifelong struggle with depression, but the most conspicuous feature of his writing – which requires no extra-textual knowledge – is his scalpel-sharp insight, often accompanied by irony, humour, or both. When Wallace has something to say – whether his subject is the influence of television on the American novel, the inability of heterosexual men to understand Andre Agassi’s sex appeal, the nature of genre fiction, AIDS as a natural phenomenon, the turn to reliance on special effects in mainstream cinema (‘Special Effects Porn’), or Cormac McCarthy as an underrated author – it is always carefully-considered, pithy, and thought-provoking. Here is an example from “Back in New Fire”, a short essay on AIDS that was first published in 1996: ‘Nothing from nature is good or bad. Natural things just are; the only good or bad things are people’s various choices in the face of what is.’ I couldn’t help but think back to William Caines’ courage.
I have only two reservations about Both Flesh and Not. The one that concerns its author is minor: Wallace makes frequent use of footnotes throughout the collection and they are often lengthy and detailed. In fact several footnotes have their own footnotes*, denoted by the asterisk. This peccadillo hardly makes for a literary or journalistic flaw, but I found them distracting, particularly as the footnotes are almost always as interesting as the main text and sometimes as relevant. The second flaw is the publisher’s. In a note following the contents, an anonymous editor from Penguin comments on Wallace’s fascination with the English language and his insatiable desire to expand his vocabulary. This, it seems, is justification for prefacing each essay with two pages of words from Wallace’s ‘vocabulary list’, complete with definitions from The American Heritage Dictionary. What’s the point? It’s about as entertaining as reading a dictionary, because it is reading a dictionary. Wallace’s ardour for language is self-evident – perfervid, to use a term from the “Twenty-Four Word Notes” culled from his contributions to The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. Eleven pages prior to entreating us to use “perfervid” more often, Wallace combines fervidity and insight into the relationship between word and world with the following comment: ‘Inviting your school-age kids to list as many paradoxical words as they can is a neat way to deepen their relationship to English and help them see that words are both symbols for real things and real things themselves.’ My impression, based upon the lists of definitions, the several blank pages, and the rather large print, is that the publishers have attempted to flesh the book out. There seems to have been a determined effort to reach the 336 pages of the volume – perhaps something to do with the size of the spine and sales in bookshops? I am speculating, but I suspect the answer has something to do with sales, which is an irony Wallace would have appreciated.
The keenest blade is saved for the last essay, which is the most disturbing and the most impressive. “Just Asking” was first published in The Atlantic in 2007 and is all the more accomplished for being less than 500 words in length. In this penetrating analysis of post-9/11 America, Wallace calls for a radical re-conceptualisation of the terrorist atrocity. The-then (and perhaps current) vogue was to regard 9/11 as a reason to reverse the democratic development of American and Anglo-American history, a tradition that extends to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Constitution of the United States in 1787, the Bill of Rights 1689, and perhaps even the Magna Carta nearly five hundred years before that. Hence the adoption of anti-democratic measures, such as Guantánamo Bay, enhanced interrogation techniques, warrantless surveillance, and corporate military contractors, in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Wallace asks if the vulnerability of democracies to terrorist attacks isn’t (just) one of the prices of civil liberty. If this seems appalling, he offers an analogy with automobiles: at least forty-thousand people die on American highways each year, but the risk of death by collision is the price American drivers pay for mobility and autonomy rather than a reason to replace the automobile with something else or return to horse-power. There is a reticent, yet powerful, confidence in Wallace’s question, a kind of “keep calm and carry on” attitude which – had it prevailed in the U.S. government at the time – might have avoided the over-reaction which ultimately made Osama bin Laden’s plot such a successful strike on the Homeland. As is so often the case in this collection, Wallace does not necessarily provide the right – or indeed any – answer, but he does ask the right question. And, competent logician that he was, Wallace knew that the right question precedes the right answer. The real tragedy is that the optimism and enthusiasm of the writing persona one meets in these essays was not matched by the flesh behind the mask of words. R.I.P.