Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace | Book review
A collection of unpublished essays examines Federer, math and fiction writing.
After the death of literary luminaries comes the public analysis of their papers: every draft, every scribble, every dashed-off note to self. Since David Foster Wallace’s suicide in 2008, people have scrutinized his archival materials with (to borrow a DFW image) “novelty shop eyeballs.” The New Yorker interpreted his tax-class notes; the Awl puzzled over his annotated self-help books; his marginalia is celebrated on Pinterest.
Amid all this opining and pinning, Wallace’s perspective is, of course, noticeably absent. So it’s refreshing to reencounter his voice in Both Flesh and Not, a collection of previously unpublished essays and reviews. Right off the bat, there’s his magnetic 2006 profile of Roger Federer, “one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws.” With impressive precision, Wallace describes the kinetic beauty and mesmerizing power of “Federer Moments.” Meanwhile, “The Nature of the Fun,” a brilliant 1998 essay on fiction writing, builds to a Wallace Moment: an articulate, emotionally honest nudge toward a hard truth—in this case, that the fun of writing emerges from confronting the unfun parts of ourselves.
As happens with so many posthumously assembled works, there are some weird inclusions: for instance, a too-clever review of a book of prose poems and a disturbing essay on what can be learned from the “dragon” called AIDS. (“All we need to do is really face this dragon, yielding neither to hysterical terror nor to childish denial.” My marginal note: Huh?) Were he still alive, Wallace would probably elect to edit certain essays, or not include them at all. But there’s enough here to hold readers’ attention. While we continue dissecting Wallace, Both Flesh and Not makes me miss the way he dissected the world.