Review of Both Flesh and Not: Essays by David Foster Wallace

Not sure if I’d recommend this one. It’s DFW, and yes, it’s witty, acerbic, articulate, et. al. but the items under discussion did not engage me in the way that Lobster, and Supposedly Fun Thing did in their turn. I’d therefore call this his least successful collection.

They padded the thing with extracts from his vocabulary lists, which I found a might tedious. If I wanted to look up definitions for abstruse words, I’d Google. But why would I? Wallace himself rails against Academese – how people use big words to sound smart. He distinguishes proper smart-writing as extra-precise, and surprising et. al. You could play the double-bind game and say he has to point out snobbery to patently avoid it, and he goes out of his way to call himself a snob, but then tiptoes around the whole snobbery issue elsewhere. It comes off as him not being able to decide whether he wants to embrace the self-image or be repulsed by it. (See “American Usage” essay from Lobster for concrete evidence of snobbery embrasure).

The title essay is a methodical Federer expose, reminiscent of Jest. Plenty of tennis trivia. Not sure I needed the close-up, lengthy descriptions of jock straps etc. Overall, an illuminating, journalistic look at the sport. But again, he’s written THE Definitive novel on Tennis. The not-so-Finite Jest. Ergo, this is less impressive.

Also to be found here is his long essay on Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which I found more lovely than the novel itself. He studied Witt back in his college thesis days, and he is something of an authority. It helps, if you’re like me and didn’t get much out of Markson’s seminal work, to disabuse you of your disillusions.

In another: Probably the best metaphor for a writer’s relationship to his manuscript, a mini-essay, which expands a comparison ripped from Delillo’s Mao II. Extremely memorable.

He goes on to review a terrible Borges biography and a duo of novels from the “math prodigy” genre, which latter essay turns out to be well-nigh unbearable.

A Terminator 2/ film industry article flexes his pop culture musculature. A funny and telling thing, that one is.

Then the explanation of “conspicuously” young writers of his generation, up and coming, breaking rules, and a cynical analysis of what they are actually doing. I already knew what he was telling me. Anyone who reads someone like Bret Easton Ellis can get the feel for why it attracted attention. This one made DFW seem like a snide, weasel-shaped anti-writer.

I was entertained. I got more of Wallace’s distinct voice. But I was not enthralled.

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