3 March, 2013Issue 21.4LiteratureWriters

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Variations on Wallace

Charles Nixon

Both Flesh and NotDavid Foster Wallace
Both Flesh and Not
Hamish Hamilton Publishing
336 pages
ISBN 9781408818305


When the influential, charismatic, and long-haired American author David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008 after a long struggle with depression, he sparked a terribly urgent desire in certain circles to assess his literary legacy. The publication of Both Flesh and Not, a collection of relatively minor works, is one manifestation of this impulse; another is found in the fact that Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen have published novels that place characters with notable similarities to their late contemporary just adjacent to their protagonists. Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot features the intense intellectual Leonard Bankhead, a tall, long-haired scientist whose depressive illness prefigures his amiability with excessive neediness. Franzen’s Freedom makes the tall, long-haired Richard Katz into a sociopathic anti-feminist whose late-period popularity as an artist coincides with the ambiguous unease of selling-out. In Franzen’s novel, the life-long charm which Katz maintains seems to induce, rather than be a product of, his unhappiness.

These variations on Wallace give us a way into the apparently final collection of ‘Wallace-ania’, Both Flesh and Not.1 First, they are instructive as to why such a collection of de-contextualized introductions, reviews of books, essays on the slightest of topics, and lists of words (literally) is something that is today worth publishing. Wallace, in this post-millennial era, is an author of no small significance, and writers of his generation and of those that follow it feel the need to produce a response to his work. It is apt, then, that the response given by two of Wallace’s closest peers is not necessarily to his writing but to a version of Wallace’s character: Eugenides imagines his intellect colliding with an emotional desperation; Franzen sees his charm, coolness, and popularity even as he undermines all three.

So then, this collection of the mostly minor and generally unthematic non-fiction is itself a portrait of Wallace as a prominent literary figure. The opening piece, from which the title is taken, gives us a look at the tennis player Roger Federer as a human expression of grace and beauty. The essay is probably Wallace’s finest meditation on the sport of tennis, a topic to which he returned throughout his career. The brilliance of certain passages in this essay, and its thinking about the connection between body and mind, is marked by the combination of intellect and a stylistic ease that makes so many of his sentences slip through the eye as if they were your own thoughts at play, words to which the mind responds as unconsciously as Federer’s racket finds its way to a hurtling ball. Such moments are among the reasons that Eugenides’ text glances admiringly at Bankhead’s intellect and that Franzen’s Katz can seduce everyone around him. But the essay is undermined by its central theme: the crassness with which Wallace contrasts the beauty of Federer’s apparent perfecting of certain aspects of the human experience with the way the same human functions can go massively awry—the body betraying itself through terminal childhood disease—earns little reflection before seeming mawkish. This first essay then, the collection’s finest display of prosodic skill and the origin of its title, is undermined by the slightly dispersed sentimentality that Eugenides’ portrayal of a figure such as Wallace has diagnosed. The quality of sentiment which the essay wishes to claim as its essential reduction is in fact the simplistic and faintly embarrassing product of a piece of fine writing with little purposeful intellectual content. Wallace’s best writing elsewhere does not always lack a grander intellectual purpose, but, in this collection of odds-and-ends, it unfortunately mostly does. This makes Both Flesh and Not a text that serves to reveal the importance of Wallace now as a literary figure (that such minor work is publishable demonstrates the appeal of his writing), but also the slightness on which some of that importance is based.

Franzen’s portrayal of a figure like his friend focuses near-relentlessly on an unreserved sexism. Moving through Both Flesh and Not, the piece that jarringly echoes this characterization is the sixth, ‘Back in New Fire’. An essay which shocks as readily as any of the adulteries, betrayals, and self-destructions of Franzen’s Katz, ‘Back in New Fire’ is a response to the AIDS crisis that is indefensibly graceless and uncaring, and, in fact, has virtually nothing to recommend it.2 The essay’s advocacy of the rolling back of sexual freedoms as a response to an epidemic, and its presentation of chastity and conservative notions of romance as newly exciting developments, are a surreal result of the through-logic of Wallace and his peers’ advocacy of post-ironic sincerity. Where Eugenides and Franzen express a more formal traditionalism in their work, Wallace, here at least, focuses on the political correlative, despite his often more innovative style.3 In Freedom, Katz’s misogyny is interconnected with an artistic self-importance, such that his arrogance generally usurps his morality. One wonders if Wallace, in the lead up to the publication of Infinite Jest, provided Franzen with some of the material for this portrayal, while writing such an untypically insensitive piece.

Much as the re-publishing of ‘Back in New Fire’ is apparently designed to provide us with an opportunity to come again to Wallace’s work with a more realistic sense of his ambitions, so much of the remainder of Both Flesh and Not is designed to deepen our understanding of his writing more broadly. Generally, this deepening of understanding is not necessarily flattering. The many book reviews that are collated do not demonstrate particularly significant insights, nor do they represent the author’s influences or his reflection upon his place among his peers. The exception is the review of David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which taken alongside ‘The Nature of Fun’ (also found here) and Wallace’s earlier responses to Mark Leyner in ‘E Unibus Pluram’ (an early version of which is collected here as ‘Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young’) presents Wallace as an author vehemently in favour of serious, concentrated, perhaps boring literary formalism, and equally opposed to jokes.4 This motivation imposed itself on his later career and it is enlightening to look back at the evolution in Wallace’s writing after seeing the impulse explicitly mapped-out. The failure of much of the material in this collection though, is that it too often refuses the kind of linguistic “pyrotechnics” that apparently veer too close to “fun”, without having the kind of considered ideas that might sustain a serious argument in its absence. Both Flesh and Not presents us with a lot of fun, but much of the writing here is either extremely slight or else ill-considered. This purposelessness can be considered at one with Franzen’s portrayal of a figure without sufficient self-control or Eugenides’ portrayal of one whose illness limits his abilities.

Only the introduction to a volume of other people’s essays that Wallace edited—‘Deciderization 2007’—presents us with a confluence of serious consideration of a theme (“what should essay-writing be for?”) and verbal-dexterity to match the quality of that consideration. Ultimately, put to this specific purpose, the real quality of Wallace’s best writing and best thinking is apparent in an articulate and thoughtful piece that is unique in this collection. There’s much in Both Flesh and Not that is of value of different kinds, but it is really only in ‘Deciderization’ that we are presented with a representation of the true value of Wallace’s best work.

1 I say ‘apparently final’ because other writing by Wallace does exist, yet to be collected here or elsewhere. It is generally exceedingly minor, but the short fiction at least should be of interest to Wallace fans and scholars, and will probably make up the bulk of a yet-to-be-collected collection.

2 Other, I suppose, than the light it shines on the way Wallace’s fiction reflects on both sexism (in the collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) and homosexuality (in Infinite Jest). Like D.T. Max’s recent biography of Wallace, the re-publication of ‘Back in New Fire’ serves as a reminder not to read such material over-generously.

3 Which is not to say that Wallace’s peers tend to promulgate more liberal values; simply that the imperative to conservatism which this generation seems to feel jars more because of Wallace’s general impulse towards innovation.

4 It is notable that most of the writing that Wallace treats positively in his reviews tends to be the most aridly experimental, in spite of the conservatism often espoused in his opinion pieces.

Charles Nixon is reading for a PhD in English literature at the University of Leeds.