David Foster Wallace's posthumous career — Wallace committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46 — has produced nearly as many books as his live one did. In 2010, David Lipsky came out with "Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace." "The Pale King," Wallace's unfinished novel, appeared in 2011.
And this year, D. T. Max published his biography of Wallace, "Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story." Then there are the inevitable cash-ins: the text of a commencement speech Wallace gave at Kenyon College; his undergraduate thesis on the subject of free will; various interview collections; readers' guides to his mammoth masterpiece, "Infinite Jest"; and sundry critical essays on his oeuvre.
Now, "Both Flesh and Not" collects Wallace's heretofore uncollected essays and reviews. As you might expect, it scrapes both the barrel and the stars. Wallace, it says here, was "the most influential writer of his generation." I haven't read "Infinite Jest" (well, I've read the first 20 pages about 10 times), which means I'm as well qualified to judge Wallace's fiction as most of his detractors. But I've read and reread his essays with the rabid, envious hatred that any writer feels in the presence of a greater writer.
Wallace's genius as an essayist combined Rain Man-like observational powers with meth-head levels of obsessional attention. The title piece in his first book of essays, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," is about traveling on a humongous Caribbean luxury cruise liner. This is the sort of topic all but the most intrepid essayists should avoid, because a luxury cruise is a Mass Event, which means it presents too many opportunities for Making Fun of Ordinary Folk. You can score easy points at a Mass Event, because the proportion of bozos to people who sort of know the score is similar to that of nitrogen to oxygen in the atmosphere.
Wallace is too canny to fall into this trap. In fact, he spends much of the cruise in his cabin, which would seem to defeat the purpose of going on a luxury cruise in order to write an essay about the experience. But it's the pages he gets out of just sitting around "Cabin 1009, Exterior Port" — four of which pages are entirely devoted to describing the cabin's bathroom — that prove he's looking past this particular magazine assignment, looking for something large as literature:
The toilet's flush produces a brief but traumatizing sound, a kind of held high-B gargle, as of some gastric disturbance on a cosmic scale. Along with this sound comes a concussive suction so awesomely powerful that it's both scary and strangely comforting — your waste seems less removed than hurled from you, and hurled with a velocity that lets you feel as though the waste is going to end up someplace so far away from you that it will have become an abstraction … a kind of existential-level sewage treatment.
The neurotic thought-train that leads from that sound to the barely sublimated fear of annihilation, the embrace of an almost Freudian repression of our animal nature, is pure DFW. He noticed every little thing about everything.
Which means that, fixated on the bark's texture as he was, the forest sometimes eluded him. When he writes about general social or aesthetic phenomena — television and literary theory in "Fun Thing"; television, sexuality and terrorism in the new collection — he falls back on banalities. Television is popular "because it's at once fun and easy"; taboos make sex more exciting.
But give him a word count for a subject he understood better than almost anyone else — tennis is an obvious example — and his neural pathways would light up like a carny ride. All I know about tennis is it seems to be an advanced form of pingpong to whose play are connected inscrutable phrases like "thirty-love." But Wallace's knowledge of and passion for the game — the first essay in "Fun Thing" recounts his career as "a near-great junior tennis player" — illumine not only the sport but the experience of caring deeply about it.
The main draw of "Both Flesh and Not" is the inclusion of Wallace's famous profile of Roger Federer, originally published in The New York Times. This essay seeks to explain the "mystery and metaphysics" of the tennis god, via analysis of the "Federer Moment," whose full appreciation depends on the spectator's having "played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do."
Wallace locates such a moment, which I probably wouldn't have noticed if I'd been watching on TV, in a match between Federer and Andre Agassi, and describes it in precise enough detail to convey even to an ignoramus like me his thrill at seeing an art he knows inside-out performed at its highest levels. The passage concludes:
Given Agassi's position and world-class quickness, Federer had to send that ball down a two-inch pipe of space in order to pass him, which he did, moving backward, with no setup time and none of his weight behind the shot. It was impossible. It was like something out of The Matrix. I don't know what-all sounds were involved, but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs.
Many of the pieces in "Both Flesh and Not" are much slighter than this, and one wonders whether Wallace would have wanted them preserved. A penetrating review of David Markson's "Wittgenstein's Mistress" and a hilariously footnoted consideration of the 1995 U.S. Open make the grade. But "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young," a takedown of the Ellis-McInerney literary Brat Pack and its epigones, is a period piece about period pieces; a list of five underappreciated novels probably took about five minutes to write; a note on Zbigniew Herbert reveals how little Wallace knew about poetry.
Still, without contributing to the hagiography of David Foster Wallace, we can affirm that he left the essay form in a different state than it was in before he wrote. He wrote of Federer that he had "exposed the limits, and possibilities, of" his sport. Wallace himself, with mystery and metaphysics galore, did no less for the essay.
Michael Robbins is author of "Alien vs. Predator."
"Both Flesh and Not"
By David Foster Wallace, Little, Brown, 328 pages, $26.99