both flesh and not
david foster wallace
Yet another book by David Foster Wallace is published posthumously, so it must suffer from the law of diminishing returns, mustn't it? Not quite. Although not on a par with his previous collections of essays, 1997's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and 2005's Consider The Lobster, there are still enough gems to make it worth the price of admission.
Let's get the gripes out of the way first: the relatively large font size, plus the insertion before each piece of selections from DWF's 'vocabulary list' (ie. words he wanted to learn and took notes on) seem like padding. The word lists, in particular, come off as condescending to the reader. His audience isn't stupid, and anyway most bookworms jot notes while reading, about previously unencountered words they need to look up.
Also, a couple of the inclusions, informative though they are, are little more than end-of-year 'Best Of' magazine lists. 'Twenty-Four Word Notes', though entertaining, serves only to exemplify how quickly specific incidences of acceptable and unacceptable usage have moved on since some of the entries were written (DWF served on the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary).
The collection is not a chronological continuation from where Consider The Lobster left off, and only three pieces are new since 2005: "Federer Both Flesh and Not", which continues Foster's fascination with tennis, previously seen in pieces about Michael Joyce and Tracy Austin; "Deciderization 2007 – A Special Report", his introduction to the 2007 edition of Best American Essays, which he edited; and "Just Asking", a short thought experiment about whether or not democracy is worth dying for.
Of the remaining older material, it divides between stuff probably thought too arcane for inclusion in the previous volumes, and stuff thought too slight or just plain not good enough to be there. The former pieces are, obviously, more interesting and, thankfully, predominate.
"Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young", which Foster never allowed to be republished in his lifetime, is a forerunner of ideas later developed at greater length and in greater depth in "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction", from Fun Thing, and is acknowledged as such by the publishers. "Borges on the Couch" brilliantly takes issue with a biography of the great Argentinian writer which reduces the metaphysical universality of the fiction to banal Freudian interpretations of the writer's private life.
But the real find is "The Empty Plenum: David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress", DWF's discussion of a novel he calls "pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in the country", and which clearly both appealed to and subsequently informed Foster's own aesthetic.
For those looking for warning signs of Foster's eventual suicide, the final two, newer pieces in the book, "Deciderization" and "Just Asking", have an air of desperation about them, of a mind at the end of its tether.
It's known that Foster and his wife considered emigrating from the US after the re-election of George Bush in 2004, and he uses as one of the informing principles for his selection of essays for 2007's Best American his belief that "we are in a state of three-alarm emergency – 'we' basically meaning America as a polity and culture".
Not that he ever becomes simplistically polemical, mind. It just makes him read 'Best' as 'valuable' in the current situation.
He is also great here in articulating his dislike for memoir, in a way I've often thought, but ne'er so well expressed: "With a few big exceptions, I don't much care for abreactive or confessional memoirs. I'm not sure how to explain this. There is probably a sound, serious argument to be made about the popularity of confessional memoirs as a symptom of something especially sick and narcissistic/voyeuristic about US culture right now. About certain deep connections between narcissism and voyeurism in the mediated psyche. But this isn't it. I think the real reason is that I just don't trust them. Memoirs/confessions, I mean. Not so much their factual truth as their agenda.
"The sense I get from a lot of contemporary memoirs is that they have an unconscious and unacknowledged project, which is to make the memoirists seem as endlessly fascinating and important to the reader as they are to themselves. I find most of them sad in a way that I don't think their authors intend."
This would make a nice companion piece to Irish writer Mike McCormack's hilarious short story "The Last Thing We Need", from his recent collection Forensic Songs, in which two gardai discourse on the security threat posed by "the only man in this jurisdiction not to have written a childhood memoir".
"Just Asking", meanwhile, asks some (im)pertinent and uncomfortable questions, around "why no serious public figure will now speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned of more than 200 years ago?"
What differentiated DFW from many of his po-mo, affectless contemporaries (I'm looking at you, Bret Easton Ellis, the twit who recently tweeted, in an egotistical hissy-fit of literary envy, about the post-suicide canonisation of "Saint David Foster Wallace") is that in the vexed relationship between aesthetics and morality, he never bought the prevailing notion that all aesthetics could be reduced to ideology. Furthermore, he didn't want art to merely mirror the times, but to offer some ethical corrective, or balm, without being preachy.
We are still finding out how much he will be missed.