Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace (Hamish Hamilton - November, 2012)
It is hard not to see David Foster Wallace’s extraordinary mind and his suicide as two sides of the same peseta. It’s almost so obvious a connection, it seems, that it is not even often really enunciated.
The mind that created his body of work, some of the (presumably) last knockings of which are presented here in a thrilling/tiring collection of essays, reviews and, like, sports reporting, is so palpably different from the norm, so freakishly, depth-defyingly inquisitive, verbose, detail-demented, atomically insightful and all the rest of it, that the consciousness that contained it must one day have just given up the ghost. Right? Because, as this collection proves on every page, if your and my brains are houses, DFW’s was a megacity.
(This textual erudition and cleverness isn’t done to show off, he’s not some uber-Amis, each sentence a press statement/case for the defence of the genius of the author. He just is that clever. He just, as he once said, ‘did all the reading’. Like, all the reading.)
(His thoroughgoing verbosity is contagious. It is almost impossible to review him without wanting to insert footnotes. Resist. Resist.)
But this connection that is made, between extraordinary mind and suicide, does it really stand up? And what of the body of work? What is left of the experience of the reader once all the marvelling at the brain-box is discounted – the zero-sum game of the dead genius?
Suicide, plainly, is far more common than a mind like his. But that’s a flimsy kind of logic: cancer is not as common as people being my grandad. ‘How many minds like DFW’s commit suicide?’ would be a more interesting question, but for the fact that there was only one mind like his. And 100 per cent of those committed suicide.
(This feels, in flashes, rather loathsome: discussing another man’s suicide. But it would be hard to argue that suicide is talked about enough. It still had, on my last encounter with a death from it, the capacity to provoke a strange and strained response in people who otherwise consider themselves enlightened or progressive or on this side of the culture wars: that suicide was not simply the fatal symptom of a disease, depression, and was somehow a darker stain on a character than, say, a fatality from SARS.)
Now, structurally, in this review, it would be useful to have paragraph state something along the lines of: ‘this latest DFW collection shows no or some sign of impending suicide or whatnot’ and then I would zip through my responses to the book.
But, I hereby argue that such a link – between death and text – is meaningless.
Either way, the collection is, in parts, astonishingly good. The title track and first up: 'Federer: Both Flesh and Not' is a thrilling, insightful, beautiful and funny piece of writing, filed from the 2006 Wimbledon Final.
Was DFW, an ex-tennis prodigy, drawn to prodigious Federer, the ‘type that one could call genius, or mutant, or avatar’, as some kind of kindred? Probably not predominantly. He was probably drawn to Federer because DFW knew a lot about tennis and Federer really was very good.
(But there is a pattern of that sort of feeling through the book, of DFW reflecting himself in his subject. In his review of Borges: A Life, he muses on the ‘intentional fallacy’; the comparison of life and work, and says of the Argentine (in a footnote): ‘The fact that his fiction is always several steps ahead of its interpreters is one of the things that makes Borges so great, and so modern.’)
What makes DFW so great, and so postmodern, is that he, in seeming to write every possible thing about a scene, manages to make each part of this ‘everything’ significant and full of meaning. Infinite Jest is a work of anti-compression, but it’s also full of joy and heart, full of what every literary reductivist from Hemingway through Carver to Coetzee are praised for leaving out. He puts back in what they left out and what accumulates is beautiful and true.
There are great pleasures in this collection, especially the delightful inter-chapter extracts from his personal vocab files and the chapter from the Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus. Words were another locus for his scalpel-sculpture mind.
When he is off-target, he comes across like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (Bret Easton Ellis was a quasi-nemesis) – droning on hyper-intelligently for pages about Huey Lewis and the News. This is certainly true in his earlier tennis piece here, from the 1996 US Open, during the opening stages of which you do wish he would stop talking about the bloody weather.
And there are passages which cast this reader, at least, on the other side of that row started by DFW and Franzen that writers now don’t read enough. The novel under review, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, apparently: ‘does artistic & emotional justice to the polticial-ethico implications of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s abstract mathematical metaphysics’. I might wait for the film.
But the essay on Terminator 2 is funny and true. The bullet-point review of The Best of the Prose Poem is funny and telling. He is laugh-out-loud, often too. In a footnote he suggests another reviewer ‘must have been on some kind of euphoriant medication’.
And what, then, remains after the brain-box goggling subsides? Plenty. Plenty of heart. There is a small moment, in a strange, short and wrong essay about how AIDS may revivify American lovemaking (it was the 90s), in which he shows all his warm reasoning and desire to use that mind to bring all us stupids into some kind of harmonious discourse:
That hundreds of thousands of people are dying horribly of AIDS seems like a cruel and unfair price to pay for a new erotic impediment. But it’s not obviously more unfair than the millions who’ve died of syphilis, incompetent abortions, and ‘crimes of passion’, nor obviously more cruel than that people used routinely to have their lives wrecked by ‘falling’, ‘fornicating’, ‘sinning’, having ‘illegitimate’ children, or getting trapped by inane religious codes in loveless and abusive marriages. At least it’s not obvious to me.
That last ‘at least it’s not obvious to me’ struck me – I don’t really know how or why – as inordinately wise, and a bit sarcastic, but ultimately forgiving. Loving of this race of dullards into which he was born. There was a lot that was obvious to DFW, that wasn’t obvious to us. For that we should be grateful.