Both Flesh and Not

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Not for first-timers.

Both Flesh and Not is a collection of essays by David Foster Wallace, an American writer and essayist of uncommon lingual prowess and checkered reputation. Wallace wrote about pretty much anything that caught his fancy and did so in a way that was as incisive as it was meandering – a kind of stream of discourse that wended its way like a one-sided conversation, dotted here and there at the banks nuggets of insight that were sometimes liable to be lost in the onslaught of obscure, precisely-used words, complex, multi-clausal sentences, and footnotes that took up half the page.

DFW’s essays were therefore not what you’d call easy reading. Free from strictures of structure and bursting with erudition and, at times, a sort of classist self-entitlement to verbiage, trusting in the ability of the reader to keep up, DFW wrote as he thought educated people should like to be written to – and his definitions for what constituted one were strict. But his essays could be surprisingly forgiving.

To continue the above metaphor, to truly grok one of his essays is to engage in a sort of mental whitewater rafting, mastering every treacherous turn of phrase while resisting the allure of breaking your flow by glancing at one of the infamous footnotes. But stray from the path of DFW’s frothy, exhilarating prose and come back and more likely than not you’ll just continue on for the ride – reading about whatever it is DFW has set his sights on. DFW’s essays were more often than not exercises in modular logical flows rather than discursive monads.

That said, however, this freewheeling style lends itself  better to topics of general interest. DFW’s other collection of essays, Consider the Lobster, was an eclectic collection on the most variegated of topics – 911, culinary ethics, conservative radio talk show hosts, pornography, McCain’s campaign – as I recall, a breathtaking journey over the skein of the American lived experience. DFW, writing for a more general audience, was DFW as his best – able to extract filaments of deep insight from places intimately part of some shared cultural fabric.

By contrast, Both Flesh and Not is a more targeted affair. More than Lobster, it is a compilation of essays, many of which first found themselves in literary journals, where DFW writes for a more well defined audience. In that context, DFW goes the opposite direction, wending down into narrow corridors of interest, indulging in his own, specific geekdoms that coincide with the geekdoms of the readers – Wittgensteinian philosophy, number theory – in ways that could alienate a more general audience interested in more of the same from Lobster. The longest pieces are the most symptomatic of these, while the shorter, more general ones are oftentimes too short to count.

There is a literary bent to these – many are book reviews of esoterica long neglected, some meta-pieces about the art and experience of writing, and, most interestingly, quirky and highly instructive usage notes for 24 common and uncommon words (of which I dearly wish there had been more).

The hit rate of these essays for the generalist is iffier than one would expect, and many would not probably put DFW in good stead in the first impressions of the newbie reader. DFW’s review of the philosophical book Wittgenstein’s Mistress, for example, is so suffused with obscure references to philosophy and literature as to muddle the discourse – and over a book which calls itself “experimental” (read: few would have read it).

There is some interest in the collection itself in the sense that its essays are arranged chronologically – one would expect to be taken on a bit of a tour of 1980s America through 2007. In many ways it is an interesting journey – from DFW’s slightly stiff, clearly developing voice in his early works to his oddly moving ode to Federer as a young man, to his concerns over trading security for liberty in late 2007 – but the evolutionary flow is curtailed by the many atemporal pieces, written in the timeless ivory tower of the literati-philosopher complex, that avail themselves of little contemporary or historical interest to the reader.

The upshot is, DFW’s greatest virtues are less on display in this collection than one would hope. For a much better showcase of his essaying talents, consider Consider the Lobster as your starting point. Both Flesh and Not seems an exercise for DFW’s more devoted readership.

I give this 3.5 out of 5 hot dogs

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