Wondering what all the fuss is about, a reader new to the work of David Foster Wallace might wonder if the latest collection of essays by the author—Both Flesh and Not, now out in paperback—is a good place to start.
Wallace (1962-2008) was lucky enough to have commercial and critical success both in his chosen field (fiction) and, shortly thereafter, as a nonfiction gun-for-hire. There are common themes and preoccupations in the fiction and the essays: tennis, precocity, the rewards and pitfalls of entertainment, mathematics, philosophy, etc.
One of the reasons for this genre-porousness is Wallace’s earnest style. Discussions of the philosophical underpinnings of, say, children toiling at pro-level sports come across similarly in both his fiction and essays on the subject. He had a unique gift for demystifying complex ideas without dumbing them down or talking down to his readers. Knowledge, and its pursuit, mattered deeply to him, but he refused to waste time on the pretensions that often accompany high-level thought. What was left was the sterling glint of arguments and stories that felt true beyond their artifice.
However, Both Flesh and Not reads like the twin of the earlier Consider the Lobster (2005). Its essays mow a similar swath of the author’s career, verging just a little older and a little newer at each end with considerable overlap in the middle. The ultimate effect of this selection is a collection that on one hand shows a younger, less seasoned Wallace before he is fully formed, and feels sweetened with a few choice, more recent essays on the other. Flesh is like a collection of B-sides: rarities for the hardcore fan or the academic in-the-know.
The good news is that the thinking and curiosity in these essays is of a caliber consistent with the rest of Wallace’s work — it’s simply in their scope that they diverge from their more gregarious siblings. The fact that, for example, both “Roger Federer, Both Flesh and Not” and “Fictional Futures in the Conspicuously Young” seem like versions of previously-collected essays, but targeted specifically toward niche audiences (tennis aficionados, 1980s literary scenesters) is the small misfortune of the collection at large. Aside from this foible, the quality of the included work is as fine as in any of Wallace’s other collections.
Specifically, the lengthy review “The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress” is a jewel worth the price of admission, and the interstitial selections from David Foster Wallace’s personal vocabulary list are both edifying and fascinating.
But it would be this reviewer’s recommendation that you, brave DFW initiate, to choose somewhere earlier to start your exploration of David Foster Wallace and then work your way back to this particular stash perfect for the seasoned Wallacian.
Here is a possible roadmap to get you started.
1) “Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR”
From Girl With Curious Hair (1989), Fiction.
The story features DFW’s singular ability to conjure tired, middle-aged businessmen in a way that breaks completely with his Cheever and Updike forebears, and doesn’t feature any of the formal shenanigans that can be off-putting to a first-time Wallace reader. Beautifully wrought, “Luckily” is a story about how horrible and essential it is to accept moral responsibility for the wellbeing of others, done so deftly and quietly it still takes this writer’s breath away.
2) “Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from it All”
From A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), Nonfiction.
This is Wallace at his funniest. DFW returns to his Midwest roots by attending the 1993 Illinois State Fair. The descriptions are to die for, and the essay is an early investigation by Wallace into the pitfalls of how we late-date Americans entertain ourselves, and define ourselves by our entertainments for good or for ill.
3) “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way”
From Girl With Curious Hair.
A tour-de-force novella about writing workshops, advertising imagery, McDonald’s, and on-demand pleasure. A good milestone in any Wallace excursion: here you can start to see some of the formal pyrotechnics that became a hallmark of later work. Some of the things Wallace does concerning self-referential fiction towards the story’s final pages are things I’ve not seen attempted or successfully completed anywhere else.
4) “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”
A seminal work of Wallace’s nonfiction career, “E Unibus Pluram” is Wallace’s first fully-fluent swipe at what on-demand, effort-free entertainment has done to the American psyche.
Now that you’ve gotten this far, it’s a pretty good time to try Infinite Jest. At this point, dear reader, you’re familiar with what Wallace is all about and you’re in a good place to imagine what Wallace might be capable of given 1,104 pages. The novel revolves around a plot to use the most entertaining movie ever made as a deadly weapon against the pleasure-gluttonous American populace. Layered above the intrigue, precocious teens sweat through victories and defeats at a prestigious Boston tennis academy, while characters from the less-fortunate shelf of society try to regain control of their lives in a nearby drug-rehabilitation house. More than any other novel this writer can think of, Infinite Jest succeeds in asking what it means to be happy.
6) “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”
From Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999), Fiction.
From what is probably Wallace’s most experimental collection of stories, the eponymous “Interviews” are woven in between nineteen more discrete stories, all of them formally daring in their own right. These non-sequential title stories follow an unnamed interviewer as she speaks to various men, each ingrown and deformed, emotionally or otherwise. There is a level of adult psychology in these stories scarce in Wallace’s earlier work.
7) “The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress”
Both Flesh and Not (2012), Nonfiction.
While it occasionally struggles for focus, “Empty Plenum” is an exceptional nexus of some very disparate versions of Wallace: Wallace the Harvard-educated philosopher, Wallace the reader, Wallace the writer of experimental fiction, and the Wallace fascinated by the impenetrable loneliness of being. It is possible, from “Empty Plenum,” to depart in any direction of Wallace’s oeuvre and still feel a connection.
From Consider the Lobster (2005), Nonfiction.
David Foster Wallace’s account of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in NYC, from his then-home in Bloomington, IL. This piece doesn’t really prepare you for anything else in Wallace’s work, but if you’ve made it this far, you should read it. It is good and poignant and moving to the point of being mandatory.
9) “Consider the Lobster”
From Consider the Lobster
Probably the most accessible entry in the Wallace-as-philosopher file. A late-career entry, “Lobster” asks the question of whether or not our morals and philosophies are just convenient tokens if we fail to change our lifestyles due to habit or preference.
From Oblivion (2004), Fiction.
An American Beauty-style narrative by the ghost of a now-dead, middle-aged suicide. Our narrator, unable to think himself out of the intellectual trap of feeling like a fraud, has killed himself to try to escape the pain of what he sees as the widening distance between him and meaningful connection with other human beings. The ghost, now liberated from the world, can see the future and the past, the inner thoughts of people whose lives he’s passed through, and finally experiences the connection he felt so prohibited from in life. The story swivels abruptly then, as our narrator turns his eye to one David Foster Wallace (who is at that very moment staring hard at the narrator’s picture in a high-school yearbook), himself wondering what drove this seemingly happy and self-composed man to kill himself.
Sadly, from here one finds Wallace—who committed suicide in 2008—seemingly obsessed with the idea of somehow transcending the unpleasant and insurmountable barriers to meaningful life through sheer will or some twist of magic, but is at each turn fraught with the suspicion that these acts of will were just illusions, unreal, and unsure of whether unreal things could still make life meaningful.
His work, which at first railed against the forces eroding our inner lives, would ultimately end trying to find its way out of the wasteland of that erosion. There is no answer, no path, but Wallace’s work bears further reading. And rereading. This writer wishes you luck.
Image Credits: http://www.edrants.com/category/wallace-david-foster/