This is the third of the three books that I am going to start out each new year reading, I am glad to have finished all three of them in January (despite the time this is/was posted it was finished on the 30th), as DFW might say “It augers well for the year.” For those of you who might not already know “Both Flesh and Not” is a collections of Essays by David Foster Wallace published posthumously in 2012, and which the publishers were kind enough to put onto audio book format. They even took on a creative way of handling the rampant footnotes that tend to find themselves in Wallace’s writing. They had Robert Petcoff (Wallace’s Primary reader and no easy task at that) read the main text while the footnotes were read by Kathrin Kellgren, which keeps it very easy for the listener to know if he/she (interesting here to note that I noticed this time listening that whenever Wallace stumbles upon the generic person, where most people either opt for “he” or more politically correct “he/she” Wallace seems to opt for the feminine usage only. I have not noticed this in his other writings but I will be looking) is listing to a footnote or main text. It is a good book but after the third reading of it en mass, I am not so enamored with it as I once was. There are 15 essays in the collection, and they are divided by blocks of words and their definitions, each block of which is usually ~5 minutes long, few of which are words that anyone ever uses.
Federer: Both Flesh and Not – despite not being interested in tennis or sports in general, this is actually a surprisingly interesting article, giving both the history of a specific tennis player (the Swiss Rodger Federer) and the history of Wimbledon, the scientific advancements of tennis, etc. etc. there are a lot of connections between this essay and the book “Outliers” which is one of the best non-fictions ever written in my opinion.
Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young – another good article, written in the late 80’s about the emergence of hyperminimalist writing and very young (at the time) writers, what these writers are lacking in ability, and how this does not “auger well” for the future of writing. There is also some healthy criticism of MFA programs in general, and this is one of a number of reasons why I have not gone for an MFA yet (and don’t really want to, perhaps a topic for a post at some point in the future as well). The specific writers that Wallace goes after in this essay are: Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis. I’ve personally come away from both writers with mixed feelings at best, though I don’t find them nearly as problematic as Mr. Wallace seemed to (ironically when he was there age).
The Empty Plenum – this is a highly elaborate review/criticism of David Markson’s “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” which because of this specific essay I have read. Quite a good book, however this would appear to be Mr. Wallace’s favorite book of all time. It is definitely a weird book, highly postmodern, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes the more unusual books: read it, than read this review of it.
Mr. Cogito – a very short review of a collection of poetry by Zbignew Herbert, a polish poet who, as you can imagine, lived through some tough times. Wallace argues that harsh conditions are what produce beautiful poetry and why American poetry does not compare. This may or may not be true, but is it a fair trade? I think not, I’d rather put up with bland poetry and decent societal conditions, personally.
Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open – this essay is okay, it’s another one about tennis, this time the U.S. Open in general, and it reads more as a slice of life, of Wallace visiting the U.S. Open. It’s alright but it’s not quite as good or interesting as the first and other tennis essay.
Back in New Fire – this essay kind of pisses me off. Basically the point that Wallace is making here is that Heterosexual AIDS is nature’s way balancing risk with sexual gratification in an age where stigma no longer applies. The argument is interesting, in a purely philosophical sense, I think that he give’s too much respect to the disease. Though he claims that it is neither a good thing nor a bad thing in the essay, the mire fact of arguing that it serves as a equalizer in place of stigma, inevitably makes the idea “good” for the reason that it is defended. Arguments like this could inevitably give fodder to the people who don’t see the disease as a thing that needs to be cured. Originally it was thought that AIDS only affected homosexual men, and since (at the time) a lot of people didn’t care about them, they chose to ignore the problem (i.e. the old “it doesn’t affect us” argument) this takes the same argument another step saying that “it only effects promiscuous people so why should we care?”. True Wallace does not in so many words imply this outright, but if you read between the lines, and look at this as something more than a philosophical exercise, the implications can be read loud and clear. The essay is fairly short, so if Wallace wanted to nullify these implications he would have done well to indicate how horrendous AIDS is, but instead he takes time explaining how sexual liberation from the sixties turned into sexual malaise in the seventies. Read it yourself and see what you think.
The (as it were) Seminole Importance of Terminator 2 – according to Wallace, in this essay, the higher a movies budget is, the worse it will inevitably be. He gives a lot of details about how much time and effort is spent on the special effects of the title movie. What he didn’t seem to realize at the time of writing this, was that these special effects, these CGI segments, would eventually because not innovative but standard, overused in movies, and cheapen the look of the entire film industry en mass. I’ll do a longer article about this in the future.
The Nature of the Fun – I always forget what this essay is about. Finally I remember, it’s about writing itself. The process of writing, how painful it might be but also how fun it can be, and how gratifying it is to finish something. Its okay, obviously I’d remember it better if it was a great or awful essay.
Overlooked: Five Direly Underappreciated U.S. Novels >1960 – one of these novels is “Wittgenstines Mistress” of course. Another is “Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West” by Cormac McCarthy. I read this second book last summer, and I did not get it at all, in fact I thought it was quite bad, and preceded to forget about it for the next two month or so, then by the fall it started to come back to me, in small passages and settings, the strange cast of characters, the unusual writing style. Maybe it was very good after all, I think I may actually read it again, but I got a lot of books to get through before then. The other three novels are: “Ominsetter’s Luck” “Steps” and “Angles” by William H. Gass, Jersey Kazinsky, and Denis Johnson respectively. I’ve read two books by the last author but not “Angles.” I’d like to read all 5 of these, but finding them can be difficult, even in paper form.
Rhetoric and the Math Mellow Drama – this is a long review/critisizm of two different translated novels both of which feature high level math at the center. According to Wallace neither of the books are very good, and as I can’t seem to find copies of either, I can’t say one way or another. But I did like the heavy analysis of math topics of this essay, and because of it, I have added a character to my novel Beer who is a math super genius.
The Best of the Prose Poem – This article is written in an interesting format which Wallace calls an “Indexical Book Review” in which he sets up questions and then answers them, which makes it interesting to read. This was a difficult essay to get through the first time around for two reasons. One: I didn’t know what a Prose Poem was, and two: Wallace was not able to explain it. Rather then explain it, which could have been done quite easily, he chose to dicker around with the details of what it is related to, what it is not, and so on. For those of you left in the dark, like me, here’s what it is. It’s poetry written in paragraph form as opposed to being broken up in lines. Need an example? If William Carolos Williams “Red Wheelbarrow” was a prose-poem and not a traditional poem it would look like this: “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rainwater, beside the white chickens.” Get it? Of course you do, it’s not complicated. I’ve read two of the poems mentioned in this essay: “The Bait” by Jon Davis, and “The Newly Renovated Opera House on Gilligan’s Island” by John Yau, and you can read them for yourself by clicking the links.
Twenty-Four Word Notes – the first time I went through this essay, I was thinking to myself: “oh, this is good, I didn’t know this, thank you Mr. Wallace, etc.” and I proceeded to try and commit all the different things he talked about in the article to memory. This time reading it, which is at least the sixth time (I’ve read some of these essays multiple times outside of reading the entire book) I realized that few people understand some of these inaccuracies of word usage, and fewer still would reel (as he seems to) when these mistakes are made, i.e. using the word “that” for the word “who” or the fact that “begs the question” does not mean “invites the question.” These are extremely persnickety pet peeves that Mr. Wallace seems to have about words. Considering that Wallace was an experimental writer, bent language far beyond its perceived limits, started many of his sentences with “and but so,” wrote 75 word sentences, wrote paragraphs that would go on for pages, it “begs the question” should we really be this concerned with word usage? And also, how many people are even going to notice these things?
Borges on the Couch – this is another article I don’t particularly care for, because it is a criticism/review of a biography of the writer Borges, and the biography acts (weather well or poorly) as a criticism/review of Borges, i.e. it is a review of a review (making this paragraph and review of a review of a review). This alone wouldn’t make it a particularly bad review, but unfortunately Wallace seems to believe that this Borges is an extremely well known writer, and he can just allude to various stories Borges has written, with minimal explanation of the work at hand, and the readers of this review will already know exactly what Wallace is talking about. He’s wrong, he’s not, we don’t. I’ve never heard of Borges before. Maybe I’ll check him out one of these days, but unfortunately this essay makes me feel as though I am too late to the game for him, so why start now.
Deciderization 2007 – this was the introduction to the Best American Essays 2007, which issue Wallace was the guest editor for, and got to pick the 20 or so essays for the collection that year. He spends a lot of time explaining how the introduction is not an important part of the book, as no one reads it, and neither is the guest editor for any number of reasons. I disagree, though I don’t usually read the Best American Essays, I do read Best American Short Stories, and I usually read the introduction first, also I may be more or less inclined to buy/read that year’s edition if it’s guest editor is someone I know and/or like, for instance Stephen King, when he edited the BASS of the same year, 2007. Aside from the let’s say “over humility,” the essay is pretty good, had I been a fan of Wallace back in 2007, I probably would have gotten the book just because of his name on it, I may still get it if I can find it somewhere so I can see what exactly he likes in the essays he reads.
Just Asking – along with the previous essay, this one gives us just the slightest bit of insight into Wallace’s political opinions, which outside of these two articles are difficult to pin down given the clues left in his writing, which is highly apolitical. For various reasons (see the introduction to this blog) I do not have an opinion on this either way.