Both Flesh and Not: Essays by David Foster Wallace; Little, Brown, 328 pages ($26.99). The first thing this book does is to give us evidence of David Foster Wallace’s “insatiable love of words and their meanings” – “brief definitions and usage notes” of “words that he wanted to learn” culled from his computer, according to the opening Publisher’s Note. So, on page two, we start with “abattoir –slaughterhouse or slaughterhousish,” move on a couple words later to “abscission – act of cutting off plant’s shedding leaves and stems” and thence, many alphabetically listed words later in the first section (affray, akimbo, alevolar, antipodal, aperient etc.) to the final word on the first of many two-page spreads “apophasis – allusion to something by denying that it will be mentioned: 'I will not bring up my opponent’s shady history.’ ”
Nowhere in this posthumous essay collection is there any mention of Wallace’s suicide by hanging which, for readers, makes the entire 328-page volume a kind of published “apophasis.” In its first essay – which gives us a reason for the book’s title – we join Wallace watching Roger Federer play Andre Agassi on television and perform a shot that makes him drop his popcorn and give him “novelty shop eyeballs.” Which would be a hyperbolic analog to the experience of writers reading Wallace. Everything about Wallace seemed to be both extreme and self-evident – the exhibitionistic brilliance of a mind so capacious that he sometimes seemed three or four writers in one, the depression as obvious in his stories as in his manner of dying, the ability to control it all in prose that so often appeared out-of-control (until his final act of control established order for all eternity).
It’s not merely novels and stories other writers admired so extravagantly, it’s the essays collected in two previous collections. Subjects in this, the last, include his beloved tennis, “The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of ‘Terminator 2.’ ” Jorge Luis Borges (“Borges collapses reader and writer into a new kind of aesthetic agent … one for whom reading is essentially – consciously – a creative act”), a lot of “overlooked” works of fiction. Just to make sure you get the point, an essay on “math’s new cachet” is followed by one on prose poems. Some of this is definitely minor. The Yeatsian question such a book seems to ask is major: What “center” could hold such a mind?
– Jeff Simon