The latest, but not last, of David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published work (a new interviews collection is due in December), Both Flesh And Not performs a service by gathering in one, nicely typeset place essays previously available scattered online for free, often in PDF form. While it’s largely intended to capitalize on Wallace’s ever-increasing readership and take advantage of unmonetized assets, it’s a far more useful volume than This Is Water, which portentously offered up Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon commencement address with one sentence per page, making for a blatant cash-grab.
Both Flesh And Not begins with a 2006 essay about Roger Federer, then goes back to 1988, staying on chronological track for the rest of the collection. 1988’s “Fictional Futures And The Conspicuously Young” warns of how American fiction could see consequences from dull writer’s-workshop grads ignoring seismic shifts in fiction and literary theory in favor of polished emptiness. Compellingly impassioned, though unspecific about Wallace’s targets, the essay anticipates 1993’s “E Unibus Plurum,” with its more focused diagnosis of television’s effect on public life and contemporary fiction. Next is a lengthy 1990 review of David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which lets Wallace return to the philosopher whose work he discussed heavily in his first novel, The Broom Of The System.
An essay on the 1995 U.S. Open is a companion to Wallace’s cruise-ship and county-fair dispatches for Harper’s, an opportunity to annotate American commerce in action around the margins of an oversized media event. A series of shorter pieces follow (including a dated, entirely minor 1996 recasting of AIDS as spur to the renewal of sexual modesty and increased ardor), not all of which are consequential. Only the most dedicated word hounds won’t blanch before 20 pages of annotations for 24 words, a militantly grammarian introduction to the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus.
In the strongest late-period essays, Wallace explores recurring interests from different angles, contemplating math in a review of two novels he judges mostly failed attempts to interest the public in the topic. And in an ostensible intro to The Best American Essays 2007, he wonders how Americans can handle information overload and become responsible citizens. (These musings anticipate the democracy-minded concerns of The Pale King.) The collection is rounded out with words and definitions from Wallace’s vocabulary collections, a very niche supplementary bonus.