Not his best collection, but who cares?
03 April 2013
And of course Both Flesh and Not: Essays couldn't be David Foster Wallace's best collection---he died in 2008 and here is this collection of essays, collected from who knows where (well, the source notes tell you where, but I was too lazy to look) and published in 2012.
Last week I blogged about one particular essay in this collection, but I wanted to come back and consider the book as a whole. All in all: it may not be his best, but it's still David Foster Wallace, and there's still a lot here that's very, very readable. One interesting addition is the inclusion, between essays, of lists of words and their definitions that Wallace found interesting (from the Publisher's Note: "Readers familiar with David Foster Wallace's work know that he possessed an insatiable love for words and their meanings. On his computer he constantly updated a list of words that he wanted to learn, culling from numerous sources and writing brief definitions and usage notes...It was one of the great thrills of Wallace's life to be invited to serve on the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary. The definitions in his vocabulary list reprinted here are quoted or paraphrased from that excellent reference work").
In addition to the tennis essays (there's two here), there's a fantastic consideration of how James Cameron's Terminator 2 completely sold out everything that was great about his earlier movie, Terminator; a chapter on twenty-four words and their usage which is way more fascinating than it sounds (from the entry on "loan": "If you use loan as a verb in anything other than ultra-informal speech, you're marking yourself as ignorant or careless. As of 2004, the verb to lend never comes off as fussy or pretentious, merely as correct"), and the intro that Wallace wrote for the Best American Essays volume that he edited. I'll admit I didn't make it through some of the essays that were book reviews of more esoteric titles, or the one titled "Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama." But still: even a half-book of Wallace's nonfiction is better than a lot of authors' full works.
I always particularly enjoy learning Wallace's thoughts on the processes of reading and writing (it's part of why I really enjoyed D.T. Max's literary biography of him, titled Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace). Here's a bit from the essay he wrote to introduce the Best American Essays volume:
"I'm not really even all that confident or concerned about the differences between nonfiction and fiction, with 'differences' here meaning formal or definitive, and 'I' referring to me as a reader. There are, as it happens, intergenre differences that I know and care about as a writer, though these differences are hard to talk about in a way that people who don't try to write both fiction and nonfiction will understand. I'm worried that they'll sound cheesy and melodramatic...Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder--because nonfiction's based in reality, and today's felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they're executed on tightropes, over abysses--it's the abysses that are different. Fiction's abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction's abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one's total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and way, &c." (p. 302.)
That's about as good a definition as I've read, of both fiction and nonfiction.