Book Reviews

The Hole He Left Behind: A Review of “Both Flesh and Not”

9780316182379_p0_v1_s260x420Much like the travesty of me and Hitch, my newfound hero of journalism and intelligent conversation, I hadn’t known anything about the late David Foster Wallace before his death (by hanging, in 2008). I hadn’t read any of his novels, and admittedly, given my aversion to even literary contemporary fiction, I likely won’t any time soon (at this stage, I prefer the stories of authors who’ve been dead much longer). I first learned of him by accident; it had begun with a spur-of-the-moment viewing of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s disarming though undeservedly underrated Prozac Nation, an unabashed look at a prodigious Harvard writer’s bout with severe depression (played by an, again, equally disarming albeit undeservedly underrated Christina Ricci). I learned that what I was watching was an eponymous adaptation of a memoir by New York writer Elizabeth Wurtzel—whose Wikipedia page links to Wallace.

Like Wurtzel, Wallace suffered from severe depression. On one hand, Wurtzel more or less eulogized him in a New York article a little more than a week after his suicide; on the other hand, she seized the moment to opportunely highlight the reality of depression, an exploitative gesture I’d implore the article’s readers to both understand and forgive. Of Wallace, Wurtzel writes, “I don’t think he exactly told me that he was a genius, but I must have gotten that impression, because I believe I was instantly impressed by something about him.”

Throughout her article, she says next to nothing in the way of praise or admiration for his work (she even admits that she “never knew David well”); she gives hardly any indication that she’s ever even read any of his books—no mention of Wallace’s Infinite Jest, his 1996 magnum opus. I know, however, what she means when she says he exuded an impressive air; I think we all meet people like that, who intrigue us by way of means we can’t immediately put a finger on. I don’t know exactly what she saw in him that was “genius,” but I’m certain that his last book can put any rookie Wallace reader on a path towards that impression.

Both Flesh and Not is a collection of Wallace’s essays; there is no fiction within these pages—only musings (and separating each entry is a single, short volume from what was Wallace’s “personal dictionary,” a list of his presumably favorite words). I initially found it difficult to do what I normally do with my book-incited essays given this book’s topical incoherence—not necessarily a quality that warrants criticism, might I add. In addition to book reviews and literary critiques, he writes about Roger Federer (in my opinion his dullest essay, mostly because it’s on an athlete of a sport I can’t stand—a sport that he apparently loved), “conspicuously Young” artists (i.e., 1980s era “Brat Pack” writers like Ellis and McInerney), the effects of television and corporatism on youth, the effects of summer Hollywood popcorn flicks on society (which I almost vehemently disagreed with), the meaning of sex (that casual sex is never casual), commercialization in tennis, and in my favorite of his essays, the “genuine relationship, of a sort,” between a writer and his unfinished writing.

He remarks on the striking parallel Don DeLillo once drew between a book-in-progress and a “hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around, forever crawling after the writer (i.e., dragging itself across the floor of restaurants where the writer’s trying to eat, appearing at the foot of the bed first thing in the morning, etc.), hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebrospinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and blurbles and cries out to the writer wanting love, wanting the very thing its hideousness guarantees it’ll get: the writer’s complete attention.”

I don’t know about other writers, but this metaphor makes nothing but sense to me.

Another unique section includes a list of 24 interesting notes, each corresponding to a word I’d initially found uninteresting (or otherwise been wholly unaware of). In addition to expanding a reader’s vocabulary, encouraging a person like me to use words like effete and feckless (“a totally great adjective,” writes Wallace) and explaining the difference between ferventfervid, and perfervid, Wallace sneaks in plenty of funnies.

Take, for instance, his entry under dysphasia:

“This is a medical noun with timely non-medical applications. We often use aphasia to refer to a brain-centered inability to use language, which is close but not identical to the medical meaning. Dysphesia can be similarly extended from its technical definition to mean really severe difficulties in forming coherent sentences. As anyone who’s listened to our current president knows, there are speakers whose lack of facility goes way beyond the range of clumsy or inarticulate. What G. W. Bush’s public English really is dysphesiac.”

(Written in 2004—never gets old.)

One of the things I can’t get over is my emotional response (to what I’m sure won’t be the last of Wallace’s words for me), and that is utter disappointment—anger almost. This man’s writing unavoidably angers me—neither for what it is nor who he was, but rather because his pen is now needlessly silent.

When I read, for instance, an initially perplexing analogy he makes between a fairytale dragon and AIDS, I’m amused, and then I’m taken with the clever, memorable points he soon extracts from it … but then, in the face of all the enjoyment and satisfaction, I can’t help but sober up quickly to the fact that there isn’t more where that came from. Those incisive and crucial questions he asks at the end of his book about freedom and terrorism (some of which I’ve included below)? That’s it. No mas. He’s not around anymore to ask those things, questions that will always be worth asking in a post-9/11 world.

In the sort of somewhat disappointing (yet nonetheless real) world Californication’s Hank Moody so fractiously scolds on the radio, one in which people “don’t write anymore,” where “instead of talking, they text: no punctuation, no grammar, ‘LOL’ this and ‘LMFAO’ that,” (“a bunch of stupid people pseudo-communicating with a bunch of other stupid people in a proto-language that resembles more what cavemen used to speak than the King’s English”) a dead David Foster Wallace is just another hole in an ark that seems only a few more holes away from sinking.

His absence is one less voice to demonstrate and inspire literate thought, literate love, and literate expression when all three are undervalued enough as it is (not to mention done illiterately). And that’s not to say the passing of torches or the changing of things is something to lament, but if the man were alive today, he’d be 50; he’d have had decades more to offer. Had it not been for mishandled depression, a condition prone to crude misunderstanding amongst non-sufferers who are also as likely to mock and forget it, he’d probably still be offering—and hopefully enough of us would be accepting.

I would be accepting, and that’s based off the merits of Both Flesh and Not alone.

Wurtzel ends her reflection/eulogy by reminding us that “there is no happy ending to the story of sorrow if you are born with a predilection for despair”—and that “the world is, after all, a coarse and brutal and cruel place.” As true as all of that is, I prefer to be somewhat of an optimist in the face of it all—and I might as well be since I can afford it. I’ve had my down moments, but I’m not marred by a debilitating, chronic depression. That said, although Wallace’s work is stained with his untimely absence, I’ll read it anyway because it also reminds me to cherish the writers, the “movers and shakers,” the “music makers,” the “dreamers of dreams.”

They are the best at revealing the coarseness and brutality and cruelty of the world—and thus the best at showing the rest of us what we must fix.

♦ ♦ ♦

Excerpt from Both Flesh and Not (“Just Asking”):

“Are some things worth dying for? Is the American idea one such thing? Who’s ready for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as heroes and martyrs, ‘sacrifices on the altar of freedom’? That is, what if we decided that a certain minimum baseline vulnerability to terrorist attack is part of the price of the American idea? That ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our way of life—not just of our soldiers and money on foreign soil, but the sacrifice of our personal safety and comfort? Maybe even of more civilians’ lives?

“What if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite everyone’s best efforts, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of terrible suicidal attack that a democratic republic cannot 100 percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?” —David Foster Wallace

Originally published on PolicyMic (01/19/13).
Edited by Alex Marin.

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