David Foster Wallace was an essayist of the first rankby Matthew Walther / December 7, 2012 / Leave a comment
Both Flesh and Not: Essays
by David Foster Wallace (Hamish Hamilton, £20)
The name David Foster Wallace refers to three distinct writers. The first was a highbrow, encyclopaedic novelist; the second was an essayist of the first rank; and the third was the giver of a famous inspirational talk (“This is Water”) quoted frequently on the internet. I confess to having little interest in the first of these figures, and none whatsoever in the third. For me, Wallace was almost exclusively the author of the pieces collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), Consider the Lobster (2005), and, most recently, Both Flesh and Not.
Tennis was a recurring and fruitful subject for Wallace. Perhaps the best of his essays on the subject is the title essay from the most recent volume, “Federer Both Flesh and Not.” In this ostensible profile of the seven-time Wimbledon champion, Wallace uses his subject’s athletic ingenuity to make a very original (if somewhat oblique) teleological argument for the existence of God. He moves from classic sports journalism—”Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice”—to ardent metaphysical speculation—
“There are three kinds of valid explanation for Federer’s ascendancy. One kind involves mystery a…