Forget the footnotes

David Foster Wallace was an essayist of the first rank

December 07, 2012
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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 and metaphysics and is, I think, closest to the real truth. . . and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled."

—almost as fluidly as Federer himself when outmanoeuvring Rafael Nadal on the ryegrass.

Wallace achieved minor success playing tennis while at secondary school. Thus I am inclined to employ tennis terms, even French ones, to describe his own inimitable prose: he could hit any ball in any position from anywhere on the court, he had le lift, le slice, le revers à deux mains at his disposal whenever he wished. Comparing Wallace with other contributors to Esquire and Harper’s circa 1995 is a bit silly, like ranking Sir Norman Brookes against amateurs from the Warwick Tennis Club. He seemed to have absorbed everything he read. The marble index of Wallace’s mind voyaged from calculus and aesthetics to pulp fiction and celebrity hardbacks; his prose ranged, often in the same essay, from the abstruse to the colloquial, allowing him to dissect complex arguments and build castles in the air with equal facility. He was almost uniquely good at both narrative and belletristic essays: his report from the 2004 Maine Lobster Festival and his review of Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage make both of these bizarre subjects seem singularly important.

I have never been fond of Wallace’s abundant footnotes. (He once told Charlie Rose that they were “very, very addictive.”) Many of his admirers argue that they serve some high-flown purpose, such as wry commentary on postmodern information overload. Forgive me for thinking this so much rot. Wallace was a dexterous writer. If the footnotes had been meant as commentary, they would have appeared once or twice at most. Nor do I believe that, as a friend recently suggested to me, Wallace was simply too lazy to do the hard work of incorporating stray thoughts into the main body of his text. My preferred explanation is that he simply liked the way footnotes looked at the bottom of the page—a sort of Nabokovian chic.

Although Wallace made such literary decisions on flimsy grounds, few essayists of our time have been more serious. This can be seen in his concern for the welfare of animals. In the title essay from Consider the Lobster, Wallace is characteristically inconclusive about the ethics of boiling crustaceans alive. While he admits that he enjoys eating lobster, he is uncomfortable with the actual cooking process:

"However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around."

Even to an unrepentant omnivore there is something unsettling about Wallace’s description of this creature struggling to avoid death by effervescence. Those familiar with Wallace’s biography know that he spent years taking care of dogs whose previous owners had abused them hideously. Such was his sense of responsibility for his animals that he refused to leave for New Hampshire to cover John McCain’s first presidential run for Rolling Stone until he had secured a trustworthy dogsitter.

Unlike many prominent animal welfare advocates, Wallace was equally concerned with the wellbeing of homo sapiens. Often he worried more about our metaphysical than our physical health, as his graphic account of the 1998 Adult Video News Awards, pornography’s belched answer to the Oscars, makes clear. Though Wallace never says as much (here as elsewhere, he is almost maddeningly subtle), he seems to find pornography unwholesome, perhaps even evil. His descriptions of would-be divas enmeshed in the world of smut are, despite the stretch wrap layer of irony with which he surrounds them, genuinely heartbreaking:

"A second-tier Arrow Video starlet in a G-string poses for a photo, forked dorsally over the knee of a morbidly obese cellphone retailer from suburban Philadelphia. . . Some of the starlets are so heavily made up they look embalmed. They tend to have complexly coiffured hair that looks really good from 20 feet away but on closer inspection is dry and dead."

The fact that the slavering “fans” seem nearly as pathetic as the girls themselves is further testament to Wallace’s ethical acumen. Only once (in a footnote, of course) does he choose to condemn pornography outright, and when he does, the force of his judgement is all the more powerful for having been otherwise withheld:

"Dark’s and Black’s [two famous pornographic entrepreneurs] movies are not for men who want to be aroused and maybe masturbate. They are for men who have problems with women and want to see them humiliated. . . [They] are vile."

It is unfortunate that the moral concerns so evident in Wallace’s first two collections are not much on display in Both Flesh and Not, which, despite the presence of one or two very good essays, strikes me as unworthy of its author. I suspect that the book has appeared for baldly commercial reasons. Some of these pieces were originally short internet items; now they fail to occupy two or three not very densely printed pages. (The essay about underappreciated American novels is shorter than some of Wallace’s sentences elsewhere in the volume.) To fill up space, the essays have been interposed with selections of words from his vocabulary list of (mostly) abstruse words and their definitions. But we should not make too much of the great schatzkammer of Wallace’s vocabulary, which contained such treasures as “exeleutherostomize” and “scotopia.” Just as a court genius like Federer cannot be reduced to stats, a writer as perceptive and humane as Wallace will be remembered for far more than the size of his word hoard.

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