Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace – review

A third collection of David Foster Wallace's essays contains genius and damp squibs

There's an aspect of the David Foster Wallace nonfiction reading experience that hasn't, as far as I'm aware, been much remarked upon. To read his essays, reviews and articles is (for me at least) to feel a kind of retrospective anxiety on behalf of the unknown editors who commissioned them in the first place. For instance, one of the pieces collected in Both Flesh and Not, the new assortment of Wallace's nonfiction, is a review of a special issue of a journal dedicated to the form of the prose poem. Early in the piece, which originally appeared in the literary periodical Rain Taxi, Wallace makes a point of explaining the unorthodox way in which it's written (essentially, it takes the form of an exhaustive itemised list of aspects of the text): "The words preceding each item's colon technically constitute neither subjective complement nor appositive nor really any recognised grammatical unit at all; hence none of these antecolonic words should count against RT's rigid 1,000-word limit."

Apart from possibly making his editor's life a living hell, Wallace is doing at least three things here. He's engineering a sort of contradictory workaround for the problem of his own legendary long-windedness; he's subverting the literary genre of the book review in a way that parodies the prose poem's subversion of poetic forms; and he's making an imposing display of his own cleverness and ingenuity. Even at his funniest, he is rarely less than serious, but there's very often something of the precocious child about the narrative persona he presents in his nonfiction.

Depending on your tolerance level for such larkish eggheadedness, you'll either chuckle in delight or roll your eyes at, say, his insistence on providing the square root of a book's ISBN in a review of that book (a solid frontrunner, I feel, for most DFW-ish thing DFW ever did). The wars of editorial attrition that must have been waged over some of these pieces can only be guessed at, but it often seems nothing short of miraculous that he was never physically assaulted by any of the editors he worked with.

It's also, however, one of the happy enigmas of Wallace's work that being irritated is so often inseparable from being enthralled. He cares conspicuously (as all writers do) about showcasing his own vertiginous talent and intellectual chops – maths, continental philosophy, critical theory, tennis: you name it, he knows it inside out, and wants you to know that he does. But he also cares deeply about making a real and profound connection, and is perfectly, comically aware of the potential for his own discursive prolixity to break that connection by trying the reader's patience.

Towards the end of a very long and intermittently brilliant essay on David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, for example, he introduces a concept he calls "the feminisation of scepticism", and then abruptly steps back to acknowledge that he may be pushing his luck at this point, acknowledging that it's probably a "bad term to start throwing around in this late inning, since it requires definitions and so on; this is already pretty long". A page later, he assures us that he's "going to shut up right after I make this idea clear". This is basically highbrow shtick, of course, a sort of nervously comedic nod in the direction of the reader's exasperation, which also doubles as a way of forestalling that exasperation. Sometimes, though, it just comes off as glib and condescending

But this – the essentially dialogic nature of Wallace's writing – is what usually (but not always) prevents it from seeming like a tortuous exercise in narcissistic self-indulgence. Even when he's obviously showboating, there's always a sense that he's showboating to you personally, as opposed to some vast, dim auditorium of blankly interchangeable faces.

The writing collected here is culled from various points between the late 1980s and 2007, the year before Wallace's suicide. Topics include the genius of Roger Federer, the effect of Terminator 2 on mainstream action films, the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert, the niche literary genre of the "math melodrama", a mediocre biography of Borges, and the overwhelming experience of commerce and marketing at the US Open tennis championship. None of these pieces made it into either of the (superb) nonfiction collections Wallace published in his own lifetime, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster, and so they are almost by definition not his best work. This isn't to imply that Both Flesh and Not is an exercise in barrel scraping (the tennis pieces are especially good, and there's a superb short essay called The Nature of the Fun on the contradictory instincts at work in the fiction writer's mind), but there are things in the collection that might have been better left for scholars and completists to hunt down in their own time.

The weakest essay here is Back in the New Fire, in which Wallace suggests that Aids, because it restores to casual sex the erotically and morally salutary element of danger, might not be such a bad thing. "Aids's gift to us," he writes, "lies in its loud reminder that there's nothing casual about sex at all. This is a gift because human sexuality's power and meaning increase with our recognition of its seriousness." There's a strain of thwarted puritanism than runs through his work as a whole, but this is its crudest and clumsiest expression – at best slightly goofy, at worst vaguely sinister. It's the sort of half-baked thought experiment that would get Martin Amis dragged through the broadsheets by his hair if he'd "adumbrated" it in an interview after a few glasses of wine.

Wallace's extraordinary body of work – the novels, the stories, the nonfiction – is already firmly installed in the contemporary canon, and one or two dud posthumous essays are not going to do anything to weaken that. It's a long-standing paradox of literary careers that the more consequential a writer's major work is, the larger the number of not terribly consequential odds and ends that gets added to the eventual account. Both Flesh and Not is, on aggregate, a fine collection, and you could more or less open it at random and find something to demonstrate the man's prodigious talents. But it is, unavoidably, not Wallace at his best.

Contributor

Mark O'Connell

The GuardianTramp

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