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Wallace essays hold attention of disparate readers

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Both Flesh and Not


By David Foster Wallace

Little, Brown, 336 Pages, $30

When a successful and prolific author dies, it's basically a given that he or she will continue to publish new books for years after death.

Both Flesh and Not, the third collection of essays from the late David Foster Wallace, brings together a wide range of previously published essays written between 1988 and 2007.

Wallace, who died in 2008, is probably best known for his sprawling 1994 novel, Infinite Jest. He was also one of the most influential American essayists of his generation. Wallace was prodigiously talented; he had the rare ability to be simultaneously challenging and accessible.

His trademark style, densely footnoted pages containing a blend of erudition, humour, detailed observation and self-deprecation, is evident throughout this collection.

Here, as in his other writing, Wallace's interests range widely, from tennis and abstract mathematics to HIV/AIDS and James Cameron's 1991 movie Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Six of the 15 essays are book reviews of a kind. They range from the two-page-long Overlooked: Five Direly Underappreciated U.S. Novels -- 1960 to the 42-page-long The Empty Plenum: David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress.

Wallace is a committed critic, unflinchingly harsh when he deems it appropriate, as in Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama, in which he condemns two writers of novels about mathematicians not only for their substandard prose, but also for their incoherent portrayals of advanced math.

Conversely, when he finds a writer whose work he likes, he is effusive in his praise. For example, though he published a scathing review of the anthology The Best of the Prose Poem ("Total # of anthology's 204 prose poems that are good/alive/powerful/interesting enough to persist in reader's mind more than 60 seconds after completion: 31"), Wallace was so impressed with poetry by Jon Davis published in that anthology that he took out an ad for Davis's book in the literary journal in which the negative review appeared.

Of more interest to general readers will be the nine non-review essays. One of the strongest is the first, Federer Both Flesh and Not. In it, Wallace, a former junior tennis player, meditates on the experience of watching Swiss champ Roger Federer play in person as opposed to on TV.

The essay's combination of keen observation, mathematical explanation, informed discussion of the state of men's tennis, and "near-religious" adulation of Federer's game is strikingly effective at conveying the experience not just of watching professional tennis but of watching professional tennis from Wallace's unique perspective.

The essay The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2 is an engaging look at the role played by Cameron's film in the growth of the big-budget, effects-laden blockbusters of the 1990s. The "Inverse Cost and Quality Law," which Wallace proposes to describe what he calls the "F/X porn genre," is at least as prevalent now as it was in 1998, when the essay was first published.

The most controversial of the essays is Back in New Fire, in which Wallace argues that "HIV could well be the salvation of sexuality in the 1990s," because it restored risk and danger to sex. It is an unfortunate argument, both because it has aged so poorly since its initial publication in 1996 and because it highlights the dangerous potential inherent in Wallace's sometimes overly intellectual approach to contemporary culture.

As a collection, Both Flesh and Not is probably more interesting to Wallace devotees than to casual readers. One of Wallace's great talents, though, is his ability to hold the attention of readers whose interests may not be as wide-ranging or as idiosyncratic as his own.

Brandon Christopher is an assistant professor in the English department at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 J7

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