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Both Flesh and Not, By David Foster Wallace

Essays ranging from the genius of Roger Federer to pop are sublime, and sublimely flawed

Non-fiction is harder to write than fiction, claimed David Foster Wallace, "because nonfiction is based in reality – and today's felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex." The task of the contemporary essayist is to find "ways to yield and illuminate truth instead of just adding more noise to the general roar" – what Wallace calls the "Total Noise” of American "info and spin and rhetoric and context".

"Deciderization 2007 – A Special Report” was first published as the foreword to an anthology of essays guest-edited by Wallace in the year before his death. It might equally have served as the introduction to Both Flesh and Not, a collection of his "literary nonfiction". Prefatory responsibilities instead fall to the titular piece, Wallace’s analysis of the genius of Roger Federer, and the 14 remaining essays are arranged chronologically. "Deciderization" takes on something of the status of a summation, of a career spent responding to the "tsunami of available fact" with the acuity he praises in his peers.

One of the fascinations of Both Flesh and Not is the evolution it traces in the manner of that response. An early piece, "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young", from 1988, inveighs against the "Neiman Marcus Nihilism" of contemporaries like Bret Easton Ellis and enlarges on themes Wallace would return to repeatedly – the artistic and ethical cop-out of i rony, the impoverishment of a culture transfixed by TV. In the years between that essay and “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open” (1996), Wallace wrote the pieces collected in his first non-fiction collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and the difference is marked – between the brittle brilliance of his conspicuous youth, and the footnoted, panoptic generosityof his mature style.

What makes Wallace's best non-fiction such fun to read is that his digressions and feedback loops of obsessive self-correction were the habits of a mind powerful enough to marshal them into argument. Which is, in turn, what makes him funny, or rather allows him to be: the humour of an essentially serious piece like "Deciderization" is the surplus energy of a writer in easy control of his material. Which is not to say there aren't weaker pieces here.

"Back in New Fire", a meditation on the possibility that Aids might usher in a new era of sexual solicitude, exposes the collection to suspicions of posthumous barrel-scraping it otherwise resists. The Federer essay is busy being brilliant when it comes to an abrupt end; neither it, nor the US Open piece,achieve the depth or reach of Wallace's tennis writing in A Supposedly Fun Thing...

But these are cavils. Whether dwelling on the real-world implications of metaphysics, pop constructions of pure maths, or the superiority of the first Terminator film to its sequel, Both Flesh and Not brims with jewels of insight and expression. Most of all it serves, like all Wallace’s work, less to reconcile than refuse the distinction between intellect and feeling – to make "heads throb heartlike".

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