Hamish Hamilton £20

IoS book review: Both Flesh and Not, By David Foster Wallace

Drunken skating and the metaphysics of tennis

David Foster Wallace's non-fiction has always been a good point of entry for readers who are sensitive to high page counts. As great as it is, Infinite Jest can feel like paddling in the Pacific, and The Pale King is most effective once you've already read Infinite Jest. Wallace's essays and features, on the other hand, offer a taste of his style as well as an outline of his obsessions, without the drowning sensation that accompanies much of his fiction.

Both Flesh and Not, a selection of previously uncollected essays, some of which have never been published in the UK, is the fourth major Wallace-related book to arrive posthumously. (The other three are D T Max's recent biography, David Lipsky's Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, and Wallace's unfinished novel The Pale King.) Inevitably, it has something of the atmosphere of a car boot sale in the late afternoon: all the best stuff's been taken. Nothing in it reaches the heights of the essays collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again or Consider the Lobster. But there are pleasures that make the book worthwhile, if not essential.

Two of the highlights are essays on tennis (reading Wallace's work has meant that I've consumed hundreds of pages about the sport; I've certainly spent more time reading about it than watching it), the first of which is both a report on a match and an analysis of Roger Federer's style of play, which is raised to the metaphysical in Wallace's appreciation. Sport is rarely interesting to an outsider but Wallace knows how to fix our attention: "There's Nadal's habit of constantly picking his long shorts out of his bottom as he bounces the ball before serving, his way of always cutting his eyes warily from side to side as he walks the baseline, like a convict expecting to be shanked." Elsewhere, Pete Sampras's serve is described as "near Wagnerian".

It's difficult to tell sometimes whether the beauty is solely in Wallace's perception: it can be rather disappointing, as a sporting philistine, to read about Federer's top-spin, rendered in heroic terms, and then to switch on the television to see what is, bluntly, people hitting a ball over a net on some grass. Wallace may excite us, but he does so through powerful and distorting exaggeration.

As a critic of literature he is less impressive. He can be capable of keen and compact insight, such as when he describes Borges's stories as "inbent and hermetic, with the oblique terror of a game whose rules are unknown and its stakes are everything". But occasionally the literary essays collected here, particularly the long review of David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, give the impression of a drunken skater flailing across an ice rink. He likes to dabble in the academic, but fears tipping into pretension, so he'll write, "the subtextual emotive agenda under the freewheeling disorder of isolated paragraphs, under the flit of thought, under the continual struggle against the slipping sand of English & the drowning-pool of self-consciousness … compels complete & uneasy acquiescence, here"; then to restore the balance, he'll add a colloquialism such as "I'm going to shut up right after I make this idea clear", which feels unnecessarily desperate.

To be fair to Wallace, the Markson essay was a junior example of his work, published in 1990, and at least it is substantial in length and reflects a crucial stage in his developing philosophy. Other pieces in Both Flesh and Not seem less important, although if you're in the mood, some of the slighter moments do manage to sparkle, such as the genuinely funny bullet-point review of a prose poem anthology, which includes the unimprovable sentence: "Square root of book's ISBN: 43,520.065." An early, savage essay on the "Brat Pack" of Eighties writers (Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz) is also interesting as a test run for his more famous piece "E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction".

Some pieces are utterly expendable, however, including a one-page verdict of Zbigniew Herbert's Mr Cogito, and "Twenty-Four Word Notes", a stern look at some of Wallace's favoured words and how we should use them. (This latter piece is curious, bringing to mind as it does the unexpected comparison between Wallace and the Kingsley Amis of The King's English.)

Both Flesh and Not does not contain his best writing, yet what you might be left with upon finishing this book is a headful of Wallace's voice: it catches in the mind the way the best voices do. This perhaps explains the myriad US authors copying his style. "Genius is not replicable," writes Wallace on Federer. "Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform". So yes, this book has its pleasures, but even confirmed admirers might want the posthumous career to pause for a while, before the marginal works start to crowd out the masterpieces.

Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital