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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.