... your guest editor is not really even the main sub-subcontractor on this job. The real Decider, in terms of processing info and reducing entropy, is Mr. Robert Atwan, the BAE series editor ... he's really the one doing the full-time reading and culling.
Given the amount of quiet, behind-the-scenes power he wields over these prize collections, you're entitled to ask about Mr. Atwan's standard's for inclusion and forwarding;
[Here Wallace gives us the footnote for this page; he displays affection for peppered and peppery footnotes:
|I believe this is what is known in the nonfiction industry as a transition. We are starting to poke tentatively at 'Best', which is the most obviously fraught and bias-prone word on the cover.|
but he's far too experienced and cagey to encourage these sorts of questions. ...
I, on the other hand, have a strict term limit. After this, I go forever back to being an ordinary civilian and BAE reader (except for the introductions). I therefore feel free here to try for at least partial transparency about my Decidering criteria, some of which are obviously — let's be grownups and just admit it — subjective. ...
But it is possible for something to be both a quantum of information and a vector of meaning.
“Both Flesh and Not” is David Foster Wallace’s rummaging-through-the-trunk-and-oh-what-a-trunk essay collection, the third book of his published since his death.
It differs from his previous two essay / reportage / review collections, “A Supposedly Fun Thing” and “Consider the Lobster,” in that (a) obviously David wasn’t around to choose and arrange the sequence of all the pieces (though, over the years, he had many conversations with his agent and editor about what might eventually go into a third collection), (b) he consequently couldn’t follow his usual process in deciding whether to use his original drafts, the published versions, or some combination of the two (it was always a particular pleasure for him to undo, as he once wrote to Don DeLillo, the cuts made to “make extra room for Volvo ads”; his publisher, though, evaluated many versions and added back in material that had been edited out), and (c) it captures the whole span of D.F.W.’s nonfiction life in a way that the earlier ones don’t. “B.F.A.N.” includes Wallace’s first published nonfiction piece, the show-offy 1988 essay on his generation’s novelists, “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” and takes us up to the nuanced, adroit offerings of his mid-forties. Here you’ll find, for instance, “Deciderization: 2007: a Special Report,” Wallace’s deft intro to the “Best American Essays” volume of that year (in which he coins the term “total noise” to describe the current media and information environment).
Reading “Both Flesh and Not,” you see Wallace grow from a puppy to a lion—a somewhat cranky one. His need to be loved by the reader of course remains; the transaction just grows more complex, or, as Wallace would have put it, “fraught.” But Wallace never loved his nonfiction as he did his fiction. It was too easy, too unencoded; it took him too far from the Great White Novel that he was always trying to write. “I do not know why the comparative ease and pleasure of writing nonfiction always confirms my intuition that fiction is really What I’m Supposed to Do,” he wrote to his miglior fabbro DeLillo in 2001.
Why weren’t these essays collected before? The answers vary. I’m pretty sure that Wallace himself passed over “Fictional Futures,” begun at the ripe age of twenty-five. It was the first essay he had ever written for publication, and he was psyched that it would appear in Review of Contemporary Fiction alongside one by the chief source of his literary unease, John Barth (and that he’d be paid two hundred and fifty dollars). The essay sparkles with energy as it breaks down the youthful literary scene into three sections with typically ambitious, Wallacian titles—“Neiman-Marcus Nihilism,” (Ellis and McInerney), “Catatonic Realism” (everyone who wrote like Raymond Carver, except Raymond Carver himself), and “Workshop Hermeticism” (every M.F.A. writer, except D.F.W). I’m guessing that he came to think the essay tried too hard, “Pawing,” as he later wrote in a letter to DeLillo about Updike, “at the reader’s ear like a sophomore at some poor girl’s bra.”
His editor at one point counselled him against reprinting “Back in New Fire,” his modest 1996 proposal that AIDS had put the sizzle back into one-night stands, that it might prove “the salvation of sexuality in the 1990s.” Today it’s hard not to read it as a gloss on Wallace’s own guilt-ridden sex life in this period, thoughts between the enseamèd sheets. And “The Empty Plenum,” his 1990 examination of David Markson’s “Wittgenstein’s Mistress”? Why it was never before collected, I have no idea—it’s a great piece, a model. It’s one of the most exciting arguments I’ve ever read that a book that at first glance seems unappetizing is in fact indispensible. Markson, deemed to have written “one of the U.S. decade’s best,” was properly floored. We should all get such a blurb.
And if I ever get a D.F.W. tat, this is the one I’d want:
The need to get the words & voices not only out—outside the sixteen-inch diameter of bone that both births & imprisons them—but also down, trusting them neither to the insubstantial country of the mind nor to the transient venue of cords & air & ear; seems for Kate—as for anyone from a Flaubert to a diarist to a letter-fiend—a necessary affirmation of an outside, some Exterior one’s written record can not only communicate with but inhabit.
But most of these essays haven’t shown up before for reasons of chronology. They were written after Wallace’s last collection, “Consider the Lobster,” was readied for press, in 2005. That’s a good thing, because in nonfiction, pace his disdain for his own work, Wallace kept getting better. The book is properly capped by and named for his masterly paean to top-level athleticism, “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” which came out in 2006 in Play, the sports supplement to the New York Times Magazine under the title “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.”
The article remains astonishing, in big and trivial ways. Example of the latter: it contains possibly the only use in Times Magazine history of the serial comma. To deviate from the Gray Lady’s style rules, as the story was told to me, permission had to be sought all the way at the top, from the then executive editor, Bill Keller. “For David Foster Wallace, anything!” Keller was reported to have responded (it’s a quote that Keller, when I asked him about it recently, found plausible, to my surprise).
“Federer Both Flesh and Not” begins with a wonderful description of Roger Federer’s tricky setups to outwit Andre Agassi on a crucial point at the 2005 U.S. Open and expands from there to tell us about all the things Wallace cared about: excellence, elegance, originality, trying while seeming not to try, the burden of life in human form, and the view of the stars from the gutter. “What great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of,” Wallace writes of Federer, “But these dreams are important—they make up for a lot.” This was itself something of a feint. What really interested Wallace was what they could do with their minds. “B.F.A.N.” seen thus, is also a companion volume to the unfinished “The Pale King,” another complex, saddening ode to the sort of mindful, focussed person that Wallace could never be.
D. T. Max, a staff writer, is the author of Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.
Illustration by Philip Burke.