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The literary legacy of David Foster Wallace

Both Flesh and Not: Essays - review.

Both Flesh and Not: Essays
David Foster Wallace
Hamish Hamilton, 336pp, £20

When it comes to advising their executors, even the most posterity-minded writers can fall short of being comprehensive. David Foster Wallace left a manuscript bathed in lamplight in the garage where he worked and so the publication last year of The Pale King: an Unfinished Novel, could be seen as a fulfilment of the author’s wishes or at least as an exercise conducted in basic accordance with them. If Both Flesh and Not can’t exactly be called a violation, then that is only because it wouldn’t have occurred to Wallace to leave instructions such as “Don’t put between hard covers articles I have chosen to omit from both of my essay collections,” or: “As for my book-of-the-year selection from 1994, I’m happy for it to languish in Spin magazine, there for scholars, librarians and diehard fans to unearth. Nobody should have to pay for that.”

The book of the year in question was Zbigniew Herbert’s poetry collection Mr Cogito and now, in a book subtitled “Essays”, Wallace’s few hundred words about the book exist for posterity under the title “Mr Cogito”, as if this were intended to be his enduring account of the book in the way that the several-thousand-word rumination “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” (from Consider the Lobster and Other Essays) was intended as his enduring account of Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky – the first four volumes, anyway.

While there is nothing here that reflects very badly on Wallace or that reveals him as anything other than the energetically grappling, genuinely curious, unabashedly didactic, agonisedly self-conscious, approval-hungry, frequently exhilarating and just as often muddled thinker revealed by the collections he presided over himself, it is nevertheless a shame that there now exists in book form evidence of Wallace as a practitioner of modest journalistic undertakings, as well as of mammoth tasks such as the cruise ship holiday that provided the title piece for his first collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and the lobster festival visit that provided the title piece for his second, Consider the Lobster.

When Wallace killed himself in 2008, less than three years had passed since the publication of this latter book. It might be said that his preferred period of gestation was around a decade, if we take the time that elapsed between his first piece of journalism and Collection No 1 and between Collection No 1 and No 2 as the beginnings of a pattern. When it came to sifting through his journalism for Collection No 2, Wallace chose to include nothing that could have made it into the earlier book but didn’t. Roberto Bolaño probably wouldn’t have published his hard drive if given the choice and John Lennon might not have published his shopping lists but there was no clear precedent for the taking of those decisions. Wallace had shown how he wanted his non-fiction to be treated and it didn’t involve the conversion of ephemera into filler.

In other words, if Wallace had survived long enough to preside over a further collection, it is unlikely it would have looked like this. Both Flesh and Not is a mopping-up exercise of the kind that scholars might undertake some time after the death of a writer who had made a large number of choices pertaining to preservation during his life, such as From the Uncollected Edmund Wilson or E B White’s Writings From the New Yorker 1927-76. It is not a genuine sequel, as the posthumously edited and assembled Higher Gossip was to a large degree a genuine sequel, in terms of presentation and the criteria for inclusion, to earlier collections of John Updike’s essays such as Odd Jobs and More Matter.

The new book also complicates the chronological trajectory traced in the previous col - lections, whereby Wallace could be seen moving ever closer to a belief in fiction as a mode of “deep conviction” rather than “ironic distance” – though, as this book displays, his taste for deflection was consistently strong: “There’s a marvellously apposite Heidegger quotation here, but I’ll spare you”; “Marx (sorry – last dropped name)”; “Whatever that’s supposed to be mean”; “Whatever ‘ego’ means”; “Your guess here is probably as good as anyone’s.”

Wallace had written at least two things that he would probably have wanted to collect, though one of them, the commencement address he delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, has already been published as This Is Water. The other, “Federer Both Flesh and Not”, is paid the double compliment of serving both as the collection’s opening essay and the source of its title. It is an unsympathetic piece of work, mechanical in its appreciation of Federer’s style and credulous in its reading of his character. Wallace wrote more enlighteningly about tennis in the opening essay of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, in which he connects his success as a junior and his “jones for mathematics” to the topographic make-up of the Midwest, and in the essay about the American player Michael Joyce, in which his reflections on the modern game were less exalted and more convincing. In the Federer piece, he sometimes forgets that his readers might have watched some tennis and even developed views about it. “The thing about the ball cooperatively hanging there, slowing down, as if susceptible to the Swiss’s will – there’s real metaphysical truth here,” he writes. The sentence is typical of his weakness for both aggrandisement and self-aggrandisement, the praise of Federer being indistinguishable from implicit praise of his own powers of perception and divination.

Neither of the two other pieces written since Consider the Lobster – “Deciderization 2007: a Special Report”, on guest-editing The Best American Essays, and “Just Asking”, a series of rhetorical questions that amount to an argument for freedom over security – could be called negligible. Yet it is easy to imagine Wallace choosing not to collect them, as he had already done with so much of the stuff here – such as the long review of Edwin Williamson’s Borges: a Life (“Borges on the Couch”), which ran in the New York Times in 2004, or the prose poem about prose poetry, or the essay on “conspicuously young” writers, which contains the words: “As of this writing, late 1987”. He presumably thought that the latter essay, which contains a section about television, had been superseded by the even longer and more searching “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction”. Now, in the interests of completism or commerce, we have it, along with the admission, in the acknowledgments pages, that some of the “ideas and language” in “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young” recur in “E Unibus Pluram”.

A more perverse act of mummification occurs in the selections from Wallace’s “vocabulary list” – “words that he wanted to learn” – printed before each essay. In the earlier books, Wallace’s word-learning emerges in his writing – you come across “glabrous”, “anaclitic”, “lallating”, “decocted”. Nobody ever thought that Wallace was a natural writer or that he didn’t work to be, in Benjamin Markovits’s phrase, “at the same time . . . a nerd and a dude”; you only have to see him use the phrase “hellaciously un-fun” on the Charlie Rose show or to read Jonathan Franzen’s astonishingly unguarded essay “Farther Away” to know that he was engaged in a permanent process of image-projecting, as well as an accompanying process of concealment. Evidence of preparatory work such as the word lists have no place in a book solely attributed to David Foster Wallace.

Wallace’s non-fiction looks doomed to suffer as a result of posthumous manoeuvres, at least in the short term. Both Flesh and Not is damaged by the memory of its putative predecessors – one word note disparages a noun, “pulchritude”, that he used in A Supposedly Fun Thing – but all of his non-fiction has been compromised or overcast by the revelations in D T Max’s trim biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. (The titles of the collection and the biography, as well as Wallace’s best-known novel, Infinite Jest, enact a collision of the metaphysical and the sensual or corporeal, as the titles of film portrayals of Bob Dylan – Dont Look Back, No Direction Home, I’m Not There – all contain negatives.) We know too much and might find it hard to take all of Wallace’s pronouncements at face value, as detached or disinterested.

How, for example, to approach the apparently systematic essay on conspicuously young writers when we know that, in Max’s words, “He eyed the output of his contemporaries with envy,” or that reading William Vollmann, “He felt a familiar twinge of envy and anger”? Wallace’s intemperate loathing of Updike’s lasciviousness now looks like a straightforward if veiled case of self-loathing and the final line of the Updike essay like veiled self-portraiture: “It never once occurs to him, though, that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.” It is impossible, having learned so much about Wallace’s upbringing, to locate anything besides darkness and misery in his confession that during his Midwest childhood, he had “this weird, deluded but unshakable conviction that everything around me existed all and only For Me”.

A moment in one of the more substantial pieces in Both Flesh and Not, “Borges on the Couch”, now looks less like a piece of rigorous criticism than an act of denial and deception, not to mention unscrupulous disparagement. Literary biographers are often attacked for trying to plumb the depths of both literature and human beings. But the reader who, as Max reveals, wrote his mother’s initials next to the sentence (in an Alice Miller book) “As soon as the child is regarded as a possession for which one has a particular goal . . . his vital growth will be violently interrupted” might have found it comforting, when reading that Borges’s mother “induced a sense of unworthiness” in her son by urging him “to realise the ambitions she had defined for herself”, to reject the plausibility of such a claim and advise his genuflecting readership: “[M]uch of the mom-based psychologising seems right out of Oprah.”

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide