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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?

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.