Book review: "Both Flesh and Not"
by Erich Hilkert
Feb 06, 2014 | 2089 views |  0 comments | 40 40 recommendations | email to a friend | print
David Foster Wallace’s “Both Flesh and Not”
David Foster Wallace’s “Both Flesh and Not”
There are probably a half dozen athletes, maybe more, who have the rare ability to do things that would ordinarily seem humanly impossible.

Michael Jordan had unbelievable hang time, completely changing the nature of scoring in the game of basketball.

Lawrence Taylor changed the linebacker position forever with his unprecedented ability to completely terrorize opposing quarterbacks.

David Foster Wallace argues in the title essay of “Both Flesh and Not” that Roger Federer deserves a spot among the half dozen for his uncanny ability to arrive at a returned ball a solid second before opposing players, for his foresight, and for his ability to manipulate opponents.

Allow me to make one tangential observation: as I read Wallace’s description of Federer, I couldn’t help thinking about Greg Maddux as an equivalent. Tennis has become a power baseline game (it’s too complicated to give a full explanation in this space).

Federer plays with a power baseline style, but, as Wallace points out, his serve isn’t nearly as overpowering as many of the other top players (Nadal for instance). However, what Federer lacks in sheer power, he more than makes up for with movement and spin.

Likewise, Maddux’s fastball was often in the upper 80s, hardly as intimidating as a fastball being delivered at 102 mph by a 6’10” mullet of a man by the name of Randy Johnson. Like Federer, Maddux had an uncanny ability to predict the mindset of his opponents. Like Federer, he used spin and movement as his weapon instead of power.

Federer is competing at a time when tennis has made unbelievable leaps forward in technology, especially regarding tennis rackets. For the power players, the new rackets help add even more speed to their serves, a major strategic advantage.

Like Federer, Maddux competed against opponents with a major advantage: in his case, it was hitters using steroids. But the parallel is still there: both athletes exhibited the beauty of their respective sports while facing opponents favoring brute strength. As Wallace states, beauty is not the goal of professional sports, but professional sports are a prime outlet for the expression of beauty.

Wallace writes about sports in such a way that those with little interest in sports will enjoy his writing.

He pinpoints things that extend well beyond the game (such as the difficulties of the mother of a ball boy who went through chemo as a toddler) and is able to provide perspective on the game without being overly tedious (did you know, according to Wallace, a pro tennis player makes a return in less time than it takes to blink twice fast?).

Quite simply, it is one of the best pieces of sportswriting I’ve ever read.

Both Flesh and Not contains another piece on tennis, “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open,” only it’s not really about tennis per se. It has more to do with what occurs at a major tennis event beyond the court. Wallace does recount an interesting match: two top players of Greek descent, Pete Sampras and Mark Philippoussis. The match gives Wallace a chance to make an interesting extension to the Peloponnesian War. It’s not as good as “Both Flesh and Not,” but worth reading.

One of the standout essays seemed to really embody the crux of the work as a whole: “Deciderization 2007: A Special Report.” In it, Wallace discusses how he feels he lacks the ability to be concise and clear in his own writing. Indeed, some of his critics argue his writing is too tangential, that it lacks brevity, that he takes too long to state his point. But, I believe, that is why so many people love his writing.

The fact is: Wallace is painstakingly clear, so his fears, while legitimate, are simultaneously unfounded. Part of the reason some people don’t care for Wallace is he goes to great lengths to circle around an issue and look at every layer in order to be painstakingly clear. He thinks about elements that may seem tangential but are entirely relevant to a given topic.

After reading Wallace, a reader understands that Wallace undertook a great deal of time and energy to think long and hard about his subject and more often than not, he found something new, something no one else had previously stated, at least not publicly and certainly not in such an impressive, thought-provoking manner.

“Deciderization 2007” was supposed to be a mere introduction to an anthology. For most writers, such material is nothing more than an easy paycheck, but Wallace went to painstaking lengths to give his introduction a fresh spin. He actually gives a fair critique of the very book he is working to promote (he has a number of valid objections, foremost among them: use of the word best—it’s not the correct word needed).

This is another reason why people enjoy Wallace: he cuts through the pleasantries and tries to explore the essential nature of an issue. In continuing with his candor, Wallace shows a writer what his title of ‘Editor’ really meant because he wasn’t truly an editor, at least not in the traditional sense.

“Both Flesh and Not” contains 15 essays in all. I would be lying if I stated this work as a whole is among his best. However, there are several essays contained herein that can stand next to his greatest writing. Personally, “The Nature of the Fun” ranks with my favorites among his work. On the other hand, “Mr. Cogito,” while it isn’t bad at all, isn’t particularly memorable due to its length (he faced space limitations, too).

It was merely a short recommendation written for Spin. The essays span a wide time range (1988-2007) and cover a wide range of topics.

His book reviews, while not the best material in this work, are nevertheless so well done, they make me feel inadequate in this current attempt at a review. In particular, “The Best of the Prose Poem” found a fresh approach for the format of a book review.

As previously mentioned, the title essay will appeal to a wide audience. Other essays, such as “Twenty-Four Word Notes,” will appeal to a much smaller audience. With Wallace’s death in 2008, new material (the essays appear here in a different form than as originally published) has, at minimum, an appeal strictly from a curiosity standpoint.

“Both Flesh and Not,” recently available in paperback by Back Bay Books, offers a portrait of a writer who was always honest, always striving for improvement, always seeking, and always evolving.

Erich Hilkert is a sports writer for The Daily Home.