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Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace
Photograph: Michael Skigen

Review: Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace

DFW's ruminations on language, tennis and blockbuster sci-fi movies are hilarious and informative but definitely for his fans


By David Foster Wallace. Little, Brown and Company; $27.

Since his passing in 2008, the world has seen a novel and three volumes of David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction published, a fact that only underscores his importance as a writer. The newest posthumous essay collection, Both Flesh and Not, captures some of Wallace’s thoughts on subjects ranging from the state of modern tennis (the sport has become very commercialized) to the faults of Terminator 2 (it birthed what he called “Special Effects Porn”).

The best passages are those that celebrate words and the author’s relationship with them. “The damaged-infant trope is perfect because it captures the mix of repulsion and love the fiction writer feels for something he’s working on,” Foster writes in “The Nature of the Fun.” Nearly as interesting are the two-page interstitials between the essays, containing Wallace’s paraphrased definitions for words in the American Heritage Dictionary, which he wrote as a member of the tome’s usage panel. There is also a lengthy discourse on David Markson’s experimental 1988 novel, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which grants it near-Ulysses importance.

This is both the strength and the weakness of this volume: It is a treasure trove for those who love the complexities of language, but at times, it’s nearly impregnable for the average reader in its scholarly dissections. Exemplifying this is “Twenty-Four Word Notes,” an essay in which the author picks apart 24 words that he considers intriguing. Depending on your disposition, you will find Wallace’s insights either hilarious and informative, or something closer to an endless, nightmarish lecture. Thus encouraged and warned, fans of the late, great author should read at their own risk.

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