He praised essays showcasing "what a first-rate artistic mind can make of particular fact-sets" whether those involve cellphone ring tones, the meaning of stage fright or the "near-infinity of ways to experience and describe an earthquake." He celebrated the qualities of "clarity, precision, plainness, lucidity and the sort of magical compression that enriches instead of vitiates." And he looked at how pieces "handle and respond to the tsunami of available fact, context and perspective" that constitutes our "Total Noise" culture today a culture that so overwhelms us with data and rhetoric and spin that it's difficult to absorb, much less try to make sense of.
Wallace who committed suicide in 2008 – was his generation's most eloquent cartographer of the Total Noise society. In his fiction and nonfiction he mapped this new America that was entertaining itself to death and reeling at once from overstimulation and boredom, information overload and emotional numbness.
He charted the absurdities and sadnesses of life in this land of hype and hyperbole, and he did so in incandescent prose that was as magical as it was elastic. Compression and plainness were not among his gifts, but clarity, precision and lucidity were. His expansive, metastasizing narratives and baroquely detailed descriptions represented efforts to pin down this increasingly incomprehensible reality with exactitude and nuance.
Both Flesh and Not, a new collection of Wallace's nonfiction, isn't as choice a selection as A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997) or Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2005). There are a couple of disposable entries, and a thoroughly offensive one in which Wallace perversely argues that casually promiscuous members of his own generation "might well come to regard AIDS as a blessing, a gift perhaps bestowed by nature to restore some critical balance, or maybe summoned unconsciously out of the collective erotic despair of the post-60s glut."
Even the more compelling essays in this volume – like so much of his fiction – could have done with a little judicious pruning. But at their best these essays remind us of Wallace's arsenal of talents: his restless, heat-seeking reportorial eye; his ability to convey the physical or emotional truth of things with a couple of flicks of the wrist; his capacity to make leaps, from the mundane to the metaphysical, with breathtaking velocity and ardour.
An article about Roger Federer moves from a discussion of his skills as a tennis player to a meditation on sports as "prime venue for the expression of human beauty" to musings about "whatever deity, entity, energy or random genetic flux" that could have produced both sick children and a paragon of grace like this athlete.
That same article communicates the state of wonder Wallace feels at watching Federer make certain shots on TV: "I don't know what-all sounds were involved, but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs."
Many of the essays here deal with ideas or themes the author has explored elsewhere. The Nature of the Fun probes his efforts to articulate (perhaps to himself) the reasons for writing, noting that what starts out being "a lot of fun" all too often devolves into "an overwhelming need to be liked." And Twenty-Four Word Notes reminds us of Wallace's fascination with grammar and usage (interests inherited from his mother, an English teacher). He gives us a little lecture about when to use "whether" and "if," and deems "utilise" a "noxious puff-word" used by pompous twits and insecure naifs, and "feckless" a "totally great adjective" that "lets you be extremely dismissive and mean without sounding mean."
Wallace taught writing for many years, and the stronger entries here underscore just what a wonderful teacher he must have been. He dissects other authors' work with a fellow craftsman's sympathy and hard-nosed knowledge of technique, and in an essay about Jorge Luis Borges he pushes the reader to question knee-jerk assumptions about the connections between a writer and his life.
Some of the critical essays in this volume feel dated – or point up the light speed at which our culture has changed over the last several decades, how things that once seemed like startling new developments are now taken for granted, and how quickly some popular trends have vanished or been transcended.
A 1998 piece on the 1991 movie Terminator 2: Judgment Day, for instance, expresses surprise and dismay at the sophistication of special-effects sequences in that movie, pointing out that "they were the movie's heart and point" – the "rest of T2 is empty and derivative, pure mimetic polycelluloid.
In a 1988 piece about Conspicuously Young writers (most famously represented by the likes of Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis and David Leavitt), Wallace writes that "the vast bulk of the vast amount of recently published CY fiction reinforces the stereotype that has all young literary enterprises falling into one or more of the following three dreary camps": "Neiman-Marcus Nihilism" featuring salon-tanned yuppies, "none of whom seem to be able to make it from limo door to analyst's couch without several grams of chemical encouragement",
"Catatonic Realism, aka Ultraminimalism, aka Bad Carver," which specialises in the "deliberately flat, understated, 'undersold""; and "Workshop Hermeticism" or creative-writing-programme stories "nice, cautious, boring" and "as tough to find technical fault with as they are to remember after putting them down."
Today's literary landscape, of course, is exponentially richer, more variegated and more complex – in no small part because of Wallace's influence on contemporaries and younger writers, who have learned from him how to break the rules, how to combine the high and the low, the pop and the highbrow, and how to find idiosyncratic voices of their own. As Wallace writes here about Roger Federer: "Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform."(Michiko Kakutani/New York Times News Service)