MARIA BUSTILLOS: I ONLY MET HIM a couple of times, and only for a few minutes each time, but a very striking feature of being in David Foster Wallace's orbit was his ability to focus on you absolutely. I've heard many others say the same. He had a very penetrating gaze, and as he listened it was if you were the only other person in a five-mile radius. His deep capacity for rapt, complete absorption is a big part of the attraction; it militates against the fatal authorial trap of egocentricity. Wallace almost invariably draws you into his own fascination with the world outside.
ERIC BEEN: He described his reported magazine pieces as “experimental essays” on Charlie Rose, saying that his mode was to be “basically an enormous eyeball floating around something, reporting what it sees.” So it's something he consciously strove for in some of his work.
MB: This collection, like the previous one, attests to that. Maybe just a little less than the previous one. (Was it you, Michael, who referred to these as "B-sides"? Le mot juste, I reckon.)
EB: I think Both Flesh and Not might close the door on nonfiction pieces left to be discovered. There were a few essays I’d never read until checking out this collection, though. For instance,“Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama,” which, despite really sucking at math, I enjoyed. There’s “The Best of the Prose Poem,” which I hope to never read again; and “Mr. Cogito,” which is barely worth mentioning at all. And a lot of the pieces I hadn’t read in years like “Fictional Futures” and the essay on Terminator 2.
So have you noticed that some have been down on the Wallace vocabulary lists that follow each essay in the collection? I know I should be too, but I guess discovering that “hanuman” can mean a “monkey with an eerie humanish face and Amish-looking hair on face” makes them all worthwhile. An issue I do have, though, is that a collection being billed as “15 of Wallace’s seminal essays,” includes “Mr. Cogito,” a barely 200-word capsule review in Spin on Zbigniew Herbert’s poetry book, and a two-page best-of list from Salon called "Overlooked: Five Direly Underappreciated U.S. Novels >1960." There is some good stuff contained herein, but is any of it really seminal besides “Federer Both Flesh and Not”?
EB: Speaking of “authorial traps,” did anyone read Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s piece over at Bookforum in which he posits that Wallace “was his most consequentially gracious when his tenderness and generosity were only barely outpacing his capacity to be a total dickhead”?
MIKE GOETZMAN: Right, the one where Lewis-Kraus says Wallace hated himself for wanting to be liked, and calls this “perhaps his greatest worry." I see it the most in “Fictional Futures” — that struggling with the fear of his own narcissism — the concern that he’s compromising his work, that he is simply contributing to the presiding racket of mass-entertainment.
So, as Kraus points out, he over-corrects: suddenly, he's purposefully obstructionist, introducing the arcane allusions a...read more