|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Ben Mauk on Both Flesh and Not and The Way the World Works by David Foster Wallace and Nicholson Baker
The Thrills of Miscellany: David Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker, and Supplemental Work
November 25th, 2012
AT THE RISK OF LOSING my official jazz-snob porkpie hat, I must admit: my favorite piece of Thelonious Monk’s isn’t one of his justly famous, conceptually ambitious original compositions; nor is it some early, rollicking improvisation with Billy Smith and Arts Blakey or Taylor. Even though I respect and in some cases love those serious classics, in all their assured immortality, Monk’s fairly unhip solo rendition of “Just a Gigolo” stands as my favorite from his, and just about anyone else’s, oeuvre: not “Ruby, My Dear,” not “Round Midnight,” not “Epistrophy,” but rather the late ‘20s Austrian import that was owned for many years — in the way certain standards become owned — by Louis Prima, and which is now culturally affiliated, for better or worse, with David Lee Roth.
Monk recorded “Gigolo” several times, both in the studio and at clubs, often when he needed a few minutes to fill out an LP or live set. The superior (for reasons forthcoming) cut is from the live album Misterioso, but all are similarly subdued and modest; none of them showcases Monk’s hypoxic, thrumming mastery of the instrument, as do their wilder neighboring tracks on Thelonious Monk Trio, Monk’s Dream, and Monk in Tokyo. In fact, the song’s defining characteristic is probably its brevity: the longest version I have clocks at under three minutes. Yet the “Gigolos” have wit and humor and sorrow and a heart-ripping loneliness all their own. Monk’s sentimentality, elsewhere restrained by the sly intelligence of his soloing style, is here given free rubato rein. In no other song does he reveal such wistfulness as in this piece of ostensible filler. And I have once or twice been made misty-eyed by the clinking of silverware and murmur of muted speech in the background of Misterioso’s live recording — no one’s even listening to him!
Artists reveal a lot when they think no one’s listening: when the pianist fools around on an empty stage; when the Renaissance painter, working on commission for some court bureaucrat, relaxes his papal standards; when the writer, between magna opera, flits distractedly between paid magazine work and some of her more half-baked ideas. Certain tics, which in the artist’s Important Productions are consciously suppressed or sanded down, expose themselves in the unvarnished, improvisatory, or hurried miscellany of the minor. These favored piano runs and quick-fix rhetorical crutches not only humanize our heroes — who, especially once dead, tend to loom before us in their masterpieces like the inscrutable monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey — they also allow us to appreciate what might be most central to the artist’s appeal. Minor work retains only that which can survive its maker’s inauspicious ambitions, and is therefore often composed of whatever is reflexively closest to the creator. Working in default mode, the distracted artist reverts to whatever lies beneath his or her usual conscious adornment.
Whether in the form of filler songs, private correspondence, forgotten frescos, unsold sketches, or those B-side compilations that rock groups put out for their completist fans, I have a special affection for the incidental and interstitial wholly separate from my generic love of the epochal. The classics are classics, of course, and no doubt constitute the grander and riskier achievements in an artist’s life. Sometimes I do want to be overwhelmed by greatness. But my experience of Important Productions is always colored by a sense of dutiful self-betterment. Engaging the canon — any canon — is an endless game of catch-up, of checking your books against a list not of must-reads but of must-have-reads. It can be exhausting. Sometimes I want a sketch, not a symphony; and at those times I feel that the sketch, for all its rushed errors or lazy grafting, holds within it the artist’s essence.
And no almanac of artistic castaways is more minor, more superfluous, and therefore more pleasurable to me than the writer’s collection of “selected essays”: those tossed-off, remaindered books full of moments when the novelist or poet, released from the formal concerns of her primary M.O., is free to explore less pressurized chambers, like the book review or celebrity profile. Part of the appeal of these supplemental projects must be the simple collation of dissimilar works from across a writer’s areas of interest, to a degree unattainable in even the most digressive of novels. Another might be the warts-and-all approach of many collections; like an entire box set of “Gigolos,” the miscellaneous book focuses all its attention on that which the writer completed on autopilot, or perhaps even reluctantly, in a moment of creative or financial bankruptcy.
Some writers — professional essayists, mostly — would surely dismiss my characterization of these books as in any way miscellaneous or motley. “This is not a collection of occasional pieces, such as a writer brings out to supplement his real work,” writes Annie Dillard in the assertive preface to Teaching a Stone to Talk. “Instead this is my real work, such as it is.” But Dillard is an essayist by trade, and so might understandably bristle at the conflation of short and minor, just as a writer of stories and novellas might grumble about the disproportionate attention lavished on novels. It’s only minor I hope to defend here. I want that writers with more variegated output embrace the charming smorgasbord that is miscellanea, freed of lofty ambition.
In the introduction to his textbook-sized Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, Geoff Dyer admits that “this kind of put-together is considered a pretty low form of book, barely a book at all.” Yet he goes on to say that he not only desired from his first review to one day publish such a collection, but furthermore knew that his book must be unruly and wide-ranging, so as to “serve as proof of just how thoroughly my career [...] had avoided any focus, specialization, or continuity except that dictated by my desire to write about whatever I happened to be interested in at any given moment.” For writers of Dyer’s ilk, a good collection is like a home-style ratatouille: it eschews recipe, and instead reflects the varied contents of the brain’s overstuffed vegetable drawer.
All of which is to say that David Foster Wallace’s Both Flesh and Not is the same five-can casserole sort of project as my favorite B-side essay collections — like Walter Benjamin’s Reflections, for which Peter Demetz dutifully gathered the odds and ends omitted from the button-down, Arendt-edited Illuminations — although, as with Benjamin, the experience is muted somewhat by knowledge of the book’s occasion. Four years after his death, we are already mounting a veritable David Foster Wallace hagiography. Recent additions to the growing shelf of Wallacenalia include a just-released biography from D.T. Max; last year’s publication of Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King, as well as his undergraduate thesis in philosophy Fate, Time, and Language; and 2010’s extended interview with David Lipsky, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. And this December we welcome the morbid-sounding David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. The first rule of miscellanea: there will always be more basement tapes.
For now, we have Wallace’s third collection of essays to add to the stack and can finally read in bound hardcover (or, for this lucky reviewer, high-res PDF) the essays released after 2005’s Consider the Lobster, as well as those passed over by Wallace and his editors during the trawling of journals and magazines for both Lobster and 1997’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. In fact, most of Both Flesh and Not is composed of these twice-rejected works, virtually all of which have been circulating online for years, so, in a sense, the purchase of this book is a sucker’s game. If you’re interested enough in Wallace to enjoy the leftovers and juvenilia herein, you’ll have already read them elsewhere. What could be more unnecessary than this sort of obvious cash grab?
And yet, as is often the case with such cash grabs, the book fascinates precisely because of its superfluity, even benefiting from its lax requirements for inclusion. We can’t help but speculate as to why Wallace rejected these pieces from his previous collections, and the speculation becomes part of the fun. Here, for example, are Wallace’s early, breathless reviews of David Markson and Zbigniew Herbert, with the former review’s overexcited theorizing and the latter’s curt but grandiose pronouncements (“Herbert is one of the two or three best living poets in the world”); here are excellent tennis dispatches from the 1995 U.S. Open and 2006 Wimbeldon tournaments, the first of which might have been thought too similar to other offerings on athleticism, tennis arcana, and mass entertainments found in A Supposedly Fun Thing and Lobster; here is a collection of entries from the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus; here is a review of a Borges biography; here is a short article about AIDS for Dave Eggers’s defunct Might Magazine. And so on.
The best meta-descriptive advice in Both Flesh and Not occurs, unfortunately, rather late in the book; it served as the original introduction to 2007’s Best American Essays, which Wallace edited. He writes: “Most people I know treat Best American anthologies like Whitman’s Samplers. They skip around, pick and choose. There isn’t the same kind of linear commitment as in a regular book.” This is not merely solid advice for anthologies or Wallace’s own gooey assortment, but for any book of miscellany. Omnibus collections tend to affront the linearly inclined reader with either the numbing sameness of an author’s unchecked style or, as is almost always the case, a complete absence of pacing. In the case of Both Flesh and Not, the topical shuffling and designed rhythms of his other collections have been replaced by a staid commitment to chronology (excepting the titular 2006 essay, which for some reason comes first). Skipping is encouraged.
Some of the pieces are so flawed that Wallace’s effective disowning of them is self-explanatory. The major clunker is “Back in New Fire,” the uncharacteristically gormless Might Magazine essay (written, astoundingly, in 1996) whose central thesis states that AIDS may be a blessing-in-disguise for young paramours, since as a cautionary tale it encourages them to reject the spiritually empty trajectory of sexual encounter as established in the libidinous Plato’s Retreats of the ‘70s. As a think piece it’s vaguely homophobic and not-at-all-vaguely sexist; Wallace’s total silence regarding the total silence regarding AIDS’s decimation of gay communities in the 1980s on the part of media and government is some Reagan-level horseshit. Were I Wallace, I’d have wiped my brow and uttered a “whew” at Might’s shuttering, in the erroneous belief that the essay could never resurface.
It isn’t all rubbernecking of that sort, but anyone interested in Wallace’s development cannot but find attractive the opportunity to — here comes another jazz metaphor, I’m afraid — hear the notes he didn’t play. The general shabbiness, far from detracting from my enjoyment, is both elucidating and endearing. It doesn’t feel as though his publishers were engaged in any really egregious barrel-scraping, and I suspect that many readers will share my pleasure in witnessing, Ascent-of-Man style, Wallace’s uneven evolution. Such biographical pleasure is particularly keen in the chronologically first essay, 1988’s “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. Here a clever, smarmy Wallace cuts his teeth cataloguing features of the ‘80s literary Brat Pack of Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, and David Leavitt, but more importantly shows us some warm-up jumping jacks for the intellectual marathon that will be 1992’s “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” (That essay, published in the same journal and later collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing, is probably the most important piece of nonfiction Wallace ever wrote. It is an enjoyable but challenging Production.) In “FFCY,” Wallace skewers not only the withering effects of television on writers, but also the publishing culture’s sine wave of premature praise and dismissal, and the limp intellectual climate of M.F.A. programs — all of which feels depressingly current. As a reminder of how much things haven’t changed — excepting the loss of one of our truly great writers — it’s a piece worth revisiting.
Conspicuously absent from Wallace’s list of Conspicuously Young writers is Nicholson Baker, whose debut novel The Mezzanine had in 1988 just been released to wild praise. Baker was only 30 at the time, yet he didn’t fit in with Wallace’s CY writers, not just because he was not part of the excoriated literary Brat Pack, but also because Baker’s youth was not a notable feature of his writing. The sentences in Baker’s first book are already those of an inspired master.
Baker’s second collection of essays, The Way the World Works, came out earlier this year to several fine and a few tepid reviews. Its publication produced barely a fraction of the buzz surrounding Wallace’s posthumous book, despite the fact that both are by unambiguously brilliant writers of the same generation, whose essays, stories, and novels transcend not only the fiction/nonfiction shelf divide, but also the tired critical discussion of said division. During his lifetime Wallace may have been able to boast of greater cultural cachet among disaffected college grads (D.T. Max compares him to Kurt Cobain), but Baker has with no less precision or genius plumbed his own corners of the American psyche. In fact, these plumbings often read like mirror images of Wallace’s. The Mezzanine is as sure-footed an exploration of late-capitalist office life as The Pale King, but what manifests as ballooning boredom in Wallace’s IRS agents is everted into a fascination with the microscopic in Baker’s cubicle drone. The same hyper-self-awareness that paralyzes Wallace’s addicts and athletes in Infinite Jest is treated with genial interest and self-effacement in Baker’s novels The Anthologist and The Fermata, and in the essays “Changes of Mind” and “Reading Aloud” from his first collection, The Size of Thoughts. Both writers share a pedantic interest in etymology, as well as in the intersection of language and technology, though Wallace focused his critical gaze on TV and the contemporary, whereas Baker concerns himself with the preservation of “antiquated” tools of communication, such as card catalogs. There are other, even more obvious comparisons: their prodigious early successes, awesome descriptive firepower, formidable vocabulary, unrepentant garrulousness, and occasional indulgence in de Quincy-style footnotes.
Yes, Baker’s output is admittedly more uneven, pocked with charming duds like Checkpoint and House of Holes. And yes, The Way the World Works is a very different sort of collection than Both Flesh and Not: more “latest and greatest” than “odds and sods,” and defended by Baker in a foreword where he confesses that he’s simply gathered enough material to fill a second book, and so feels that it’s time “for a slightly heftier accrual.”
Nevertheless, this may be the last time we’ll be privileged to have new collections released in the same year by these wonderful writers, and in reading the books — both undeniably minor entries in their respective bibliographies — it becomes evident that Baker and Wallace are above all else spiritually connected by their giddy interest in the world’s ideas and objects, and their preternatural ability to describe them with precision and heartfelt care, whatever a particular project’s scope.
In Baker’s latest, city dumps and library storage systems are among the topics that earn his granular attention. Neither of these would necessarily pull at the reader’s brain stem, except that Baker is our vicar of verbiage, our pope of phrase, and he can make anything — gondolas, Wikipedia, even country music — fascinating. So a short essay about airplane wings includes this delicious description of a runway: “Some of the black rubber-marks are on a slight bias to the straightaway, and there are more of them, a sudden crowding of what looks like Japanese calligraphy, and then fewer again as you heave past the place where most incoming planes land.”
The essays in The Way the World Works, like those of its predecessor, explore the territory of the in-between and near-extinct, but the author has lately added war to those methods of extinction worthy of his ire. In the convincing and controversial Harper’s essay “Why I’m a Pacifist,” he implores us: “When are we going to grasp the essential truth? War never works. It has never worked. It makes everything worse.”
It’s a rare moment of author as preacher. More often Baker has filled the role of armchair philosopher extraordinaire. But if he feels that he’s outgrown the wide-eyed kid bit, he has at least retained his trademark investigations into industrial mechanisms and Enlightenment-era intellectual praxis, the latter best represented here by “Narrow Ruled,” an essay about commonplace books. Baker continues, as well, to investigate the quotidian — the book begins and ends with discussions of suburban lawns — and while some of the shorter pieces here fail to rise above their inauspicious occasions, most are at least diverting, and many illuminate in exactly the way Monk’s “Gigolo” does: because these essays feel minor and improvised, they lack even a hint of affectation. The best example of this is “One Summer,” a bizarre collage of moments and non-moments from the author’s life in the warmer months. The whole book may be worth its sticker price for these pages of odd telegrams:
The composite effect is like looking into a narrative kaleidoscope, without the pretentiousness of your typical postmodern memoir. Its hodge-podge approach mirrors what I enjoy about the book — and these types of books — as a whole.
It may always be the case that writers, or at least publishers, are vaguely embarrassed by the profit-driven “lowness” that Dyer attributes to miscellanea. Both Baker’s and Wallace’s publishers have attempted to compensate for their products’ seeming marginal importance with indicators of either coherent internal structure (Baker’s unhelpful section headings: “Life,” “Reading,” “Technology,” etc.; Wallace’s chronology) or else an implied omnipresence of authority — a totalizing explanatory power. This latter is suggested, even before one cracks the spine, by the covers’ polychromism. In fact, not only Baker’s and Wallace’s collections but also Dyer’s Human Condition and Jonathan Lethem’s recent The Ecstasy of Influence all employ a Crayola-like palette, perhaps to suggest the rainbowy spectrum of subjects contained within. Their titles, too, speak to encyclopedic ambitions. Baker’s suggests that his book will explain, well, everything — the way the world works. (In the closing essay he cops to just such a desire: “I want it to be a book for children and adults, that explains everything about beauty, wickedness, invention, the meaning of life. The whole unseemly, bulging ball of wax.”) And Wallace’s indicates, in a bit of set-theoretical overkill he might have appreciated, that its subject matter will include all that is corporeal and otherwise.
Such lily gilding is pure goofiness. The best collections are by definition messy, big, and eccentric (the Thelonious Monks of literary genres, you might say). They embrace thought’s inter-avenue alleyways, and the disordered perambulations of an artist’s career. They implore us to focus on the in-between. Baker makes a similar case for seeing the troughs as well as the crests. It’s in his Size of Thoughts essay “Rarity,” which ends, “And very often, when we are looking over several common truths, holding them next to one another in an effort to feel again what makes them true, rarities will mysteriously germinate in the charged spaces between them, like those lovely, ghostly zings that a guitarist’s fingers make, as they clutch from chord to chord.”
The same is true of supplemental works, which for writers like Wallace and Baker accrue across decades in the charged spaces between their more ambitions projects, such that the myriad output can seem infinitely varied and inexhaustible, and therefore ethereal: the atmosphere in which larger literary beasts breathe, or the water — to poach from another of Wallace’s minor works — in which the bigger fish swim.