Welcome   |   Login   |   Sign Up   |

READING/ Both Flesh and Not: A Beginning

WEBSTER BULL reviews the new book published by David Foster Wallace, Both Flesh and Not, commenting on the experiences of the writer who ultimately killed himself.

Roger Federer   (Infophoto) Roger Federer (Infophoto)

One of the things you’ll learn from Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, D. T. Max’s excellent biography of David Foster Wallace, is that twice in his short life the author of Infinite Jest came within shouting distance of becoming a Catholic. Two of the women he loved were Catholics, and each influenced him, drawing out what I have always sensed as a deep religious impulse in his writing. 

I thought of this today on reading the first essay in the newly published book of Wallace non-fiction, Both Flesh and Not, which may or may not be the very last fresh output we see from him. He committed suicide in September 2008, and his wife and agent have been issuing what they can. Sadly, this may be the last water in the well.

The essay is about Roger Federer, arguably the greatest tennis player who ever lived. But first, about those Catholic women—

First was the memoirist Mary Karr: Max writes, “Karr had become attracted to Catholicism… So for a time Wallace hoped to receive the sacraments, thinking that if he and Karr were to marry they could have a religious wedding. (Ultimately the priest told him he had too many questions to be a believer, and he let the issue drop.)

Second was a social worker, Juliana Harms, with whom he became engaged: “Juliana was an active Catholic. She and her fiancé discussed his converting. Wallace, who never lost his hope that he could find faith, signed up for an ecumenical Christian program called cursillo: the goal ‘to bring God from the head to the heart.’ But … at the final ceremony, when the participants were meant to attest their belief in God, Wallace expressed his doubts instead. Faith was something he could admire in others but never quite countenance for himself.

Wallace, the brainiest of modern writers, “never lost his hope that he could find faith.” I like that. Though I wonder if he did not experience moments of faith, or at least moments of religious feeling, in such things as tennis, a sport he played competitively as a high schooler.

Watching Federer play on television and at Wimbledon 2006, the main subject of his essay “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” Wallace experienced moments of transcendence, which he humorously calls “Federer Moments.” At such moments, “the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re OK.” Some of the shots the Swiss makes are “like something out of The Matrix. 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.