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Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky

August 23, 2015

yourself_wallace

In 1996, David Foster Wallace published Infinite Jest, a 1000+ page postmodern opus that made him a literary sensation. He was uncomfortable with the fame, constantly questioning the motives of the media, the way his image would be manipulated, the way his interviews would be perceived. Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky accompanied Wallace on the last leg of his book tour for Infinite Jest. They spent five days on the road together, driving, flying, eating, walking dogs, attending events. Lipsky taped much of it on a pocket audio recorder. This book is a transcript of that time.

Wallace had a fascinating mind. When he was able to organize his thoughts in his writings, it seemed that his brain just operated in a different layer of the atmosphere than the rest of us. Here, we get scattered bits of that: ideas still enormous but often fragmented, not fully composed. But we also get a good sense of his personality—the self-questioning, paranoid, sometimes cantankerous, but often very kind and thoughtful young writer. It is less organized but more personal, more real.
Wallace is not always trusting of Lipsky, or trusting of his own ability to articulate his thoughts. He frequently stops the tape to better compose his ideas. He constantly questions how he will come off to the reader. This gives us a raw look into Wallace’s personality, but I found it less interesting when they were talking about something other than the conversation itself—Wallace’s thoughts on films, on the addictive effects of television (a big theme in Infinite Jest), his asides about his dogs, his thoughts on the actual book tour. Like when he talks about trying to connect with his fans in this limited and artificial environment:

You can expect that someone who’s willing to read and read hard a thousand-page book is gonna be someone with some loneliness issues. Or somebody who’s looking, somebody like me or perhaps like you, who isn’t always able to get the sense of intimacy they need…I think it was really more that they were lookin’ for a friend, and I don’t mind being somebody’s friend. Although there’s an upper limit to that. But the weird thing was that, their, they come to you on an unequal basis. They already feel as if they know you—which of course they don’t.

Although Infinite Jest is considered part of the canon of high literature, Wallace himself famously had little use for the distinction between high and low art. “I think I was the only person in America who liked Four Rooms…I don’t know what I liked, very difficult to figure out why we like stuff.” Among his favorite books, Wallace includes Stephen King, Hannibal Lecter novels and a Tom Clancy. With Lipsky, he discusses his sincere infatuation with Alanis Morissette and his loathing of Sheryl Crow. He discusses tv shows and films as diverse as The Last of the Mohicans, Lost Highway (David Lynch) and Miller’s Crossing (Coen Bros).

It’s these normal moments, the conversations that any two writers might have, that are the strength of this book. The feeling that you’re just hanging out with Wallace, that he’d be a pretty interesting guy to talk to about art or the nightly news. Certainly, he sometimes says things that foretell of the existential dread, the paranoia, the hyper-self-aware Wallace that will surface more and more throughout his career. In hindsight, it is both sad and easy to spot: the brilliant man with a conflicted mind, the potential for self-torture, seeds of the doubt spiral that would eventually lead to his suicide in 2008.

Today’s person spends way more time in front of screens. In fluorescent-lit rooms, in cubicles, being on one end or the other of an electronic data transfer. And what is it to be human and alive and exercise your humanity in that kind of exchange?…

I think the reason people behave in an ugly manner is that it’s really scary to be alive and to be human, and people are really really afraid…

…As an American male, the face I’d put on the terror is the dawning realization that nothing’s enough, you know? That no pleasure is enough, that no achievement is enough. That there’s a kind of queer dissatisfaction or emptiness at the core of the self that is unassuageable by outside stuff…

…Personally, I believe that if it’s assuageable in any way it’s by internal means…I think those internal means have to be earned and developed, and it has something to do with, um, um, the pop-psych phrase is lovin’ yourself.

It’s more like, if you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself.

That thread of fear and the constant fight for fulfillment is the Wallace present in much of his writing. It’s interesting to see how his “real world” voice syncs with his narrative voice. It’s also a little more sad, attached so directly to the person. Still, those lines of thought are better laid bare in D.T. Max’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, or in Wallace’s own writing. In Although Of Course, what’s more refreshing are the lighter moments, the joking asides, the quick wit.

NPR GUY: We’re gonna record digitally. I hope that’s okay.
DAVE: So only yes and no answers?
A small, brilliant joke. I write it down.

Wallace was, of course, both and all of those things. This book is just a slice of a moment with him, a literal transcript, unpolished at parts, but mostly pure (Lipsky annoyingly inserts his own asides and observations into too many moments). If you’re not a fan of Wallace, this probably isn’t a good read. Or if you don’t know Wallace, there are better places to start. But if you are a fan, this is about as close as you’ll get to hanging out with the writer for a few days.
Part of my reason for reading this book now is that an unlikely film adaptation, The End of the Tour, just hit theaters. Starring Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky and Jason Segal as Wallace, the film has been getting generally good reviews. I’m hesitant, but optimistic.

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