A Radically Condensed History of David Foster Wallace’s Legacy

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As a devoted reader of the late David Foster Wallace, when I first saw the trailer for the The End of the Tour, I was immediately filled with trepidation. The film is based on conversations between DFW and Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky during the waning days of Wallace’s Infinite Jest book tour. To make things worse, I got my first glimpse of Jason Segel’s Wallace impersonation and almost immediately wrote off the film.

Since Wallace committed suicide in 2008, he has increasingly been lauded as a sad sage full of earnest bromides about self-awareness, compassion, and being present in the moment. Touching on these themes, his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech “This is Water” became a viral hit and the most popular distillation of late-period Wallace’s thoughts on how to live in these times. In many ways, Wallace became more than one of the most important literary figures of the late 20th century after his death; he became a symbol of a certain sincerity and authenticity standing against the pervasive irony of modern popular culture. But, to many of his readers it felt like Wallace’s ideas and work have increasingly been flattened, or even bowdlerized, since that fateful day he hung himself.

For readers who’ve had the opportunity to explore more of Wallace’s oeuvre, the Kenyon commencement speech has a treacly sentimentality. Sure, many of Wallace’s characters and stories could be overly cloying and schmaltzy – although, some of these stories like “Good People,” about a young Christian couple deciding whether or not to have an abortion, still make my heart swell after several reads. But, these aren’t maudlin ploys to get the reader to care, one can almost feel Wallace wearing his heart on his sleeve, or in this case writing it on the page. To portray Wallace as a sentimental sage, however, is to ignore so much of the tone of his work and thought. And that’s a major part of the problem I have with his posthumous deification. The End of the Tour doesn’t do much to help in this regard.

The movie follows Wallace and Lipsky, a writer whose first novel debuts with a thud, on the last days of Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest, the book that made him a literary sensation and an Important Writer. In an insightful episode of the Slate podcast “The Moment with Brian Koppelman,” Lipsky explains why he actually ended up being unable to write a profile on Wallace after their brief Midwestern sojourn. Eventually, Lipsky would publish a book based on the transcripts of his interviews with a very DFW-inspired sounding title: Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. Much of Segel’s dialogue as Wallace is ripped directly from those transcripts, providing a sense of authenticity to the film.

But this is not a biopic; the movie focuses on a period in Wallace’s life when he had just become a literary sensation. And, from the beginning, the production of The Tour has been rather controversial. DFW’s Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch told the Los Angeles Times:

“David would have howled the idea for it out of the room had it been suggested while he was living, and the fact that it can go ahead because he’s dead makes me very, very sad. Anyone who has read David’s writing knows how tormented he felt about being a public figure and his overwhelming anxiety about being on the wrong side of the screen. The existence of a mythification of this brief passage of his life strikes me as an affront to him and to people who love his writing.”

Indeed, Wallace was profoundly reticent about being profiled or portrayed as some “Important Writer/Voice of His Generation” type. For many fans of Wallace, including myself, this leads to the major concerns with the film: Would the film build on the sanitized DFW that has emerged since his suicide? And, how would Wallace – a deeply complex, even inscrutable person – and his ideas be portrayed, given that that The Tour is based off transcripts from a very discrete and unique moment in his life?

Now, who knows how happy or depressed or angst-ridden or ennui-consumed Wallace really was at the time of these conversations with Lipsky. DFW frequently lamented the solipsistic nature of experience. Ultimately, we can only experience the world in our own head; we are radically and fundamentally disconnected from each other in that specific way. Here’s Wallace at Kenyon in his own words: “Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of” because ultimately we are only “lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.”

Early in the movie, while sitting at a diner across from Lipsky, Wallace tables this concern: “You’re going to back to your desk in New York and shape this thing however you want, to me it’s just extremely disturbing … I would like to shape the impression of me that’s coming across. I don’t even know if I like you yet and I’m so nervous whether you like me.”

The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust, Wallace’s family (which consists of his widow, the artist Karen Green, and his sister Amy Wallace-Havens) and his publisher have publically come out against the film and said they “do not consider it a homage.” According to a statement from the Trust, “David would never have agreed that those saved transcripts could later be repurposed as the basis of a movie.” Wallace’s friend Glenn Kenny, a former editor at Premiere and film critic, was acerbic in his criticism of the movie, calling it “risible.” A major preoccupation of Wallace’s writing concerned pop culture and its ability to make us quite literally buy in to certain, often facile, ideas, and how lazy it can make us in our thinking as we let the surfeit of entertainment at our fingertips wash over us. As Pietsch points out, it would have mortified Wallace that his ideas and work were to be conveyed on the Big Screen through the medium of a Hollywood Star.

A note about the performances: The early clips I saw of Segel as Wallace horrified me. On this point, Kenny also agreed. After much late-night rumination, he said the best he could come up with to describe the performance was “ghoulish self-aggrandisement.” At points, Segel comes across as a sort of idiot savant – a big, sad, bumbling, Midwestern oaf dispensing his aphoristic wisdom to the lesser writer. Wallace struggled with profound depression for much of his life. He hung himself in 2008 after weaning himself off an anti-depressant he had relied on for years and blamed for muddling his whirring brain and, he thought, styming his writing. That darkness is completely absent from this performance. Perhaps that’s just because Segel so often plays a big, sloppy, funny guy it’s hard to imagine him as Wallace. In any case, I think the performance does a disservice to someone like DFW, who was a complex, contemplative, wry and ultimately very sad person – at least for much of his life.

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Jessie Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lipsky, on the other hand, reminded me a lot of his performances in just about everything else he’s done: neurotic, occasionally and unnecessarily pugnacious, and brooding. It’s hard to imagine that DFW would have been so forthcoming and warm with Lipsky if he’d been interrupting him and peppering him with questions the way Eisenberg’s Lipsky does throughout the film. The Tour is pretty much bereft of any dramatic tension whatsoever, with a faux bit of contention ginned up between Wallace and Lipsky after the Rolling Stone writer makes a pass at a female friend of DFW’s. Beyond that, the movie makes you feel like you’re waiting for some dramatic denouement and then doesn’t really deliver.

For someone who hasn’t had much exposure to Wallace’s work, I can understand how the film could feel like a self-indulgent circle jerk; two writers talking about being a writer and their writing and what role the writer plays in the culture today and on and on. I didn’t mind that so much though; writers really like to talk about writers. And, while the jury is probably still out on Wallace’s legacy, I think his work will be viewed as an important part of late 20th century American literature. The admixture of beautiful novelistic prose in its highest form, the ability to imitate technical medical, legal, pharmaceutical and all other sorts of technical jargon, with his flair for dialogue, slang, grotesquerie, and his own special host of neologisms just makes DFW such a pleasure to read. He was also flat out hilarious (he famously called John Updike a “penis with a thesaurus”) and can make the reader laugh out loud at a fairly frequent clip. In my estimation, there are few writers who are as fully capable of depicting the recursive aspects of anxiety and depression as Wallace. His short story “The Depressed Person” captures the involution and self-loathing that the depressed feel so well, it leaves you with a deep sense of empathy for anyone in such a state.

If you really want to get a better sense of DFW’s life, his formative years and the paralyzing depression he struggled with for much of his adult life, D.T. Max’s 2012 Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, the first official DFW biography, is a moving, insightful and nuanced look into the tortured genius’ life. There’s also a revealing essay penned in 2011 by Jonathan Franzen reflecting on Wallace’s life and decision to commit suicide that I would recommend. For Franzen, one of the most difficult struggles of Wallace’s adult life was dealing with his growing fame. He also suggests, “David had died of boredom and in despair about his future novels.” There is a sense of anger in Franzen’s lengthy essay (speaking of self-indulgent…) when he says that DFW’s suicide, perhaps purposely, “made him into a very public legend.” And, he really lays out the concerns that many of us DFW fans really have about his posthumous characterization:

“People who had never read his fiction, or had never even heard of him, read his Kenyon College commencement address in the Wall Street Journal and mourned the loss of a great and gentle soul. A literary establishment that had never so much as short-listed one of his books for a national prize now united to declare him a lost national treasure. Of course, he was a national treasure, and, being a writer, he didn’t ‘belong’ to his readers any less than to me. But if you happened to know that his actual character was more complex and dubious than he was getting credit for, and if you also knew that he was more lovable—funnier, sillier, needier, more poignantly at war with his demons, more lost, more childishly transparent in his lies and inconsistencies…”

We don’t see much of the DFW that Franzen describes here in The End of the Tour.

Wallace had an immense talent for vivid descriptions that come as close to accurately describing real-life experience as any writer I’ve read. Whether its nonfiction pieces about going on a cruise or to the Illinois State Fair (both in the essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) or his ability to explicate what goes on in the head of an anxious person, Wallace was truly gifted at describing what actually goes on in our minds. He was the guy out there describing the world to all of us.

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It’s clear by now that I have my own possessiveness over Wallace, as do many of his readers, but that’s because he demanded so much of us. Infinite Jest can be a slog at times, there’s no doubt. But, wading through the more difficult parts is well worth it. And a movie like The End of the Tour simply tries to eschew all the tough stuff and present us with a moral paragon, an American saint. If there’s one positive that will come from the movie, I hope that it leads people to truly explore Wallace’s work, both for the pleasure it offers and the moral lessons it bestows. Just for fun, I’ll leave you with Wallace’s shortest published story from his short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.

A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life

When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed very hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.

The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Editor’s note: On the heels of one of the more controversial and perplexing NFL Wild Card Weekends, ToM reposted this January 8, 2016 Huffington Post piece co-written by University of Ohio Professor of Political Science Robert Alexander and ToM’s own Senior Foreign Policy expert, Adam Gallagher. In addition, to writing for ToM, Adam’s work has appeared in The National Interest, International Policy Digest, and for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among other outlets. He can be followed on Twitter @aegallagher10. His most recent piece for ToM focused on David Foster Wallace’s legacy  and its relationship to the film, The Tour.  […]

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