Essay: James Leyon David Foster Wallace

How does it feel to be famous?

David Foster Wallace committed suicide in September 2008 at the age of 46, following an unsuccessful attempt to wean himself off the antidepressants he had taken for much of his adult life. At the time of his death, he was widely regarded as the most significant writer of his generation (correctly, in this reviewer’s opinion) and was already the object of a good deal of reverence. He has since become something far larger, something more than just an influential author with a reputation for difficult fiction and a slightly obsessive fan base. His fame has not only increased, it has shifted into a different register. He has been sanctified, transformed into an avatar of a certain kind of anguished sincerity and hard-won moral wisdom. And the underlying reason for this would appear to be ineluctable: the unhappy circumstances of his premature death have had a retrospectively determining influence on the interpretation of his work, making its apparent reflection of his personal struggles seem like its salient feature. Even more potently and problematically, it has fused the image of the author to that deeply suspect but culturally undislodgeable archetype, the Tormented Artistic Genius.

The End of the Tour is the product of this posthumous celebrity. This is true in the obvious sense that neither James Ponsoldt’s film nor the book on which it is based  – David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace (2010) – would exist if Wallace had lived. But it is also true in the more complicated sense that the film both relies on and participates in the construction of Wallace as a cultural symbol. It is very much about him as an object of fascination rather than as an artist.

The film has thus been met with disapproval in some quarters (as was Lipsky’s book, on the grounds that its appearance so soon after Wallace’s death made it seem a tad exploitative). It has been made without the approval of Wallace’s estate, and a number of people who knew him, including his editor Michael Pietsch, have suggested that Wallace would certainly not have wanted to be the subject of any kind of biographical treatment.

The End of the Tour is, despite all of this, pretty good – better, perhaps, than it has any right to be. It is set over the course of several days in early 1996, shortly after the publication of Wallace’s astonishing novel Infinite Jest, which generated what he described as a ‘miasma of hype’. Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) is a Rolling Stone reporter who is assigned to follow Wallace (Jason Segel) on the final leg of the promotional tour. He stays at Wallace’s house in Bloomington, Illinois, and travels with him to public appearances and interviews. Along the way, the pair engage in long and occasionally intense discussions, which range from the personal to the philosophical. From this emerges a character portrait and a reflection on the pressures and paradoxes of Wallace’s position.

Its subject notwithstanding, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is an unlikely book to be receiving cinematic treatment. In his introduction, Lipsky compares his memory of the short time he spent with Wallace to a road movie, but I can only assume he was either being remarkably prescient or making a sly pitch, since that is not at all how the book comes across. He later compares their rambling conversations to Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre (1981), which is perhaps a little closer to the mark, though it is still a bit of a stretch. Lipsky dishes up the raw transcripts of his interview tapes, with his occasional impressions added in parentheses. The result is a book that is meandering and disjointed to the point of formlessness. There are some valuable clues about the ideas and influences that shaped Wallace’s work in Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, but it contains a lot of dross. It is also repetitive, as Lipsky is constantly circling back to confirm details and wastes far too much time asking questions that are essentially variations of ‘so how does it feel to be famous?’. (Lipsky, to his credit, subsequently realised that there was something a little callow about his questioning: ‘David keeps talking about the largest things,’ he notes in his introduction; ‘I keep countering with the smallest.’)

Much of the dialogue in The End of the Tour is lifted directly from Lipsky’s book, though Donald Margulies’ screenplay takes some significant liberties with the raw material in order to give the film the bare bones of a dramatic structure. It recontextualises, recasts and splices Wallace’s words so that it can hit the standard marks of a more or less conventional buddy movie, albeit in an understated way. Lipsky and Wallace, a physically mismatched pair, are thrown together, overcome their initial shyness, warm to each other, share moments of mild comedy, argue, fall out, reconcile, speak of their hopes and fears, and have a final revealing moment of confrontation before they bid each other a slightly awkward and sentimental farewell.

There are all sorts of ways in which The End of the Tour could be mawkish or or contrived or exploitative. But it proves to be quietly affecting. And part of the reason it works is Segel’s ursine presence as Wallace, whom he portrays, with appropriate restraint, as a man whose considerable reserves of intelligence and humour exist in precarious equilibrium with a powerful sense of social unease and a (hinted at) fragility. With his loose clothes, shaggy hair and trademark bandana, he ambles through the film like one of Maurice Sendak’s creatures, the inevitable focus of curious attention wherever he goes. He towers over the diminutive Lipsky, who is forever pointing a tape recorder at him with a sheepish look on his face. Wallace’s largeness, his nervy mannerisms and his unusual appearance come to function in the film as visual metaphors for the contradiction of his position – the fact that his desire to cling to his midwestern ‘regular-guyness’ is belied by the overwhelming brilliance of his work. Ordinary guys, Lipsky points out to a discomfited Wallace, do not write dazzling 1000-page novels.

The film also makes effective use of the book’s limited time frame, which consigns the to the background Wallace’s now well-documented battles with alcohol and drug addiction and his recurring bouts of suicidal depression, which have been set out in agonising detail in D. T. Max’s biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (2012). The narrow focus allows the film to keep at arm’s length the ‘romantic, lurid, tormented artist thing’ that Wallace tells Lipsky (in the book) he is anxious to avoid – though it does not avoid the stereotype entirely (I will come back to this). The End of the Tour is a film that is aware of the delicacy of its task. It does not presume to know its subject beyond his outward manifestations. Wallace lives alone in a small house on the edge of a large snowy field and speaks to Lipsky of loneliness, but we never see him alone. The film preserves the basic interviewer-interviewee structure of the book, such that our sense of Wallace is always framed by Lipsky’s observation of him. Both men are conscious of the lopsided nature of their relationship – at one point, Wallace introduces Lipsky as ‘my amanuensis Boswell’.

This interest in the tension between the man and his public persona – the way that the film implies Wallace’s success has made his isolation more acute – is the most obvious way in which its themes resonate with his writing. The tendency for a media-saturated, visual culture to engender a self-consciousness that sharpens the conflict between the part of us that is seen and the infinitely more complicated part of us that remains hidden is one of Wallace’s defining themes. The difference is that The End of the Tour is itself a part of that visual culture. This is an irony of which the film is aware, and which it negotiates with understated intelligence. There is an interesting moment when Wallace and Lipsky go to the cinema with two of Wallace’s friends to see the cheesy action film Broken Arrow (1996). A lingering camera shot frames the four of them sitting in the audience, while Lipsky steals glances across at Wallace, who is utterly absorbed. For several seconds, we are watching Lipsky watching Wallace watching the movie. The scene would appear to be a reference to the work of James O. Incandenza, the experimental filmmaker in Infinite Jest, whose extensive and hilarious filmography includes a work titled The Joke, which consists of him setting up a camera inside a cinema, filming the audience sitting in their seats, and projecting the image onto the screen. (The novel credits The Joke with ‘unwittingly sounding the death-knell of post-poststructural film in terms of sheer annoyance.’) The End of the Tour reconceives this comic riff – one of many Wallace used to satirise the terminal involutions of self-referential postmodern art – turning it around in order to reinforce our sense of Wallace’s objectification.

There is a creepily invasive aspect to Lipsky’s professional interest in Wallace that the film does not let us forget. In an early scene, the pair are talking amiably, beginning to get along well, when Lispky excuses himself to go to the bathroom. While he is there, he takes the opportunity to write down the contents of Wallace’s medicine cabinet. The jarring sense of violation is repeated near the end of the film, as Lipsky is about to return home. When Wallace steps outside to scrape the ice off his car, Lipsky pulls out his tape recorder and begins walking from room to room describing Wallace’s possessions, undercutting the sense that something like a genuine friendship has developed between them.

The End of the Tour does end up trading on the emotional pull of Wallace’s personal history to a degree. It begins, almost inevitably, with Lipsky learning of Wallace’s suicide, before it flashes back to 1996 – his death precedes him. It also contrives its climactic scene by introducing a subplot that has Lipsky’s editor pressuring him to confront Wallace about rumours of heroin addiction. Lipsky has come to like Wallace and doesn’t want to ask, but right before he is due to fly home he does his professional duty and raises the issue. The film styles this as a dramatic moment. Wallace reacts with irritation. He angrily denies the rumour and insists that the breakdown he suffered in his late twenties was not a result of substance abuse. In a passionate speech, he summons the horror of the

pink room, with no furniture and a drain in the center of the floor. Which is where they put me for an entire day when they when they thought I was going to kill myself. Where you don’t have anything on, and somebody’s observing you through a slot in the wall.

And when that happens to you, you get tremendous – you get unprecedentedly willing to examine other alternatives for how to live.

This is the most serious and, I think, the most revealing manipulation of the material in Lipsky’s book. The misrepresentation is not in the words themselves, which Segal delivers verbatim, but the vehement tone and the context in which they are delivered are utterly different. In Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, these lines belong to a passage in which Wallace is speaking about how his life has changed and how fortunate he feels. Lipsky adds a note: ‘(Laughs in satisfaction)’. The rumours of heroin addiction are, in fact, raised much earlier in an entirely different part of the book, and Wallace, who was sober by that stage, appears to have no objection to addressing them. He was never a heroin addict, he states, though he freely admits that he did smoke large quantities of marijuana, that he drank heavily in his twenties, and that he has over the years taken Quaaludes, LSD, psilocybin and cocaine (‘excruciatingly unpleasant, like drinking fifty cups of coffee or something’). ‘If I’d ever been a heroin addict,’ he observes, ‘I don’t think I’d have a problem saying it.’

Strict fidelity to biographical fact is the wrong criterion to judge a dramatisation like The End of the Tour. But it is significant that its climactic scene takes the form of a moment of rupture, in which we are afforded a glimpse of the unseen realms of Wallace’s private suffering. This cuts in two ways. On the one hand, it is gesturing towards that larger sense of unknowability, which is an integral part of the film’s delicate dance; on the other hand, it signals the return of the ‘romantic, lurid, tormented artist thing’. This is a paradox that the film can only leave unresolved. About halfway through The End of the Tour there is a scene in which Lipsky accompanies Wallace to a radio interview. The announcer, who is handling a suspiciously unread-looking copy of Infinite Jest, burbles about its extraordinary length, its physical dimensions and its weight before asking his first question. As Wallace gives his answer, he turns with an expression of weary resignation toward the camera and, if I am not mistaken (I am almost certain about this, though not completely, since I have only seen the film once and it happens very fast), looks straight into the camera, breaking the fourth wall for the tiniest fraction of a second. The scene then cuts to a shot of Lipsky, who is sitting nearby, to indicate that the meaningful look is intended for him. But the lingering impression is that we, the film’s audience, are no less complicit in that process of objectification.