Welcome To My Mind: On The Road With David Foster Wallace

“If by some paradox, this whole fuss could get me some kind of even just like a five-minute cup of tea with Alanis Morissette, that would be more than reward enough”—David Foster Wallace, 1996

In early March of 1996, Rolling Stone sent David Lipsky to join David Foster Wallace for the end of his book tour. Lipsky was to do yet another profile of Wallace, who was then the biggest literary celebrity of the world; his mammoth novel Infinite Jest was being covered in Time and Newsweek, in addition to the traditional literary avenues like The New York Times Book Review. The two spent five days together, at Wallace’s house, in Wallace’s classroom, at the airport while Wallace waited to go to his last book reading, in the car en route to Minneapolis after all flights were grounded, with the Escort who took Wallace to his reading, at McDonald’s, with Wallace’s dogs (Drone and Jeeves), etc.

The profile never ran. Tragically, Lipsky would only get the chance to use this material in “The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace,” which Rolling Stone ran in the aftermath of Wallace’s suicide in 2008 (and which, deservedly, won Lipsky a National Magazine Award).

Fortunately for Wallace fans, Lipsky wasn’t done. He has taken the complete transcript of the audio recordings from those five days and presented them relatively unedited in Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. In this case, “relatively unedited” means relatively unedited. After some initial throat-clearing at the beginning (the book features an “introduction,” a “preface,” and an “afterword” (which, oddly, comes before the actual text), in which Lipsky tries to frame his thoughts and feelings on Wallace, the book is structured just like a 310-page screenplay. There are certain breaks noting small abridgements, or when the tape runs out, or when Wallace himself has requested the recorder be turned off. There are also brief interruptions in which Lipsky offers necessary stage directions or, almost as frequently, feels compelled to offer some analysis of Wallace’s behavior (“Nudging me here; an invitation to leave that behind”) or the interview itself (“Too neat-sounding, in a way”).

This can be obtrusive—I’ll analyze the interview for myself, thank you very much Mr. Lipsky—but it’s understandable and forgivable. As the three prologues make clear, the five days he spent with Wallace clearly had a big impact on Lipsky, and it’s easy to see why revisiting them fourteen years later, and less than two years after Wallace’s death, would provoke some commentary from Lipsky. Even if the bits from Lipsky aren’t there to really point the reader towards anything he needed to see, or anything he couldn’t have deduced for himself, they help to show the impression Wallace made on Lipsky, and thus show us something about Wallace himself.

Indeed, Lipsky has done a great service in presenting the interviews without any creative reshaping, re-imagining, or excessive narration. As a result, the book is not a meditation on what Wallace represents culturally or artistically—of which there are many dozen extant and worthwhile versions. Instead, the book functions as an unparalleled glimpse into Wallace’s mind.

Of course, there are many doubts voiced in the interview about just how real and sincere that glimpse is. Wallace is keenly aware of how the interview process involves an artificially created image of the one being profiled: “If you wanted, I mean, you’re gonna be able to shape this essentially how you want. And that to me is extremely disturbing. Because I want to be able to try and shape and manage the impression of me that’s coming across.” Lipsky, in turn, offers his own doubts about how sincere Wallace is being: “There’s still something basically false about your approach here…You make a point of holding back—there’s a point, there’s something obvious about you somehow in a gentle way holding back what you’re aware of as your intelligence to be with people.”

This, of course, is one of the recurring subjects that the two discuss—or, rather, it’s not so much a subject up for a discussion, but a specter that haunts the entire interview. Wallace is constantly worrying about how what he says will come off, about which parts of the interview will be used and which will be cut, about how to give Lipsky a good quote. He even prefaces one of his answers with, “I’m trying to condense it into something you can use.”

There is some irony in the fact that Wallace spends so much time fretting over how the profile will be framed, given the fact that the profile never ran, and that the interview is in fact running unabridged (more or less). Contrary to making those worries seem irrelevant, though, this fact only makes them seem more general. After all, Wallace was a huge celebrity at this point in time, about as a big a celebrity as the literary world ever gets. Lipsky reminds Wallace that Rolling Stone hasn’t covered a young fiction writer in over a decade; even Wallace’s FedEx guy recognizes him. So Wallace is constantly confronted with worries about how he comes off and appears in public: “It’s a very fine line. I don’t mind appearing in Rolling Stone, but I don’t want to appear in Rolling Stone as somebody who wants to be in Rolling Stone.” Wallace himself referred to his phenomenon in his first novel, The Broom of the System (which he pretty much dismisses as juvenile in this interview), as “second-order vanity”—that is, vanity about not appearing vane.

Throughout the interview, though, Lipsky is determined to get Wallace to admit that it is really enjoyable to be on top of the literary world. There are, after all, several perks that come with it—although Wallace complains, “I didn’t get laid on this tour…I would have liked to get laid on the tour and I did not”—including the money, the fame, the readership, and the validation. After all, Lipsky says, every writer wants to have the widest possible audience, and all the hype surrounding Infinite Jest, as distracting as it may temporarily be, surely gets more people to read it. And the fact that the novel was so well-received must give Wallace some sense of relief after all the energy devoted to it. At one point, Lipsky reads Wallace one of his most generous reviews, in which Walter Kirn declared all book-award races over, and asks him what he thinks of it: “I applaud his taste and discernment. How’s that for a response? What do you want me to say? How would you feel? I can’t describe it; it’s indescribable. You speculate and I’ll describe.” Wallace does enjoy parts of the book’s success, but he is quick to recall the few reviews that didn’t approve of the book, to worry about the inevitable backlash, and to point out that most of his massive book tour audiences (two readings had to be cancelled due to fire hazards caused by the turnout) could not possibly have read the book in the two days since its release, and are thus only there because of the hype.

Wallace is not a curmudgeon, but he is extremely self-conscious and extremely volatile emotionally. He knows that getting too absorbed in the hype surrounding his novel will both distract him from his work and undermine his writing. He also knows that the parts of him that tend to get tempted by those “I’m kind of a big deal” modes of thinking have run amok before, causing intense depression and landing him in McLean’s Psychiatric Hospital. About two-thirds of the way through the interview he flatly declares, “The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever, almost made me die.” Reading that line now, of course, is extra tragic.

But most of the interview is not somber. Wallace and Lipsky quickly establish a rapport, and by the end of the interview they seem like old friends. They discuss movies and music and television, in addition to the details of Wallace’s writing life.

For readers not already acquainted with Wallace, the interview offers a nice tour of the recurring themes of his writing. Wallace and Lipsky discuss things like the danger and value of television, the loneliness caused by the modern world, the appeal of tennis, the perils of fame and the search for external validation, the failure of avant-garde art, etc. It also goes into lengthy detail about Wallace’s own biography, a credit both to Lipsky’s skill as an interviewer and Wallace’s honesty.

For those readers who are more well-versed in Wallace’s work, this stuff may feel familiar. If, for example, you’ve watched Wallace’s Charlie Rose interview half a dozen times, voraciously consumed any review or profile you can find, or have read every book he’s ever published, then a lot of the interview will be familiar, even down the exact phrasings of things. For these readers, though, the appeal of the book lies in the extent to which it captures the details of a slice of Wallace’s life. Since Lipsky presents the interview as a transcript, as opposed to trying to give it some new context, the only context for it is the actual events taking place. In other words, it captures prosaic details of Wallace’s life in all their banality. Things like Wallace’s infatuation with Alanis Morissette, the fact that he takes the pickles off his burgers at McDonald’s, his interaction with his dogs, his heavy addiction to chewing tobacco, his pronunciation and syntax—these things become just as interesting as the conversation itself. These things give us a look at Wallace not just as a writer or a celebrity, but as a living human being. As such, this book brings Wallace to life in a way that, sadly, readers can no longer get.

Advertisements

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by rans on April 26, 2010 at 4:13 AM

    Thanks for this, it was helpful-I was wondering the book came across before searching it out! can’t wait to read it.

    Reply

  2. […] S reviewed the latest book for David Foster Wallace fans in April, and last week New York got a roundtable around to discuss Although Of Course You End Up […]

    Reply

  3. […] that feature on Mitchell, also broke down Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which John S reviewed some weeks ago. Meanwhile on The Millions, Christopher Allen Walker looks at the oil spill in the Gulf through the […]

    Reply

  4. […] These have ranged from good-faith attempts to expose an unpublished work, to rushed efforts to feed the growing demand for his voice, to downright exploitive attempts to turn his work into a mass-market self-help […]

    Reply

  5. […] hagiography around David Foster Wallace—one I’ve devoutly consumed and even added to—has grown to somewhat absurd proportions in the four years since his death. It […]

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: