June 2010

Lorian Long

nonfiction

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

“We can never be linear about ourselves.”

In 1996, Rolling Stone sent writer David Lipsky to write an author profile of David Foster Wallace. Lipsky flew to Illinois to spend five days with the (somewhat) reclusive literary heavyweight as he finished a massive book tour for Infinite Jest. Like any Wallace fan, Lipsky knew how ridiculously lucky he was to have the opportunity to dine with, share cigarettes with, and ride shotgun next to a man with whom some of us would’ve shared our last meal on Earth. Lipsky kept the tapes for over a decade, despite the fact that Rolling Stone never ran the piece. Two years after Wallace hanged himself, and one year after Infinite Jest’s Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, Lipsky has published a 310-page transcript of those five days. From bedrooms to airports to frozen-shut car doors to the smoking section in a roadside Denny’s, the tape recorder keeps running, and Wallace keeps talking. The finished product is a snapshot biography, a new kind of portrait of the artist that is as messy and expansive as Wallace’s own mental map.

Lipsky, for the most part, asks fairly pedestrian interview questions (“Can you tell me a little about your background?”; “How does it feel to be the most talked-about writer in the country?”; “Do you think [Infinite Jest] is a hard book or is it an easy book?”), and seems preoccupied with two things: Wallace’s fame and his history of drug use. Occasionally, the book is tedious to read because of how uncomfortable Wallace is when Lipsky insists upon asking over and over again, What is it like to be a famous genius? “I follow the crap. But I struggle much harder against the temptation to follow the crap. And I follow it from much more of a distance -- and yeah, I have some sort of idea of it. But have some compassion. I mean, I’ve already told you that, like, I gotta be very careful about how much of this stuff I take inside.” And later, when Lipsky tells Wallace: “I think you still feel you’re smarter than other people. You make a point of holding back,” Wallace says, “Boy, that would make me a real asshole, wouldn’t it? The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever, almost made me die.” Wallace is referring to the eight days spent in a suicide ward in his late twenties, an intensely dark time he tells Lipsky about in hopes of avoiding questions regarding fame and celebritydom. Some readers will be turned off by Lipsky’s incessant badgering -- I know I was, and I’m not sure whether it was so much Wallace’s fragile state, as it was Lipsky trying to live vicariously through another young writer’s success. Lipsky details his own struggle with publication and critical acknowledgement in the book’s afterword, so it’s no surprise he (selfishly?) presses Wallace for some kind of magical advice.

Drugs were a source of fascination, horror, and human connection in Wallace’s art. Readers have speculated on Wallace’s own drug use; although he never denied a struggle with substances, he was reticent to elucidate the abuse. As a writer for a publication like Rolling Stone, where drugs make great copy, Lipsky naturally brings it up… again, and again, and again. The questions are intrusive and slightly out of line, but Wallace’s responses are intelligent and honest, with touch of frustration: “If I’d ever been a heroin addict, I don’t think I’d have a problem saying it. It’s weird -- I, like -- I mean, I’m somebody who spent most of his life in libraries. I just, um, never lived that kind of dangerous life. I wouldn’t even stick a needle in my arm.” When they discuss the addicted cast of characters in Infinite Jest, Lipsky plays the “You wrote about it, so it must’ve happened to you” autobiographical card, and Wallace’s response is basic, obvious, yet terrifyingly spot-on: “One of the things about being a writer is you’re able to give the impression -- both in the lines and between the lines -- that you know an enormous amount. That you know and have lived intimately all this stuff. Because you want it to have that kind of effect on the nerve endings.” Lipsky’s fact-checking, journalistic approach seems uncouth in comparison to Wallace’s perspicacious answers. Then again, Wallace tends to speak the way he writes, and who wouldn’t sound like a chump next to him?

This isn’t to say the banter between the two men isn’t fascinating or worthwhile or humorous. Halfway through the book, Wallace is less nervous, Lipsky relaxes, and they discuss movies (Schindler’s List: “That movie had the heart of a whore and was a cheat.” Lipsky: “That’s one of the few films I cried in.”), women (“Psychotics, say what you want about them, tend to make the first move.”) crap jobs (“I worked as a towel boy [two years after receiving a Whiting Writer’s Award], and who should walk in, um, to get their towel, but Michael Ryan… it’s the only time I’ve literally dived under something, to have somebody avoid seeing me.”), Alanis Morrisette (“I have the musical tastes of a thirteen year-old girl."). These brief, seemingly mundane exchanges are tinged with electricity -- Wallace could rhapsodize about toilet paper and I’d eat it up. They work to lessen the tension, dim the spotlight, and allow for a superstar and a journalist to become friends.

Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself isn’t flawless; but it’s necessary for some of us to have and to hold until the release of The Pale King. You don’t have to be a Wallace fan to love the book. If you’re a writer, or even if you just believe that art can nourish us somehow, you will read this book and feel changed. The odd thing is, you feel hopeful, too. Considering Wallace eliminated his own map, and Lipsky’s decision to include several pages detailing the painful last few months of Wallace’s life, a quote like this crushes you: “I tell you, there’s no single more interesting time to be alive on the planet Earth than in the next twenty years.” But the hope overwhelms the despair. An act of courage is making great art, and in this way, Wallace triumphed. We are better writers and readers because of the words he put on paper; we’re better people, too. “I have this -- here’s this thing where it’s going to sound sappy to you. I have this unbelievably like five-year-old’s belief that art is just absolutely magic. And that good art can do things that nothing else in the solar system can do. And that the good stuff will survive, and get read, and that in the great winnowing process, the shit will sink and the good stuff will rise.” You can’t separate David Foster Wallace’s death from his work, but you can let his work conquer death. 

Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky
Broadway
ISBN: 030759243X
352 Pages