Consider the Author
David Lipsky's account of a week with David Foster Wallace.
In the wake of Infinite Jest’s publication in 1996, author David Foster Wallace was such a literary rock star that Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone, assigned a journalist to write a profile of him for the magazine—an honor normally reserved for actual rock stars. The journalist was one David Lipsky, a young, ambitious writer who had authored some fiction himself: most notably, at that point, the short story collection Three Thousand Dollars. He caught up with Wallace just as the writer was about to venture on the last leg of the Infinite Jest book tour.
Together, they went from the relative tranquility of Illinois State University—where Wallace taught creative writing—to Saint Paul, Minnesota and back. Along they way they navigated the usual array of airport inconveniences and scheduling difficulties; rode freeways late into the night; ate piles of junk food; dealt with other members of the press; went to readings; caught up with some of Wallace’s college friends; and, upon returning, walked Wallace’s dogs. Lipsky kept his tape recorder running the whole time, switching it off only when his interview subject requested it or he had to change the tape.
“I never, thank God, had to write the piece,” Lipsky writes in the afterword to Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. “I tried to write it, and kept imagining David reading it, and seeing through it, through me, and spotting some questionable stuff in the x-ray.” Lucky for us, he at least held onto the interview transcripts; these make up the body of Although Of Course.
Before I go any further, I should probably let you know whom this book is for: primarily, hardcore Jest-heads (as if there is any other kind). If you don’t like or haven’t read any Wallace, than obviously this book has very little to offer you. Fans of his non-fiction might be able to glean something of value from it, but they won’t get the full experience. To the extent that a conversation as fragmented and wide-ranging as the one recorded in this book can be said to be about anything specific, it is about the place from which Infinite Jest came.
It takes a little while for Lipsky to grasp this, mostly because he walks into the interview already coveting Wallace’s success. This causes the early portions of the book to sort of drag as Lipsky keeps bringing the focus back to fame and how it feels. But in a way, it also fits the subject at hand perfectly; Wallace sums up Infinite Jest as being about “how seductive image is,” which makes Lipsky’s early image fixation strangely resonant.
This fixation leaves Wallace on guard and clearly suspicious of Lipsky’s intentions. Early on in the book he keeps trying to give the reporter what he thinks he wants to hear, talking about how he “would have liked to get laid on the tour” with strained nonchalance and complimenting Lipsky’s intelligence. Because this is a Rolling Stone piece, and Rolling Stone is—in Wallace’s words—“jaunty,” he tries a little too hard for jauntiness.
But once Lipsky decides that he can “enjoy [Wallace] without trying to match him,” both Wallace and the book open up. If there is an emotional arc to be found here, it is how these two men eventually reach an understanding, and even bond, in classic guys-on-a-road-trip fashion. At one point, Wallace says, “If you—like, this would have been over a day ago if you hadn’t been somebody who writes novels.” They grow closer together over this shared experience, and also other things—television, movies, women.
Still, Wallace remains uncomfortable discussing his newfound fame. When Lipsky asks him what it felt like to be praised by Walter Kirn, he snaps back: “I applaud his taste and discernment. How’s that for a response? What do you want me to say?” Even late into the book, he never expresses anything approaching unqualified, unambiguous satisfaction with the attention. The closest he gets is comparing it to heroin.
He is equally reluctant to acknowledge his own talent. He repeatedly insists that he’s just a “regular guy,” if perhaps a brighter-than-average one. Lipsky thinks this a posture, but Wallace repeatedly insists that it is not. “It’s not just ‘aw-shucks, I’m just in from the country, I’m not really a writer, I’m just a regular guy,’” he says. “I’m not trying to lay some kind of shit.”
Lipsky doesn’t buy it, and his skepticism isn’t unwarranted; over the course of the book, it becomes clear that Wallace both is and isn’t laying shit. At one point, he says that there is “a certain blend of absolute naked sincerity and manipulation,” to the writing process, and this turns out to be a pretty good description of what is really going on in the “aw-shucks” routine. But he isn’t manipulating Lipsky; he’s manipulating himself. He wants to “cultivate normality,” but as Lipsky points out—not to him, but in an aside to the reader—that isn’t something that can be actively cultivated. It just is. Cultivation, then, cannot be the right word; it’s more like Wallace is trying to bury something.
We begin to see why when he talks about his depression. Reflecting on the worst of it—when he dropped out of Harvard grad school to spend eight days on suicide watch—Wallace describes it as “a midlife crisis at like twenty-seven.” This midlife crisis came after he had already found some prestige in literary circles with the publication of his first novel, Broom of the System. More importantly, it came after the benefits of that prestige had largely faded. This was the dreadful moment that Wallace writes about so often, in so many different forms: he was seduced by the praise to the point where he felt like he couldn’t live without it. And then it was gone.
“Not going back there is more important to me than anything,” says Wallace. And so he keeps the praise at arm’s length this time around, reminding himself over and over not to buy the hype. By the time Lipsky catches up with him, he is like a reformed alcoholic surrounded by people offering him a sip. The urge to give in must be overwhelming, for much the same reason Wallace would indulge in anything to excess. Alcohol, he calls an “anesthetic.” Television—“my primary addiction in my entire life,” he says—provided “the illusions of relationships with people.” All of these things provide temporary relief to the crushing, scary loneliness of living, and Wallace—who had a killer sweet tooth and a certain affection for trashy action flicks—never suggests that this is, in of itself, a bad thing. “But,” he says, “if that’s the basic/main staple of your diet, you’re gonna die. In a meaningful way, you’re going to die.”
The search for a different main staple is the driving force behind much of Wallace’s writing. In books, it seems like he found a sliver of what he was looking for: he found what he calls “this sense of a conversation around loneliness.” Fiction is where loneliness can be confronted—where the author’s “brain voice for a while becomes your brain voice”—but also where writers like Wallace can try to express deeper, immutable values for people to hold onto and find solace in. The quest to do so—and more importantly, the deeply felt yearning behind it—is a large part of what makes Wallace’s writing so human.
In September 2008, Wallace killed himself at the age of forty-six. But while the afterword to Although Of Course is appropriately elegiac, the body of the book is anything but funereal. Indeed, one of the most striking things about the interview is how funny and ingratiating Wallace seemed to be in person. For example: When the check-in girl at a motel says that he has a reservation for a room with twins, he replies, “Yes, Anita and Consuela.” The book is sprinkled with laugh-out-loud one-liners like this, and it is clear—both from the afterword and the interview itself—that Lipsky could not help but be completely charmed.
Lipsky writes that Wallace’s writing persona “was the best friend you’d ever have,” and the same thing is true of his words transcribed; perhaps because, as Lipsky notes elsewhere, “he was such a natural writer he could talk in prose.”
Although Of Course is, like anything Wallace touched, packed to the brim with content and ideas; the strongest of these is the sheer force of his personality. It is a fine memorial to a man who, while he lived, possessed immense talent, explosive genius, and a heart that dwarfed both.
Ned Resnikoff is an NYU student, freelance writer, and National Editor emeritus of NYULocal.com. He blogs athttp://resnikoff.wordpress.com/