Just under two years ago, David Foster Wallace killed himself, leaving behind a legacy that included—and perhaps unfairly focused on—his magnum opus, the 1’000+ page Infinite Jest. Though I happened to appreciate Wallace’s nonfiction (see Consider the Lobster) even more than his fiction, he was equally adept at both forms—at any form, to be honest.
When Wallace killed himself, the internet was full of retrospectives, but the one I recall as being the most beautiful was “The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace”, which David Lipsky wrote for Rolling Stone1. When I read, shortly after, that Lipsky would pen would of two upcoming biographies about Wallace, I was enthusiastic to say the least. Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself isn’t a biography, if one wanted to be pedantic, but it’s as close to an unfiltered volume of DFW as we are likely to get.
The year was 1996. Wallace had just published one of his most famous essays, “Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise”2 for Harper’s, which made him something of a pseudo-celebrity in literary circles. But more important, Little, Brown had just published Infinite Jest, that colossal, postmodern book which consumed no fewer than three years of Wallace’s life. In what amounts to a publicity blitz in the high art world, Little, Brown sent Wallace on a book tour, and Rolling Stone sent report David Lipsky to spend a week traveling with Wallace and interviewing him, and amassing a stock of tape recordings and notes commensurate to that long a timespan.
Despite what was at that time a literary goldmine, Lipsky’s source material was never turned into a product. Rolling Stone‘s editor assigned Lipsky to something else and—much to the magazine’s detriment—these recordings and notes languished in a closet somewhere in the intervening years. The form they take now is an edited transcription, not an entirely new essay based on the source material. The basic form is this:
Time and Location [e.g. Bloomington-Normal Airport]
Lipsky asks something varying from surprisingly intelligent and literate to borderline tabloid, though these usually seem like after-the-face edits rather than faithful transcriptions of Lipsky’s questions.
Wallace responds, and these are—these are, you know, usually straight transcriptions, which veer from, like, that extremely folksy and vernacular way that Wallace could be when trying to be populist and grounded, to extended, beautiful monologues that go on for pages, which finally make you understand what Lipsky means when he says that DFW could extemporaneously “talk in prose”.
[Finally, Lipsky often interjects either narrative, such as describing what the two are eating, to longer musings about Wallace himself. I am unsure if these were inserted in the original notes or after, since some seem startlingly prescient.]
So it goes on for 350 pages. In much the manner you might expect, this narrative veers wildly from the utterly banal to the startlingly brilliant; to one with enough patience, it paints one of the clearest and most haunting portraits of DFW ever put to paper, but the form is filled with noise, and the short opening essays (one of them culled from “Lost Years and Last Days”) by Lipsky tease us with the extraordinary insight and tenderness with which one writing prodigy can more or less eulogize another. I can’t help, therefore, feeling as though, given enough care and time, Lipsky could have finally turned his source material into an amazing chronicle of the life, times, and psyche of David Foster Wallace. The cynical part of me thinks this book was rushed to press—preempting any such calculations—in the wake of Wallace’s death; the more generous part thinks perhaps the author and the editors thought the raw, unfiltered transcript (aided by Lipsky’s interpolations) to be the best tribute to a departed literary giant. In truth, I have yet to figure out which I believe.
What surprised me most about DFW in this interview is just how conflicted and insecure he seemed to be, especially dealing with a dose of newfound fame. Many of his conversations with Lipsky seem to center on how alien and troubling he finds the book tour, the sudden and orgasmic public attention, and the tension between those parts of us which relish low entertainment, vices, and all the visceral pleasures life has to offer (think of Chuck Klosterman’s MTV apologetics), and those parts of us which crave more, which shirk fame for fame’s sake, which—believe it or not—actually crave complicated pomo literature because it asks so much of us intellectually. Forget Lipsky: David Foster Wallace, given sufficient time and prompting, will have an entire dialectical conversation with himself; one gets the feeling it is a permanent fixture in his head, and the engine which drove all of his tremendous creative output. In the meantime, his extemporaneous prose manages to be more brilliant than ten thousand Dan Browns or Stephenie Meyers working in concert, leaving such gems as that which titled the book: “[…] although of course you end up becoming yourself” no matter whom you try to become.
Having read Lipsky’s earlier piece on Wallace, and knowing what he is capable of, I must admit to some measure of disappointment that Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself didn’t carry more of his own input; at the same time, it is impossible not to appreciate this transcription for the unique treasure it is.