Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give to The End of the Tour, the new film about a five-day interview between the writer David Foster Wallace and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky, is that I finally started reading Wallace again. I hadn’t read him since his death in 2008, which hit harder than I expected, considering I had never read his greatest work, Infinite Jest. I feel the need to confess this up front, because The End of the Tour revolves around Infinite Jest; it’s the book that Wallace is promoting on his tour, it’s the book that Lipsky reveres with a mixtures of envy and gratitude, and it’s the book that Jason Segal, the actor who plays David Foster Wallace, read in solitude in a cabin in “the California boonies” in order to prepare for the role.
My excuse for never having read Infinite Jest is that I was in college when it was first published, too busy making my way through classic mammoth novels to have time for contemporary ones. And then, by the time I graduated from college, Wallace’s books, especially Infinite Jest, had been so thoroughly colonized by ardent fans and critics that it no longer seemed like much fun to read Wallace. In other words, he got canonized.
But before he was famous—or maybe, it’s better to say, before I knew he was famous—there was a two-year period when Wallace seemed to speak only to me via my parent’s magazine subscriptions and the public library. No one I knew read Wallace, my older sister didn’t read him, and my parents, astonishingly, didn’t even like him—they thought his prose was too self-conscious. So, he was mine. My secret portal to a new way of thinking and writing about the world, a way of thinking and writing that was infected by cable television, by email, and by the then-nascent internet, “the Web”. Wallace was the future. It made sense that my baby boomer parents couldn’t receive the message and that no one in my boondock town had heard of him.
In retrospect, my proprietary feelings toward Wallace make me laugh because it doesn’t take a great critical mind to notice that, hey, this guy can really write! It’s also funny because Wallace is one of those writers that everyone feels connected to in a secret, special way. That’s one definition of literary genius, that ability to get into people’s head, to make them believe that they aren’t even reading, that they’re somehow thinking the sentences. Lipsky describes Wallace’s literary gift as “casual and gigantic; he’d captured everybody’s brain voice.”
The End of the Tour is based on Lipsky’s 2010 Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a book that is basically a transcript of Lipsky’s interviews with Wallace at the end of his 1996 Infinite Jest book tour. I read it after watching The End of the Tour, curious to see how closely the film followed it, and was pleasantly surprised to find that almost all the dialogue was taken from the book.
That said, the book is subtler than the movie (as books generally are), shaggier, funnier, less plot-driven, and less manipulative. Still, I loved the movie. It brought me straight back to my late teens, and to the beginning of certain literary dreams. It also brought me back to the late nineties, which is another way of saying that there is no way I can be even remotely objective about a film that begins with strains of R.E.M.’s “Strange Currencies”, a song so deeply stored in my memory banks that it inevitably dislodges the emotion-soaked memories surrounding it.
If End of the Tour is actually a good movie, and not just a nostalgia trip for thirtysomethings like me, it’s good because it’s a road movie, and the cracked-open car windows let air and views of the open road into scenes that might otherwise be too cramped and talky. Because of bad weather, Lipsky and Wallace’s flights are cancelled, and they must drive the last leg of Wallace’s book tour. It’s an inconvenience that ends up being fortuitous for Lipsky, who observes that the interview only worked because of “the Henry Ford road trip equation: two men will become comfortable if they have to drive any distance in excess of 40 miles.” There’s something dreamy about a car trip, with the scenery whooshing by, with music playing, cigarettes burning (it’s the nineties, remember). Lipsky allows himself to get wistful in his introduction to Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself:
When I think of this trip, I see David and me in the front seat of the car. It’s nighttime. It smells like chewing tobacco, soda, and smoke. The window is letting in a leak of cold air. R.E.M. is playing. The wheels are making their slightly sleepy sound of tape being stripped cleanly and endlessly of a long wall. On the other hand, we seem not to be moving at all, and the conversation is the best one I’ve ever had.
It seems doubtful that this was one of Wallace’s all-time favorite conversations. Lipsky interviews him at the end of a hugely successful book tour, a moment that Lipsky imagines as joyful and triumphant. But Wallace is fretful and self-conscious. He’s between projects, rarely a comfortable place for a writer, and he’s made even more uncomfortable by his growing awareness of his fame. He knows he needs to protect himself against this new genius-writer persona, otherwise he’ll lose the almost childish sense of privacy it took to write Infinite Jest. At the same time, if there’s a public persona happening, he wants a hand in shaping it.
Wallace’s simplest defense is to deny that he is famous, or that he even cares about fame, one that Lipsky tries to tear down throughout his interview. He wants Wallace to cop to his ambition, both because (presumably) he wants some good quotes for his profile, but also because Lipsky is a novelist, too. He can’t help being curious about, and more than a little jealous of Wallace’s success. But instead of getting satisfying descriptions of the pleasures of literary fame, Lipksy gets quotes like this (excerpted from Lipsky’s book, not the screenplay):
I follow the crap. But I struggle much harder against the temptation to follow the crap. And I follow it from 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. Because I go home, and I spend a month getting this manuscript ready [his 1997 essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again]. And then I got to start working on something else. And the realer this shit is to me, and the more I think about it—and, of course, you’re holding the tape recorder so that I will end up reading what I’ve said in this article. That will feed the self-consciousness loop.
The irony is that Lipsky never ended up writing the piece that Wallace was so worried about reading. According to Lipsky, his editor changed his mind. This was a relief: “I tried to write, and kept imagining David reading it, and seeing through it, through me, and spotting some questionable stuff on the X-ray.”
It seems important to me that Lipsky never wrote the profile, although the film doesn’t bother to mention it. If Lipsky had written the profile, he would have been forced to look at that “questionable stuff on the X-ray” and make a diagnosis. He probably would have had to cut all the Lipsky out of the interview, all the projections, all the posturing, all the angst, and figure out what story he wanted to tell about Wallace. But Lipsky couldn’t bring himself to do that, and so the material remains raw and unfiltered. It’s not clear what Lipsky is looking for when he presses Wallace, again and again, for a detailed report of what is feels like to be—what? Famous? Critically beloved? Quasi-canonized? A genius? The writer of Infinite Jest? The film tends to simplify the dynamic between the two men, with points of jealous conflict that don’t appear in Lipsky’s book. Jealousy is certainly an ingredient in Lipsky’s interview questions (and one he acknowledges in his preface) but the even simpler truth is that Lipsky was a young reporter without a lot of experience. Wallace was the first writer he ever interviewed.
Jason Segal is already getting a lot of praise for his convincing portrayal of Wallace, but for me, Jesse Eisenberg’s interpretation of David Lipsky was more revealing. His performance reminded me of the thrill of reading Wallace as a teenager, of the way, when you finished his essays and stories, you felt smarter, more analytical, more curious, more observant. At the very least, you’d learned a new word or two. And you wanted to use those words in a sentence, immediately! In The End of Tour, you see Lipsky imitating Wallace without even meaning to, picking up his pronunciation of certain words, his mannerisms, his jokes, and even trying his chewing tobacco (he spits it out immediately). There’s a great moment when Lipsky and Wallace are smoking cigarettes in the car with two of Wallace’s friends. The windows are cracked to let the smoke out but cold air is whooshing in, causing Lipsky to announce, gleefully, “we’re on a hypothermia smoking tour!” One of Wallace’s friends comments that it “sounds like something Dave would say”. She says it without any particular malice; it’s as if this has happened before, with Dave’s new friends. I recognized myself in that scene, and I recognized the generation of writers who continue to live and wrestle with his legacy.