The Unwritten Profile: On The End Of The Tour

July 31, 2015 | 3 books mentioned 13 6 min read

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.

coverMy 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.”

coverThe 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.

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field. Her short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The Carolina Quarterly, and The Chattahoochee Review, among others. Read more at hannahgersen.com or sign up for her newsletter here.

13 comments:

  1. …this book’s the only one DFW-related/produced, i’ve read where he was less than brilliant. Lipsky’s sh*ttily veiled envy is grating and the conversations read like he was constantly pulling Wallace down to his level, somehow. only DFW book i couldnt finish, as i kept imagining suckerpunching Lipsky, superbly irritating. Imagine they did a Bellow movie and it’d be “A Theft”….yeah….
    when i found out the Wallace-movie they finally got around to was this, couldn’t’ve been in deeper disbelief. now, feel like reading “a supposedly fun thing…” to get spirits back up.

  2. David Lipsky is a twat. He wanted nothing more in his life than to be yoked to the legacy of David Foster Wallace. Gross. He’s like a passive Mark David Chapman. And Segel’s performance is obvious and full of remedial indications of coming doom. Yes, to be a genius is to have a constant headache, Jason. What a cliche. And it would have been nice to not have some run of the mill indie director with a such prosaic visual acumen. One of the most innovative and stylistically risky writers has a movie made about him and it looks like something made by Barry Levinson. Nice.

  3. Thanks Anon, I wish I could’ve put it equally concisely!
    I was shocked out of my wits when I saw the trailer. The guy playing DFW is off the charts awful in this particular role; it’s especially heart-breaking if you’ve seen some of Wallace’s actual interviews. Just about unthinkable if you even mildly consider what DFW evidently would’ve thought of this [infinite wincing]. (Seeing Eisenberg’s smug mien was like the icing on a cake from hell, if that makes any sense.)

  4. Oh christ commentators settle down.

    The movie is good. The fact that there is a movie about someone like DFW is good. It’s good for the culture. Much better than Transformers: VVIXI.

    And Hannah, thanks for the warm essay. And thank god it wasn’t just another “I’m-too cool-for-a-David-Foster-Wallace-movie” one. Cause gag me with a spoon.

  5. Well, compared to Transformers any movie is pretty amazing ;)
    Still, a movie based on one of his books (i guess there already is at least one) would be nice. But there’s no excuse for one featuring a clearly envious brown-noser, sorry. Thought experiment: which DFW book does not beat the pants off “A.O.Y.E.B.Y”?

  6. what Mygod said.

    was glad to see you wrote a review of this, Hannah–been a fan since your friday night lights essay!

  7. Barry Levinson is your barometer for a director with little visual style? Christ, you REALLY don’t watch many movies, do you?

  8. There is something to this dynamic that puts me in mind of Boswell and Samuel Johnson. Looking forward to watching this movie very much.

  9. HIGH ART, DFW, AND SHAUN THE SHEEP: A VERY SUBJECTIVE STUDY

    “…Otto Rank was a poet, a novelist, a playwright, in short a literary man, so that when he examined the creative personality it was not only as a psychologist, but as an artist….”

    Nin, Anais. Foreword. “Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development.” Otto Rank. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1932. viii. Print

    “I haven’t been deconstructed in a long time.”

    Sheedy, Ally, perf. “High Art.” October Films, 1998. Film

    I spent a good chunk of the past weekend with two very different pals, both celebrating birthdays, and both passionately excited about two new movies that recently opened. The first pal is from my writer’s group, and a huge fan of David Foster Wallace. So we hit the Friday night 9:45 showing of “The End of the Tour,” among the well-read and well-behaved folk of an art house theater in Bethesda, Maryland. The next afternoon, it was off with my somewhat younger pal to a suburban multiplex, for a matinee of “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” the latest claymation cartoon from Aardman Animations. The members of this audience were shorter, many were unlikely to have learned to read yet, and their behavior ranged from antsy to semi-feral. But sitting there, lit by the glow of a dozen busy texters, amidst the spewing soda bottles and crunch of floor popcorn, I began to suspect something. Hmmm. Was “Shaun the Sheep Movie” a more profound and powerful work of art than the redoubtable “The End of the Tour?”

    [Caution: Movie plot spoilers ahead!]

    First off, I absolutely agree that “The End of the Tour” is, as one critic described it, a sublime “chamber piece.” The acting by both leads is simply wonderful, delicate and expressive. I enjoyed and could identify with the subtle intellectual sparring, the complex etiquette of passing along your poem or book to another writer, the admiration and secret, green-tinged jealousy. But who is this work of art speaking to? Are there special code words, secret handshakes filmed within this, accessible only to the elect? For someone coming to this work of art from a place of unfamiliarity, would there be enough of a common reference point?

    As an example, in one scene, Jesse Eisenberg, portraying Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky, scurries frantically through Wallace’s home when he is briefly left on is own. He seems to be attempting to suck the furnishing, the artwork, even the table clutter into his pores. How furtively he observes, scribbling all the while! He enters into a darkened room. Lit from the doorway is the desk and computer of David Foster Wallace. This is the shrine, the altar, the place where the mysterious alchemy of a high priest of writing is carried out. But without a common reference point, would this scene touch a moviegoer? Or would the view simply be that of some office furniture and hardware?

    In contrast, “Shaun the Sheep Movie’s” sunny, silent (the movie has no dialog, just sound effects and music) world of an imaginary farmer and rambunctious sheep-on-the-lam has moments that dig deep, and cut to the quick. In a timeless, everywhere universe, The Farmer is missing, somewhere in The Big City, far from his home on the farm. He has amnesia after being bopped on the head during a long, Rube Goldbergesque series of misadventures, all set off when Shaun (a wolf in sheep’s clothing) decides it’s time for him and his flock to take a day off from the dreary routine of sleeping, eating, and occasionally being shorn.
    Shaun and The Farmer do finally reunite at The Farmer’s new workplace, a high-end salon. After a brilliantly idiotic series of random events, The Farmer has parlayed the shearing skills still locked in his muscle memory into a career as a celebrity stylist.* But he recoils from Shaun, who now appears to him as an alien wooly creature, and roughly waves him off. With no dialog, the geniuses at Aardman Animations were somehow able to create a gently rippling series of expressions across Shaun’s clay face. Shock. Horror. The primal angst of abandonment. All conveyed without a word, but packed with power. This tale of a homely wanderer and his prodigal children, of loyalty and courage, of finally making it back safely to a now-appreciated humble home, is mythic and universal, on a level with another timeless film, “The Wizard of Oz.”

    Perhaps the greatest challenge in “The End of Tour” is its subject. David Foster Wallace is an object of fascination, both on the part of the movie audience and the interviewer. But he is deep within his struggle, flailing about, a manic verbal savant, but as perplexed as the rest of us in his terror and profound loneliness. He and his reporter-turned-sparring-partner jab, parry, build up walls and attempt to break them down, but in the end, part from each other, still confused and hurting. “The End of the Tour” is bookended by the awful knowledge that David Foster Wallace would die by his own hand twelve years later. I was in tears by the end, and found it a challenging, verbally dazzling, and profoundly sad experience. But as a work of art, “The End of the Tour” does not reach the highest levels as it simply does not strike a universal cord.

    *The sly and witty observations on social media and celebrity by “Shaun the Sheep Movie” scriptwriters Mark Burton and Richard Starzak merit their own comment piece. As just one example, The Farmer’s first client at the salon is a character that first appears as a celebrity diner, fawningly cooed over at the snooty Big City restaurant “Le Chou Brûlé,” otherwise known as The Burning Cabbage!

  10. What a grandly Franzenian response in a pithy 16-word package. Perfectly composed, balanced, and of-the-moment:

    a.) Take ¾ cup of presumption, suffused with the suggestive, rotted-truffle aroma of “I did not read your Weinerian comment and thus have nothing of substance to say about it.”

    b.) Mix with several teaspoons of baseless rejection theory, distilled from hogshead of solipsistic conjecture.

    c.) Combine in soufflé pan, wait until patty reaches airy mass, then happily attempt to deflate entire effort with a bile-tipped poison pen.

    Optional: Serve accompanied by small bowls of chopped endangered birds, Jodi Picoult dismissals, and massive pile of erotic prose cheese (the latter should be left out in the hot sun for several days). Your guests can sprinkle on the condiments to their taste.

    Dig In!

  11. @Mygod Your initial comment in relation to my contribution to this thread really hurt my feelings. It was obvious that I put a lot of effort and hard work into what I said and, rather than address its substance, you made a snarky comment about copying and pasting a “rejected Millions essay” then seized today upon the tangential matter of it have “a title.”

    I was very excited about both the movies I discussed, and the ideas that sprang from viewing them, so excited that I wanted to share them with people who have similar interests. People may or may not agree, but I think that results in growth. The poisonous and rotted images that arose in me, that I painted in the my earlier comment, which were really a way of masking my real feelings, springing from my very real belief that some responses are growth-filled (even if challenging and in opposition) and others are spirit-sucking and inhibiting.

    I am going to take a long vacation from snark; I would rather be open and excited about books, movies, artists, and people who love books, movies and artists. Actually, If the publishers are willing, I really hope they will delete my 8/23 comment. I don’t want to contribute to a brittle environment where someone might not comment because they think they’ll get snarked on!

    Sincerely,

    Maureen Murphy (former Moe Murph)

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