The David Show: More on David Lipsky’s David Foster Wallace

The David Foster Wallace movie “The End of the Tour” is based on the David Lipsky book discussed here. Originally posted in 2010.


The real story in David Lipsky’s “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace)” turns out to be the budding/ultimately unrequited love story between the two writers. Throughout the text, which is almost entirely an edited version of Lipsky’s interviews with DFW in the course of a days-long roadtrip through the midwest, the author is careful to note the evidence of their growing friendship. DFW’s compliments; the many hours they spend smoking, eating, smoking, talking, musing together and smoking some more. “I can’t win an argument with you,” Lipsky reports DFW telling him. DFW frets that every person who sees them traveling together will assume they’re gay. DFW says he’s particularly eager to follow Lipsky’s career now that he knows the extent of everything his interlocutor knows about literature and life.

It’s not like Lipsky doesn’t know what’s going on. DFW is flirting with him, subject-to-journalist. DFW is extremely flattered by the attention,  despite all of his better intentions, and is extremely, almost dysfunctionally, eager to see himself look cool in the pages of Rolling Stone. Lipsky offers these observations in brackets, along with self-lacerating notes about his own behavior and motivations. He’s got a tremendous writer crush on this guy, who is almost exactly his age, has almost all of the same experiences but is just. . . better, in nearly every way.

I ploughed through the book over the weekend, reveling in the scattering of DFW gems among the pages. For instance, here, on p. 198, is DFW on lovelorn country music:

“What if you just imagined that this absent lover they’re singing to is just a metaphor? And what they’re really singing is to themselves, or to God, you know? ‘Since you’ve left I’m so empty I can’t live, my life has no meaning.’ That in a weird way, I mean they’re incredibly existentialist songs. That have the patina of the absent, of the romantic shit on it just to make it salable. . .(but) they’re singing about something much more elemental being missing, and their being incomplete without it. Than just, you know, some girl in tight jeans or something.”

That’s exactly what we’re talking about when we talk about DFW, isn’t it? And God love Lipsky for dusting it off and putting it out there where we can find it and realize again how close cultural revelation is, if you know where to look. I look at crappy country music and see a bunch of suburban cowboys in acid washed jeans. DWF looks and sees. . . magic.

And here’s Lipsky tagging along for five days. He knows DFW is him, only better. That they’ve gone to the same schools, focused the same amount of energy into their writing, both emerged as phenoms, shockingly promising from the earliest possible age. Only DFW has been touched by the light and Lipsky realizes he’s reflecting a dimmer glow. Which isn’t to say that he’s a loser, by any stretch. Check out the nuclear-powered author bio on the back flap, with its many awards, top-rank magazines, the one bestseller, drawn from the Nat’l Magazine Award-winning story. It took a while, perhaps, and he’ll never be the rock star that “Infinite Jest” made DFW, but Lipsky is right up there. Way above me, for instance. And so there it is, and the challenge in life is to be okay with that.

The power of the book, and between DFW’s words and Lipsky’s yearning it’s a hell of a bracing read, is how vividly it captures that primal struggle. The quest to be so okay with your inner world that the externals just don’t matter any more. DFW wants desperately to be okay inside. Lipsky seems a bit closer, according to DFW, and also their relative experiences in life. At least the book’s dedication implies a wife and kids to whom he extends a very sweet kind of affection.

But that drive. The thing that pushed and tormented DFW. The thing that makes Lipsky want/need/hunger for his new friend’s approval. The tentative affection they share, never to meet, speak nor share it again. “I never saw him again, except on television once.” A very sad and lonely (to cop a DFW-ism) observation, indeed.

It’s a frustrating book, at times an angrifying one (did Jann Wenner really assign the profile based only on seeing a picture of DFW with long hair? Did he kill the piece for a better reason? Or any reason at all?) . Life is frustrating and angrifying too. Especially when DFW, the accidental meta-critic of country music, dies by his own hand at 46. Hearing his voice again (on the page) is sweet and wonderful and very sad. I don’t want the trip to end. Don’t want the book to end. DFW was the best voice of my/our generation. That fact (to say nothing of the brainpower it indicates) was no comfort to him in the end.

Something in my veins is bloodier than blood

The scariest, yet most lovely moments in those great Wilco albums come when the band goes head to head with the electronic noise. The weird “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” blasts of feedback, looped sounds, colliding gears, exploding boilers, seething flames and billowing smoke. Awful and terrifying and hypnotic and, when you least expect it, beautiful.

On the verge of complete chaos, transcendence. The ideal pulls you out of bed in the morning and drags you through empty space, past the frigid planets and the endless pattern of aimless, world-destroying meteors, It’s the secret heart of everything, from “Louie, Louie” to Beethoven’s 9th to last-second 3-pointers, to “Friday Night Lights” to the tabloid narratives bonding the NY Times to the Nat’l Enquirer, and beyond.

Reading David Lipsky’s “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself” just now, and with 80 pages down I’m still not sure if this is really a crystal portrait of the big brain (and wonderful spirit) on David Foster Wallace, or about the author’s possibly subconscious desire to insert himself into the tragic narrative of the brilliant artist who sees too clearly. Or maybe I just need to insert my interpretive, order-starved self into Lipsky’s journalistic narrative. Whatever, the main thing is hearing DFW’s voice again, and seeing exactly how he had structured his own internal battle between appetite and discipline, self and other, chaos and order. In a sense Lipsky serves as a walking projection of the darker impulses: striving, moving, needing, smoking, wanting more and more. DFW was determined to move somewhere beyond all of that. And he nearly made it. Or so it seemed, until he killed himself.

Transcendence back to chaos. The last second shot hits the rim and caroms over the backboard and out into the crowd. The album doesn’t work. The story has the wrong lead. The missing kid is still missing. The Honey Nut Shredded Wheat vanishes, only to be replaced by some horrible vanilla/almond concoction. Some days I gauge my entire existence in terms of once-loved, now-vanished products.

Another day and another orbit through dark, mysterious skies. Chaos persists. Transcendence must be out there somewhere. Move faster, reach for more. Maybe all we need is a shot in the arm. Somewhere between impossible Germany and unlikely Japan. Listen for the noise and dive in. Let it wash over your head. Kick your way upwards, feel your muscles pushing against the crazy currents. You’re about to reach the surface, you can feel it just beyond your fingertips. The missing kid is up there. Jeff Tweedy, Coach Taylor, David Foster Wallace. You end up becoming yourself, and if you’re just extremely lucky that’s enough.