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.

Please kill me: Life, rebirth and death in “Mad Men”

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There are two Don Drapers in this painting and the one we see front and center is not what you’d call shocked to see his doppleganger. He’s annoyed. If only because he knows exactly what this other him is after, and he wants no part of it. To the Draper we k now, DD-2 is yesterday’s news. A pain in the ass. And yet he keeps coming back; the bad penny our Draper can’t ever kill off for good.

Right there in visual shorthand we can see the essence of the entire series: Birth, death, rebirth, reinvention, devolution, death, subsequent rebirth and on and on. The show’s central action — life and work in an advertising agency at the height of America’s modern era — plays out the theme in flashy, often hilarious metaphor. Products are invented, branded, then intertwined with the world’s shared subconscious. Only to be redesigned, rebranded and reinserted into the culture to do precisely the same thing as always, only for different reasons. Cigarettes that were once a sturdy symbol of American tradition awake one day as devil-may-care rebels. The utilitarian slide projector becomes a carousel jingling merrily through childhood, youth, love and family.

Meanwhile, the show’s central characters careen through the same renovations, only freighted with pesky existential quandaries. Who are we, really? What made us this way? Can we ever change? Does the past always determine the future, or can we determine our own identities and fates?

As Americans we believe wholeheartedly in both the possibility and redemptive power of personal reinvention. A cowboy can become a lawyer, and vice-versa. The daughter of junk-peddling, Yiddish-speaking immigrant Jews in Newark, NJ can reemerge in Santa Barbara, Calif. with a PhD in English literature, a prep school accent and a wee button nose. Or, as per “Mad Men,” a tragically  mistreated midwestern foot solider  named Dick Whitman can pull the dog tags off of a dead Lt. Don Draper and resurrect them both as a feverishly ambitious and naturally brilliant ad man in New York City.

As the series’ sixth season opened markers for the coming action clattered in all directions. Vacationing in Hawaii Draper met a vision of his younger self and accidentally traded their identical lighters. Roger Sterling, the feckless/unflappable  inheritor of the old Sterling, Cooper firm feels increasingly out of place in its new SCDP incarnation, then loses his mother and goes quickly berserk. “This is my funeral!” he howls minutes into her memorial service, by way of kicking all of his guests out of his mother’s palatially old-world apartment. For all his experimentation with LSD and psychotherapy, Roger exists entirely in the old world of inherited glory and power. He remains dry-eyed for his mother, but when his shoeshine man turns up dead the site of the man’s shine kit triggers a flood of tears.

Elsewhere, Draper’s ex Betty chases after her daughter’s runaway friend, a violin prodigy who sells her instrument to escape to the hippier climes of California. Unable to follow, the strawberry blonde Betty heads to the hairdresser and comes home with licorice black hair.

Even more tellingly, the doorman at the building where Draper lives with his new wife has only just survived a near-fatal heart attack; an event Don witnessed, much to his horror. Only now Jonesy is back at work, seemingly the same as always. Only Draper is convinced that he saw the man fade to black, briefly, in mid-infarction. Jonesy doesn’t want to talk about it, but a thoroughly lit Draper insists he tell all: What’d you see when you were dead? What was there? Jonesy grimaces. “I guess there was a light.” Just back from a dreamy vacation in Hawaii Draper persists. “Was it like hot, tropical sunshine? Did you hear the ocean?” Jonesy won’t say, but when Draper presents a new ad concept to his clients at the Hawaiian resort where he’d vacationed the picture shows a businessman’s abandoned suit, shirt and shoes, his footsteps vanishing into the sea: “The Stepping Off Point,” reads the copy. The clients, sensing the suicidal implications of the image, aren’t pleased.