In 1996, journalist David Lipsky spent several days recording conversations with David Foster Wallace for a Rolling Stone piece. The magazine article was never published, and a few years later Wallace was dead by suicide. Lipsky eventually dug out those tapes and published the transcripts as Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.
Lipsky was with Wallace at his home and at the college in Illinois where he was teaching, and then for the end of his book tour for his magnum opus Infinite Jest. So some of the conversations occurred in the context of a sort of road trip.
Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself was later adapted as the movie The End of the Tour.
As I’ve written about in other of these book essays, Wallace is an important figure in my life, one of the writers I have felt most connected to. I have read most of his published work, especially his nonfiction. I saw The End of the Tour before reading Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, and was pleasantly surprised how well I was able to adjust to an actor playing Wallace and how real it felt.
Ironically, and disappointingly, I found it harder to connect to the Wallace of Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, even though I was reading his actual spoken words and even though this was him speaking as him, rather than fiction, or even his autobiographical nonfiction, which still—as he admits—has elements of him playing a character to make it more interesting.
In thinking about why that might be the case, I’ve concluded that some of it is how I react to Lipsky. (I also had more trouble warming to Lipsky than to Wallace in The End of the Tour.) There’s a certain—I don’t know if I want to say competitiveness—about him, but a sense that he’s not going to let Wallace bullshit him, that he’s going to find a way past his defenses to reveal the real person.
It’s maybe an understandable sort of cynicism in a journalist, that the façade people put up isn’t really them, and that it’s part of your job to get past that, but I’m not convinced that that was the best approach with Wallace. I understand he didn’t want to get caught up in hero worship and take everything Wallace said at face value however self-serving, but I think he may have gone too far in the other direction, imagining he was in this kind of give-and-take of trying to pin Wallace down while Wallace tried to avoid being pinned down.
I’m not saying Wallace is never image-conscious, never inclined to choose his words in an interview strategically based on the expected consequences, but he’s the kind of guy—and this is one of the things that makes him so interesting—who is both hyperaware of that side of himself and apt to discuss it openly.
So, yeah, he’s concerned at times about how he’s coming across, but then he kicks it up to a meta-level and talks about that very concern with Lipsky.
I think another reason I didn’t fully connect with the book the way I might have expected is that I found it confusing at times.
Lipsky includes frequent bracketed comments to clarify and give his reflections on the dialogue between him and Wallace. Sometimes that helped me, but sometimes I found the little notes more cryptic than the dialogue.
Then there are other times I could have used some clarification but there are no comments. Incompleteness and ambiguity are common with transcripts of spoken language; there are things that maybe aren’t spelled out because they were conveyed in part through a gesture or tone of voice, or maybe they have something to do with a matter that was discussed when the tape recorder was off, or maybe the people just had a good enough chemistry that they were understanding each other’s abbreviated points.
I felt like I was overhearing a conversation where the bulk of it made sense but some of it left me lost because I was missing some of the context or background.
I also found myself routinely having to double-check whether a passage was in brackets or not, like “Oh wait, is this something he said to Wallace or something he’s saying to the reader now?” because of the way it constantly goes back and forth. Not that that’s a big deal, but it just made the reading experience a little less smooth for me.
Even though the book didn’t reach me as deeply and consistently as I had hoped, there’s no question that as a Wallace fan I found it a worthwhile read. It’s not like everything out of his mouth is brilliant, but there are countless tidbits of at least some value that remind me what he was like and why I’ve been fascinated by him ever since I discovered him a few years ago (after he was already dead).
One thing I found interesting was something he had to say about some of his fans. As I say, I’ve always had this sense of feeling connected to him in some way, of there being some interesting, fundamental overlap in how we see the world, of his potentially “getting me” as (I think) very, very few people in my life have. And I’ve noticed that this is a not at all uncommon reaction to him, that when people talk about why they’re fans of his and why his writings have meant something to them or touched them on a deep level, they’ll say things very like that.
Maybe he was aware he—or his persona—had that effect on a lot of people, as he comments at one point to Lipsky that while he doesn’t have a problem with a reader who thinks they have a lot in common or thinks they would likely click and become friends if they met in real life, what he sometimes runs into, and does have a problem with, is readers who don’t just think “We potentially could be friends,” but “We are friends.”
One of the reasons he became semi-reclusive in small town Illinois and didn’t like his phone number getting out is that total strangers—people who felt they knew him because they had read his stuff but people that he didn’t know at all—would find out how to contact him and then expect to interact in the way you would interact with a friend. Like, if they were in the mood to shoot the shit, or if they had something significant on their mind that they felt they needed to confide in someone about, then they’d just drop ol’ Dave a call to have a chat.
That made me stop and think, am I guilty of thinking that way about him? But I honestly don’t think my attitude ever crossed that line from thinking things like “Might we have been friends if our lives had intersected?” or “Wouldn’t it have been cool to have been able to converse with him?,” to where I somehow fantasized that we were friends, or that it was somehow guaranteed that we would have a really good chemistry if the opportunity arose.
Had he still been alive when I became interested in him, the chances are very, very low I even would have ever contacted him. (It’s just not something I do. Basic shyness to some extent I suppose. I don’t have a history of writing “fan letters” to the public figures who have had the biggest impact on my life. Actually there’s a part of me that regrets that, that wishes that I had reached out to maybe the people who mattered most to me in my childhood, just to let them know that they had made a difference.) And if somehow I did contact him, I certainly wouldn’t start in with him like we already knew each other and had some significant connection.
I’ll also mention that his crush on Alanis Morissette is very cute—the way he describes what he finds so attractive about her, the way he’d be thoroughly intimidated if he ever had the chance to as much as have a five-minute cup of tea with her. It’s funny, it’s very human, and it’s very Wallace.
There’s plenty of interesting stuff on addiction, movies, fame, dating, ego, and more. It’s really not a close call that a Wallace fan should pick up Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.