When I heard about The End Of The Tour—long before a trailer, when it was just a production whisper and a still of bandana-wearing Jason Segal as David Foster Wallace—I knew I’d see it, realistic or not.
Based on writer David Lipsky’s book, Though Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, the film follows Lipsky (played with aplomb by Jesse Eisenberg), on assignment from Rolling Stone, following Wallace on the last bit of his book tour for Infinite Jest, in the midwest winter of 1996. I haven’t read the book, which was written nearly verbatim from Lipsky’s tapes, but heard the film echoes it near perfectly. Meaning the film is word-for-word scripted from Wallace’s and Lipsky’s conversations, making it much more compelling than something supposed; and making me, an avid Wallace fan, intent on hearing that voice I love and look to finally speak to me, even if through an actor’s mouth.
It’s interesting to see how reality is interpreted in films like these. What gets highlighted, what gets skipped, what is overplayed or underrepresented. Depictions of a celebrated and loved artist or piece of art inspire fascinating cultural dialogue; much like the hubbub currently surrounding the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton and its bypass of Dr. Dre’s abuse towards women. It’s art that makes us reexamine art, perhaps with a distance we weren’t afforded the first time.
(I understand the flip side, too: if you don’t know the backstory, are you getting a false version of events? Well, yes, but that’s why no movie should ever be approached as fact. It’s 2015—Google before you go.)
Leading up to The End Of The Tour, I skipped my usual The New Yorker and New York Magazine reviews, normally read to determine if a film is worth shelling out the in-theatre $$; this time, I already knew I wanted to go. And David Foster Wallace is a polarizing topic—I didn’t want critics to color my perceptions. Which are already conflicted, as they are for probably any posthumous fan of DFW.
I didn’t know about Wallace until after his death. He’s one of those “if only” regrets, where you can see in hindsight how your small mind would have been blown and you wish you’d known, then, had read less dead British people or Southern gothics. Perhaps it would have changed your writing, your trajectory, etc, etc. But no—that sort of experimental fiction wasn’t in the curriculum of AP English 1 or 2.
Instead, I found him via hipster-leaning friends on my college’s independent student newspaper, of which I was an early and longtime member. Wallace was of those writers you overhear others talk about effusively, with knowledge of having entered the cannon, and make a mental note to go, read, now, while nodding like you already have. I began with Consider The Lobster, the bookstore’s lowest hanging Wallace fruit which became and remained my favorite; the summer after freshman year, determined to become a young literati, I shouldered Infinite Jest, picking it apart bit by bit in between waitressing shifts and even on the beach. I finished, but with no one to discuss it with—small southern beach towns aren’t a hotbed for Wallace fans, or even people who read, really—and culture long since moved elsewhere, I struggled with themes and subjects still beyond the grasp of my relatively inexperienced 19 years.
Throughout college I’d work my way through most of Wallace’s works, and eventually (with time and maturity) learned to discern his critiques of society, to appreciate the biting disdain, the Gen X disillusion, the occasional allowed lowbrow approval (always ironic). And through the slow consumption of his oeuvre I understood the sentiment repeated early in the film, by Eisenberg’s Lipsky, that to read Wallace is to want to read specifically Wallace. That one picks up his books not for “a nonfiction essay” or “an experimental novel” but with the intention of being transported to that specific world via that specific voice, much like one does with Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Reading Wallace feels like knowing him as a person—a person so funny and vulnerable and self-deprecating and genius that you want to be friends with him deeply, you want to hear everything he’s ever said about anything because it makes you feel less alone.
This is why Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech, This Is Water, has been turned into a cutesy-designed and oft-gifted book, sold for $14 when the PDF is available for a free download, and has 833,052 views on YouTube at this writing. Admission: I’ve purchased this book for someone without literary leanings (meaning he had no idea who DFW was) but who can nonetheless appreciate the very good advice in it. I felt a little guilty, but not enough to not swipe my card and write a note in the back and wrap it with a warm feeling that I was sharing a writer I knew wouldn’t fail to hook this new reader.
I felt that guilt again while enjoying The End Of The Tour. I haven’t read Lipsky’s book but I imagine it has the same ability to move one close to Wallace’s writing to tears (as I was, unabashedly, several times). I also imagine that Wallace himself would never have allowed either the book or film to happen; one of his greatest fears, as a recent New York piece remarked, was becoming the very marketable, literary-figurehead sensation he has in recent years. Death can do that; though I don’t endorse the sentiment, I see why Jonathan Franzen (a close friend and contemporary of Wallace’s) called his suicide a “career move.” It made him even greater without having to deal with the internal arguments that creative greatness brings.
Wallace claims, in the film as he did in life, to “treasure his regular guy-ness.” But Lipsky intuits, “No one picks up a 1000-page book because they hear the author is a regular guy.” True. We want our Great American Novelists to be GREAT. In the days since seeing the film, that idea of greatness has stuck with me, specifically in terms of the writer’s ego.
Make no mistake: Wallace wanted to be great. No one puts in years of their life to writing an OK book. He’s a central part of his own works, particularly his essays; someone who genuinely wants to separate themselves from any notoriety the work may bring does not write that way. This idea of eventual fame is always hovering somewhere in a writer’s head; learning to separate that simultaneous desire and rejection of the desire from the work is how the work gets done. Making the work great comes first. You become great if the work is.
Wallace remarks that, throughout this tour, he hasn’t felt like a writer but like a fraud, someone who talks about the work more than they do the work. And he’s desperately afraid of becoming that person, who lets the fame go to their head and supplant the ideas, the drive, the good work.
This particularly hit home. As I’ve approached graduate school and my MFA program, I’ve been talking about it a lot, to everyone. They want to know what I’ll be working on, what classes I’m taking, how I’ll keep a job as well, if I’m excited. And I am! But I also took a month or so off from doing the work, enjoying my summer before I’ll be shut inside for months. And in the course of talking and not working, I feel less like a writer. I see the ego. It scares me. The insecurities of my work when I review it now, prepping my portfolio, are rampant. This is old, that’s bad, this one needs a rewrite, that’s too short, this is too weird. I see myself getting ripped apart in workshop, leaving heavy with the knowledge that I had time to make it better and didn’t because I was busy living. Busy talking.
I’m hard on myself by nature, but those sentiments are common to any writer.
“You’re a nervous guy.” Wallace says to Lipsky.
“No no, I’m ok. How are you?” he responds.
“Oh, because I’m terrified.” Wallace says.
The anxiety, the imposter syndrome, the fear you’ll be found out for a fraud at any moment. The End Of The Tour rips that wide open, and part of what makes it beautiful and painful is seeing the greatest writer of the past several generations plagued by the very same thing that plagues us all. As Lipsky notes, “Wallace thought books existed to stop you from feeling lonely. Living those days with him reminded me of what life is really like. And the conversation was the best I ever had.”
When you dive into Wallace, you eat this up. He gets jealous about the opposite sex. He likes terrible junk food from 7-11 and Alanis Morissette. He has a TV addiction. He talks to his dogs. He drank too much, at one point in his life. You just want him to keep talking, to keep saying the things that are in your heart, too. To feel the good pain and turn it into good work. To relate.
You know him—or you think you do. But eventually you come to the end of your tour with him—the last book, the final essay, the film—and realize you never will. Because he’s dead. Because that deep perception that led you to him in times of sadness or crisis or introspection led him to take his own life after years of battling depression. Nothing universally relatable is ever created without a universe of problems. And when watching films like this, it’s important to remember that.