Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself
Broadway Books 2010
Reviewed by Bob Wake
In the sad days following the suicide of 46-year-old writer David Foster Wallace in September 2008, when the Internet seemed to spontaneously erupt with eulogies far and wide, novelist Steve Erickson wrote: “There are no statistics to prove it, but the anecdotal evidence is that he may have influenced the upcoming generation of writers more than almost anyone else.” There’s his narrative style, certainly, discursive and intellectual, yet brimming with colloquialisms and concise twelve-stepisms. The dizzying footnotes. The convoluted self-consciousness unfolding like Chinese boxes of innerspace, compulsive, chatty. A humane and witty voice both inviting and wounded. George Saunders’s New Yorker short story from last year, “Victory Lap,” with its hypertext parentheticals is only one of the more recent examples of Wallacean influence.
David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace is not unlike one of those always fascinating Paris Review author interviews. Supersized, of course, befitting the author of Infinite Jest, the still notorious big fat dystopian novel of twining plots converging on addiction and recovery, cinema and suicide, tennis and terrorism. Lipsky’s book, apart from some graceful introductory material, is essentially a 300-page transcript—from what must have been a mountain of cassette-tape research for a Rolling Stone profile that subsequently wasn’t written—of Lipsky’s conversations with the writer during the last five days of the 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest.
Because Wallace—suddenly and explosively famous—was written about and interviewed extensively during and after this book tour, some topics of conversation will be thematically familiar to fans: the cigarettes and chewing tobacco that often got the better of him (“I’ve got a raging nicotine problem. That like that I really need to quit, at least the chewing tobacco. It makes your fucking jaw fall off. You know?”); John Updike is overrated (“And you just have to wade through so much purple empty writing to get to anything that’s got any kind of heartbeat in it. Plus, I think he’s mentally ill”); Stephen King is underrated (“He’s got an almost Salingerian feel for children”); the influence of filmmaker David Lynch on his writing (“I mean, most of the word surrealism is realism, you know? It’s extra-realism, it’s something on top of realism. It’s the one thing in a Lynch frame that’s off”).
He talks about the too-easy resort to irony and ridicule that he finds in David Letterman and Rush Limbaugh. “I don’t know what’s going to come after it,” he says, “but I think something’s gonna have to.” Lipsky then asks Wallace to speculate—“What do you think it will be?”—and Wallace’s answer is startlingly prescient of an Obama-like appeal to civic virtue and our better instincts:
My guess is that what it will be is, it’s going to be the function of some people who are heroes. Who evince a real type of passion that’s going to look very banal and very retrograde and very … You know, for instance, people who will get on television, and earnestly say, “It’s extraordinarily important, that we, the most undertaxed nation on earth, be willing to pay higher taxes, so that we don’t allow the lower strata of our society to starve to death and freeze to death.” That it will be vitally important that we do that. Not for them, but for us.
Wallace struggled in his teens and early twenties with drug addiction and clinical depression, successfully overcoming the former while keeping at bay if never fully banishing the latter. Lipsky’s resurrected transcripts give us Wallace speaking openly about his past while cautioning that “there’s certain stuff about this that I won’t talk about.” To the extent that he feels remorseful about having pressured Wallace to the point of irritation in hope of some juicy disclosure about a rumored dalliance with heroin (“Why is this of particular interest?” Wallace asks, in a tone described as “annoyed”), Lipsky makes clear that he was himself feeling pressured by his editors to take this tack. All in all, his role as archivist and tour-guide is impeccable and heartfelt. Lipsky, like so many of us, clearly shares a deep sense of loss, as in this bracketed aside in response to Wallace recalling his troubled college years: “Wouldn’t it be great to fall in through this transcript, back to that house, and tell him to live differently, explain to him how it was all going to go? It’s suddenly odd that this isn’t possible.”