Thoughts on David Foster Wallace and ‘The End of the Tour’
For many of us who couldn’t get through the David Foster Wallace novel Infinite Jest (and tried a few times), and found the journalism bloated and minor-key condescending, and thought the puling Kenyon commencement speech was pure BS, and resisted the coronation of Wallace since his suicide in 2008 as St. David, based on a particular and very American brand of sentimental narrative, the new film about Wallace, The End of the Tour, is surprisingly easy to take even though it’s reverential to a fault. Smoothly directed by James Ponsoldt and elegantly written by the playwright Donald Marguilies, it’s often static like filmed plays are — long dialogue scenes that shape up what is essentially a debate about authenticity — and you can either get stoned on all of the good intentions at hand or roll your eyes in disbelief that this was taken so seriously by everybody involved. The movie stars Jason Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky, the Rolling Stone journalist who tags along with Wallace at the end of the U.S. book tour for Infinite Jest. For those of us who were also touring and immersed in the publishing world of the 1990s, the movie presents an amusingly authentic version of a Gen-X era that is long gone: Walter Kirn’s book reviews in New York magazine ignite entire party conversations! Rolling Stone sends reporter to write a profile on avant-garde/academic novelist! People in cars sing along to Alanis Morissette anthems! Smoking allowed everywhere! The digital era has not fully arrived yet.
The End of the Tour is adapted from Lipsky’s book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself that was published two years after Wallace died (Rolling Stone never published the piece and the book consists of just the transcripts of the conversations they had over that five-day period), and the movie is basically a debate about one’s authentic self versus the self that worries about how an audience assembles a false you from your fiction, and what they have read about you turns you into a construction of who they think you are. Even if Wallace really was that freaked out by this and cared that much, then that reinforces the contradiction of this respectful, well-made, classy indie, and this contradiction exists in just about every scene — if not every minute — of The End of the Tour, and this contradiction is what completely cancels out the movie. The movie is so low-key that there’s very little tension — everything is softened and blurred — and nothing particularly exciting or dramatic or jarring happens. So why does the movie exist? Ultimately we’re left with the notion that it was made as an object of hero worship. Every line of dialogue in this very moist movie exists to reinforce Wallace’s likability.
Wallace is presented as a guy who was just too sensitive for this world — and that strikes a certain emotional chord especially with younger viewers and actors. The movie portrays Wallace as an angelic Pop-Tart-sharing schlub, a lovable populist, a tortured everyman and ex-addict who loves dogs, loves kids, loves McDonalds, exudes “realness” and “humanity” and the movie completely ignores referencing the other Wallace: the contemptuous man, the sometime-contrarian, the asshole with an abusive side, the cruel critic — all the things some of us find interesting about him. This is the movie that prefers the Wallace who was knighted into sainthood with his Kenyon commencement speech called — deep breath — “This Is Water: Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion About Living a Compassionate Life,” which even his staunchest defenders and former editors have a hard time stomaching, arguing it’s the worst thing he ever wrote, but becoming a viral sensation as well as a soggy self-help guide for lost souls. And the David in this movie is the voice of reason, a sage, and the movie succumbs to the cult of stressing likability. But the real David scolded people and probably craved fame — what writer isn’t both suspicious of literary fame and yet curious in seeing how that game is played out? It’s not that rare and — hey — it sells books. He was cranky and could be very mean and caustic and opportunistic, but this David Foster Wallace is completely erased and that’s why the movie is so resolutely one-note and earnest. There’s so much handwringing about doing one dumb book tour and being “terrified” by a magazine profile — and this is looked on as a sign of pure integrity in the movie — that at some point you may want to tell the screen: “Just don’t finish the tour, dude, if it hurts so much, and shut up about it. Don’t talk to freakin’ Rolling Stone. Get over it. Chill.”
This is not the David Foster Wallace who voted for Reagan and supported Ross Perot, the David who wrote a scathing and deliciously cruel put-down of late-period Updike, the David who posed for glamour-puss photos in Interview magazine (years before Infinite Jest) and appeared on Charlie Rose numerous times — all of which the movie strongly suggests was probably absolute agony for David who keeps naively fretting about his real self being co-opted by a fake self, as if a man as intelligent as Wallace would really care one way or the other, but the movie insists this was the case which perversely reveals Wallace to be the world-class narcissist so many people (even Jonathan Franzen, a close friend, and Mary Karr, an ex) always assumed he was. I like David Foster Wallace even though I think for the most part he was a fake-out artist with a disingenuous persona (“AIDS gift to us lies in its loud reminder that there’s nothing casual about sex at all” — I would love to see Segel’s Wallace deliver that line sincerely) and I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I have no problems with David the man of contradictions — it’s the rewritten construct of what Wallace became, misinterpreted by a generation of fans who see him as a kind of sage, the hip motivational speaker, that is the central problem for some of us, this masking of Wallace that many fans don’t mind and, in fact, prefer. In a major-chord culture obsessed with likability and relatability and victimization, the movie wants — demands — that we take this side of things and view David in no other way, and the movie becomes a surprisingly one-note take on Wallace with zero shading. It’s a simplistic and reductive view of an incredibly complicated artist — though admittedly Wallace was complicit in this sentimental, showbiz version of himself.
The movie’s most interesting scene dares to ask if Wallace was putting on an act (many of us were suspicious that he was) but the movie proudly discards that idea. One could argue that the Wallace on display in front of a journalist was a writer putting on a performance and not showcasing the real Wallace, but the movie rejects that possibility (Lipsky’s book doesn’t necessarily) and then presents an idealized Wallace, a “version” of Wallace, a fake Wallace. The thing that Wallace always feared would happen to him the movie happily encourages and actualizes, and it’s kind of mind-blowing that the filmmakers either didn’t figure this out or chose to completely ignore it. Minute by minute, scene by scene, The End of the Tour totally rejects everything David Foster Wallace supposedly stood for and believed in. The movie is a massive contradiction, and one is left somewhat stunned by the adolescent hubris of both the portrayal and the conception. In The End of the Tour something happens that the Wallace in the movie keeps arguing he would never want: to become a character, and the movie willfully or mindlessly ignores this complaint. This is what the Wallace in the film is bothered by in scene after scene after scene — and what does the movie do? It keeps filming him. What does Segel do? He keeps playing a particular idea of David Foster Wallace — and this is why the movie would have driven Wallace insane. The Wallace estate as well as his editor have disavowed the film not because it gets anything factually wrong but because it does something that Wallace would never have wanted: It turns him into a character.
Sometimes Segel convincingly summons up the dead stare of a recovering addict and sometimes he’s unable to convey the acid-intelligence of Wallace — and he plays Wallace as a kind of unthreatening hippie by often falling back on the mannerisms of the lovely, touching little-boy stoner-hero he’s portrayed in the past. But how else are you supposed to play the movie’s conception of Wallace? If Segel ever got mean or cutting — became the scolder Wallace could be — it would break the fantasy of it all. The movie is constantly sniffing itself, pleased with the aroma it’s emitting and there’s no real drama — it’s the whitest bromance imaginable, and the only tension comes from Eisenberg’s performance. As someone who went to school with Lipsky for a year and was in a workshop with him, I was impressed with how Eisenberg actually humanizes him — Lipsky was a problem person then and if you listen to the awful experience another one of Lipsky’s Rolling Stone profile subjects had with him (that piece also never ran) — the porn star James Deen complaining about Lipsky on my podcast — not a lot has changed. And so it’s very hard to take the end of this movie seriously with Eisenberg’s Lipsky crying while reading to a large crowd from his own book about Wallace while the movie flashes back to David dancing a free-form, child-like dance in slow-motion inside a church; it’s an image — an embarrassing idea — that would drive any writer as smart and image-conscious as Wallace to self-annihilation. (Alex Ross Perry’s no-holds-barred portrait of a young novelist as bitter neurotic in Listen Up Philip would make a troubling and instructive double feature.)
Wallace didn’t start writing fiction until he was 21, and the origin story about this is that purportedly David saw the success of the literary Brat Pack and all the young novelists who were making money and selling books in the mid-’80s and thought, why not? Wallace had been a fan of Less Than Zero, and there are traces of its influence in The Broom of the System, his first novel, and though he later retracted this influence, he continued to publicly praise Less Than Zero. In terms of a connection: That’s about all Wallace and myself shared. When I went on a Twitter rant a few years ago (caused by a combo of insomnia and tequila) while reading the recent D.T. Max bio of Wallace, it wasn’t so much about David as it was about the new audience who conflate the suicide and the Kenyon commencement speech into an aspirational narrative that — if you’ve read everything by Wallace (and about him) and had been following his trajectory — feels like the sentimental narrative. As with many of my peers who I was interested in, I read all of David’s work (except, of course, not being able to find a way into Infinite Jest, even with its snazzy and prescient central idea of corporate America taking over the entertainment industry) but with the exception of a few early stories and sections from The Broom of the System, I never connected with his writing, for numerous aesthetic reasons. (Many of us non-responders thought Infinite Jest seemed like an addict’s belabored performance.) Do I think he is the most overrated writer of my generation as well as the most pretentious and tortured? Yeah, I do. And I tweeted this along with other things that bothered me, not so much about David himself but more about how he had been reinterpreted by the culture. The sincerity and earnestness he began trafficking in seemed to some of us a ploy, a contradiction — not totally fake, but not totally real either, a kind of performance art, sensing the shift toward earnestness in the culture and accommodating himself to it. But I still liked the idea of David and that he existed. Do I also think he was a genius? Yeah, I do. An increasing problem in our culture is the inability for people to accept other people carrying two opposing thoughts at the same time, and the notion of pushing the “Like” button on everything — or shutting people down for voicing opinions you don’t agree with — is something David would have certainly bristled at, especially as someone who could be a demanding and decimating critic.
People automatically reacted to the tweets with — yawn — How Dare You outrage, though our shared editor from the 1980s, Gerry Howard, offered a more nuanced response to the Twitter tirade. People automatically thought I was a hater and a jealous troll, but I had no problems with David and was never jealous of him. David and I often exchanged pleasantries through foreign journalists who were sometimes crisscrossing the country interviewing youngish American writers. (“Who are you interviewing next?” “David Foster Wallace.” “Tell David I say hi.” “David Foster Wallace says hello.” “Oh by the way: David says hi.”) I was also completely amused by David’s misreading of American Psycho — “Neiman-Marcus nihilism” — and never felt remotely as if I was in a feud with him. We were still saying our distant hellos to each other after he made the comments about American Psycho. There’s nothing that David wrote that I was envious of because nothing either of us was writing resembled the other in style or content or temperament. Jonathan Franzen’s work, however, is another story, and The Corrections is a book I’ve admitted often in the press that I wished I’d written, but not Infinite Jest or some of David’s weaker short story collections.
“Be a good guy,” Wallace begs Lipsky near the end of the movie in its most cringe-worthy moment, gently pleading, taking him to task, and though this might be a very honorable way to live your life as a bro, it’s a terrible idea for a writer. But this movie falls in line with the contemporary cult of likability and in doing so makes one of the most interesting writers of our generation so much less interesting — it turns him into an adorable baby panda with the Lipsky character often staring at Wallace in wonderment as if DFW was some kind of bandana-wearing E.T. It’s ultimately a dangerous thing for readers and actors and filmmakers to look to writers for instruction on how to live, but The End of the Tour thinks it’s doing something noble by taking this idea seriously and buying into the self-help-guru, platitude-spouting David and ignoring the man of massive and severe complications. “What if I became a parody of that very thing?” Segel as Wallace worriedly asks. Um, yeah, well — this movie certainly helps that parody along by proving that sincerity and likability aren’t always as admirable or progressive as filmmakers and actors might wish they are.