My whole life I’ve been a fraud.
I’ve never told anybody the following, but it’s shameful, and it’s horrible, and it’s true.
(Start here, the first time you spoke the three words aloud.)
“David Foster Wallace.”
- Less than a year away from writing down, in words, for the first time, that you’d come to define yourself as a writer.
- By then, already thinking it, but it, still too cliche and, honestly, gut-revolving to actually say out loud, or see on paper concretized before you:
“I, a writer.”
(I.e., LOL. I.e., WTF.)
- Flipping through a glossy and unabashedly expensive (but yours free, shrink-wrapped, via USPS) promotional magazinish thing mailed to all prospective teenage scholars from one Pomona College, of Claremont, CA, 91711.
- Reading the three words on a page of random, haphazardly arranged boxes of Fascinating Factoids about the school’s uncategorizable minutia.
- Seeing the top-right corner taken up by a tiny little miniaturized JPEG of the cover of Infinite Jest (1996, Little, Brown & Company, Boston, U.S.).
- Spotting to its left the glossy magazinish thing’s boast that the author of the monumental tome in the tiny JPEG beside is its (i.e., the Claremont college’s) inaugural “Roy E. Disney Creative Writing Professor.”
- Googling and discovering the Disneys’d forked over a clean $1.75 mil to Pomona to find and employ said Creative Writing Professor.
“Jesus fucking Christ.”
- Not yet having read Lobster.
- Not yet having read Hideous Men.
- Not yet having read Broom, or Fun Thing, Oblivion or Girl.
- Not yet having read any of his short stories, or essays, or reviews.
- Not yet having read any words put to paper by David Foster Wallace.
- Not yet having even touched a copy of Infinite Jest.
- But this— this last one —this one you’d seen.
- You, then:
“Jesus fucking Christ.”
- Hadn’t even held it, but you could — sitting there with the lightweight glossy magazinish Pomona thing in your lap — feel it.
- Having seen its three magnificent dimensions.
- Knowing its page count had to be upwards of a grand.
- Knowing its size.
- Knowing how it made you feel.
- Wanting to write it.
- Wanting to be its writer.
- Wanting to be — though unputtable in these terms then— the kind of man who could manifest in the world this thing.
- Feeling this feeling which you still feel sometimes in a very different and much less visceral way, it being maybe the closest you will ever come to the reproductive instinct.
- (You, after all, an unheterosexual male with no intention of creating human life.)
- Wanting, in other words, to be David Foster Wallace, before you even knew anything about him. Before you knew him at all.
- Applying to Pomona College.
- In August of 2009, officially becoming part of its Class of 2013.
- And David Foster Wallace being already dead.
I, for years, have written about and of and for my David;
have commiserated with other Wallacites about loving and hating and reading and worshipping the man; have told a fake D.F.W. origin story in dorm rooms and classrooms and bedrooms before sleep (something about Brief Interviews making me come to Jesus re:maleness/masculinity/manhood); have let everyone I know (who cared and knew and understood) believe that my relationship with Wallace was founded on pure, organic, homegrown love.
I fell in love with David Foster Wallace before I ever even read him.
I fell in love with him, probably, as he hung dying—3,000 miles from my 17-year-old body, with my weak-willed brain as yet ignorant to what Wallace had to offer; ignorant to the fact that he was at that moment bringing about for himself the same end that I’d dreamed, for so long, of bringing about for myself.
And you, who know me not but know what all this means, probably hate me for it.
I hate me for it, too.
So, obviously, I can’t help but think that he — the big one, our Saint, Prof. D.F. fucking W. — would’ve hated me for it, too.
And yet I pretty much have to banish this thought from my mind, because it’d be just as shameful to think this kind of thing; it’d be just as shameful for me to have lied to everyone all this time and only now confess it as it would be for me to now speculate on what Wallace would’ve thought or said about this, or anything, were he still alive: what he would’ve thought, for example, if he’d watched me stumble into his ENGL051 Ltry. Intrprtn. class at his Pomona College in sleepy, sunny Claremont CA, me sweating and bandana-less, and all pre-pubescently doe-eyed, and undergoing the excruciating pain of trying to sit absolutely still in one of PC’s English dept.’s sadistically uncomfortable wooden chairs, while bullet-pointing in my head every possible or potential reading (of me, by him) or trying to determine if he was even thinking about me at all, and then on top of it all not even remembering to breathe for some surely health-impairing length of time before finally — finally — and life-givingly sucking in, and blowing out, and then finally finally, definitively and assuredly, absolutely rapturously listening to whatever words/advice/wisdom he had to offer me/us, the class, together.
So I won’t imagine what that would have been like.
I can’t even begin to bear the disrespect this imagining’d entail.
To wit: there’re always these scenes in touchy-feely sibling/family movies: a loved one’s died, and one sibling/family member says to another, “That’s not what X would want!” or (and this one usually with a shoulder-squeeze) “Hey. What would X think about this?” with then the other, patronized/condescended-to sibling/family-member yelling, quite dramatically and always Academy Award-aspiringly:
“Well, they’re not here, are they?! They’re dead! They’re dead, and they’re not coming back!”
So I don’t want to be that first sibling/family-member, here. I do not want to imagine what he would have said or thought about anything were he still alive any more than I want to imagine what my great-grandmother or Teddy Roosevelt would say or think if they saw me watching porn on my smartphone in a bathroom, were they still alive.
But I don’t have to do any imagining to know what Wallace did say or think, while alive, about entertainment and (tele)visual media and self-awareness and the acts of watching and being-watched.
I’ve got “E Unibus Pluram,” and “Good Old Neon,” and “The Depressed Person,” and the entirety of Infinite Jest, all of which basically scream Cassandra-style what he thought and had to say about these things.
So when a group of people gets together and decides to manifest in the world a series of stills, flitting across screens at 24FPS, with accompanying audio which, when combined with the frenetic frames, depict something like what experiencing David Foster Wallace, in the flesh, while alive, would have been like (or maybe was like, for one person), i.e., when this group of people excretes something that both does the sacrilegious, disrespectful thing I do not want to do and also simultaneously engages with (and purports, perhaps, to speak volumes about) all the things Wallace himself had a hell of a lot of thoughts on — when this happens, and I see it, pretty much the first question in my head is:
What would David Foster Wallace write?
The End of the Tour is not heartwarming, or feel-good-y, or filmmaking lite.
Honestly, it’s kind of boring, and muted — mumblecorish in style and languid in pace. It’s not a thriller, and the brief period of non-dialogic tension during which Lipsky and Wallace are at odds (over this weird and, like, totally blown out of proportion territorial tiff) is only mildly suspenseful before you remember that these characters are too damn egoistic to shut up for too long, even if they’ve decided they hate each other.
But then, The End of the Tour is not about David Foster Wallace.
It’s not biopic-y, like Amy or Ray. We don’t get the Every Love Story bird’s eye view of Wallace.
We see only a tiny slice of the unreal, inhuman Fictional David Wallace (F.D.W.), which Ponsoldt synechdochizes to elucidate the real D.F.W.’s suicide.
Here is F.D.W at 35, lonely and isolated and afraid — the male version of awful archetype Cat Lady (which is to say, Dog Lover).
He lives alone, and wants desperately to share his life with someone. (This supposedly being why he is so willing to give over so much of himself to the unreal, inhuman Fictional David Lipsky, despite his better judgment.)
It’s F.D.W., double-bound, wanting to be anything but a parody of what he writes about, and then portrayed in the film as a parody of himself.
F.D.W. is a(n un)living, (un)breathing Jest: an addict, whose vice of choice isn’t drugs or alcohol or self, but television and entertainment and Pepsi and image and America.
(Side note to Ponsoldt/Segel: every time F.D.W. uttered the words “America” or “American,” I cringed loudly enough to echo through the theater — it’s unfathomable to believe that the real D.F.W., let alone any even mildly self-aware human person, would, in casual conversation, drop the words so unflinchingly so many times without visibly wincing at least even, like, a little.)
And worst of all, the movie gives us what was most antithetical to the real D.F.W. himself: an ending.
The End asks us to believe F.D.W. happy — dancing, even—merry, for fuck’s sake; it asks us to indulge some imaginarily bright spot amid an assuredly dark life, some farcical jig of freedom soundtracked by the shackles of depression, a supposedly heartwarming, brief and hideous burst of joy, projected out from him, out from the screen, out from the mouths of F.D.L. and F.D.W., and straight into our soul sockets.
Wallace has never stood for clean, neat, bright endings like (t)“his.” Broom ends mid-sentence. Jest has — spoiler alert! — absolutely no sense of an ending. Pale King — obvious. Interviews is more Eisensteinian montage (yielding some weird, fuzzy wad of U.S. American masculinity) than an actual series of discrete, terminating stories; Oblivion is filled with excellent, suspenseful premises that give way to deflating aimlessness and pronounced anticlimaticism; and you can almost see Wallace throw his hands up during the rushed, loosely-tied-up ending of “Fun Thing,” which chalks up an unexamined day-and-a-half to a roombound Wallace rendered catatonic by a supposedly revelatory hypnotist (believable, but also probably untrue — like, after all, so much about Wallace).
And then of course: himself.
There is no bright spot or merry jig at the end of D.F.W.
There is pain, and there is suffering; there is a cold, tattooed, footnoted corpse; there is “Face Down” by Mary Karr.
There’s a bright blue sticky note above my desk, blank save for six digits scrawled in black ballpoint:
Precursor to explaining what this number represents, or, something I’m going to get entirely out of the way here for all our sakes:
My reality, for like the entirety of my life, has completely fucking sucked.
(Continue here, once more explaining your self via moments seeming nearly not yours.)
- A queer brown boy — in gunny, Goddish, glorious Virginia.
- Preferring poetry and art and song over sports or science — or socializing, really.
- Being scrawny and awkward and somewhat autistic.
- Never not once for a moment understanding why literally nobody understood you.
- The above not meant in some kind of mawkish, moody, black-composition-book “But why doesn’t anyone, like, get me?!” kind of a way.
- The above meant instead in a literal you-as-child/adolescent being wont to say such peculiar and/or strangely-phrased statements that, to you, seemed so perfectly simple and straightforward and reasonable things to say aloud, yet these things making people around you squirm and scurry away, like you’d grown a second head, like you’d started speaking in tongues, like — and making you feel like — you were all of a sudden babbling psychotically while foaming at the mouth, all of the time, all of the motherfucking time.
- The above making none of it = a fun, happy, memorable childhood/adolescence, for you, obviously.
- The above being all so goddamn trite and uninteresting that you’re getting it out of the way now and for all eternity so you can move on having established that, when you say that you wanted more than anything — with every cell in your body, with every iota of your being, with every ounce of will/power in your ever-fragile psyche — to reside in whatever the opposite of your reality was (an unreality, let’s say), you really, really fucking mean it.
- And then so sad, pitiable, absolutely average you, on from age 3— when you first grasped the Aristotelian model of storytelling and began weaving for friends and family (but really yourself) painfully-transparently autobiographical tales that tweaked reality just enough to make it prettier and more exciting and fun — deciding that you wanted to be a writer.
- This, before you even knew that that — “a writer” — was even a thing someone could be.
- (You, now, still unconvinced that it is — a thing, this “being a writer.”)
- Not wanting to be an astronaut, or an explorer, or a doctor or lawyer or fireman; not dreaming of climbing Mount Everest or safariing in South Africa; not interested in trading on Wall Street or sailing the Pacific Ocean.
- Wanting to write.
- (Or, more lazily/accurately: wanting to “be a writer.”)
- Or, more tragically/even more accurately: wanting to be a fictional character.
These last two wants, it turns out, are pretty much inextricable from each other.
They’re almost exactly the same, actually.
Because fictional characters, like writers, don’t actually exist. They can’t exist.
They’re figments — unreal protagonists from larger-than-life narratives.
As far as we know, they don’t piss or shit or sleep; they don’t feel real, tangible, visible pain; they don’t demand our attention but instead wait patiently for us to return to them; they don’t wake us up, pounding on our doors, drunk, at 3 AM, even if they, in their narratives, are known for shit like this; they certainly don’t hang themselves on our patios and leave us with bodies to clean up and care after; and they are fundamentally, at their cores, created by incisive, imaginative minds and imbued with character and personality and ability and implacable Interestingness. They are eminently watchable; lovable despite (or because of) their iniquities; and their stories resolve wonderfully and neatly in an ending packaged perfectly with a pretty little bow to boot, whether novel or biography or documentary or fictionalized film.
Fictional characters, like writers, are fascinating, and immortal, and so, so terribly, unbearably unreal/inhuman.
Especially for a boy who thought, from the inside looking out, that he was the absolute center of the universe and the realest, most vivid and important person in existence, while also being just self-aware enough to know — but not yet able to articulate — that he was painfully, tragically small and meaningless and also — for communicative-deficient reasons aforementioned — unable to commiserate with anybody about this (or, really, anything). The exceptions, of course, being writers and their fictional characters —who, in the late 90's and early 2000's, were especially hellbent on reveling in this kind of solipsism — though, as established, these weren’t really people at all.
So what an escape it would be to be a fictional character! What an escape to be a writer!
I.e. what wonder it would be to know that, from the outside looking in, I really was real and vivid and important, as my books’ characters and their creators were to me.
What an escape, so, then, it would be to be able to commiserate — albeit unidirectionally — with everyone who picked up my writing about the smallness and meaninglessness and Sisyphean futility and so together maybe in our sharing of text do something I couldn’t do as an awkward boy for whom the world was unbearably unfathomable:
- Shoot shit.
- Know another.
- Know ourselves.
- And do this together.
All these things that I had not yet done, nor could ever imagine doing, with real, living, breathing human persons.
With my characters and my books? A cinch.
No mess, no hurt feelings in either direction— because it wasn’t really happening at all.
But with actual human persons? To actually do these things with someone instead of just doing them at them?
Not a risk I was willing to take.
So I set out to write.
And I set out to be a fictional character.
The latter demanded that I be fascinating, that I do everything under the sun: lie, cut class, make promises, and keep some, and break others, lift someone up, cut someone down, use someone, let myself be used, drink, drink heavily, drink incessantly, smoke, fuck, be fucked, snort coke, drive fast, fight, break things, scream at nothing, and nobody, whisper into the ear of a lover I did not love, love someone who did not love me, mourn myself, lock myself in a car in 100+ degree weather to see if maybe I’d just melt away into nothingness, live in that same car for weeks on end, live on the streets, sleep on the streets, nearly die on the streets, drive that car cross-country, suffer a nervous breakdown, and read a hell of a lot of fiction.
The former demanded that I do all of the aforementioned things not because I wanted to, but instead under the guise of writerly research; the former demanded that I watch myself do these things and then write about them, and so be a writer.
An unreal and inhuman man of letters.
The tagline for The End of the Tour is as follows:
Imagine the greatest conversation you’ve ever had.
This is then, supposedly, the movie’s draw: two dudes — one a genius — dialoguing, discoursing, shooting shit, except millions of times more compellingly than you or I or us; and you or I or us, at the next table over, or in the paper-thin-walled hotel room next door, getting to hear every word, voyeuring the shit out of King Voyeur. Like spying on J. Edgar Hoover, the feeling; like having sex with de Sade, or cooking with Julia Child.
But what Ponsoldt’s done in the film totally defeats the purpose of the thing we’re supposed to be doing: in the same way that F.D.W. is exactly what D.F.W. did not want to be — and wasn’t — The End of the Tour is exactly the opposite of what it is that’s so valuable about an experience like Unfictional David Lipsky’s, experiencing the real, living, breathing David Wallace.
Movies — especially the good ones — are built on seduction, and immersion, and confinement. There’s a reason we’re meant to watch them in all-black rooms; why it’s socially acceptable to berate someone for using their phone, or, God forbid, talk, at any moment before the closing credits roll; and why we watch them on increasingly big screens at home or else on little screens held right up to our faces.
Movies — especially the good ones —basically arm-twist you away from analyzing and deconstructing and critiquing and even really thinking at all, at least for their duration. They are too good to let you do any of these things for too long. Most every time, an important and beautiful and very often irritating part of my brain slows down or shuts down by the time the movie’s not even half over: I stop searching for metaphors and stop trying to assume the film into my schema re:America, and visual fiction, and what it means to be a person. I stop being a writer and start being something else.
But what I’ve become in that moment is not an ununreal, uninhuman person, as we might want to imagine (no longer self-aware so no longer possessing the foundational quality of both writers and unreal, inhuman persons) but instead the kind of person the movie wants me to be: passive, relaxed, ingestatory, uninteresting, unwriterly —but still unreal/inhuman. It — like the best Entertainment entertainment has to offer — produces me as consumer: it produces us.
The movie wants to me to swallow its contents whole and so be too full for anything else but filler.
To wit: there’s a crushingly devastating moment near the end of the film, after F.D. Wallace walks into the room he’s set up for F.D. Lipsky — a room that’s symbolically filled with hundreds of copies of Wallace’s books in varying editions, publishings, and translations — and finally confesses to Lipsky the answers to the questions he’s been wanting to know this whole time.
(These were the questions meant to make the Rolling Stone piece Lipsky’d been assigned to write worthy of inclusion in the rag and, thus, of course, the kind of questions Wallace would never have wanted to answer. Indeed, F.D. Wallace refuses, through the film, to engage them the way F.D. Lipsky wants and needs if the whole trip’s going to be worth anything, to his employer.)
And in that tender moment between two very intelligent and very insecure men who have become completely exhausted with each other and themselves, Wallace finally tells Lipsky the unadulterated truth — a truth that leaves Lipsky (and maybe also Wallace) in tears.
And in that tender moment — that single climactic life-changing moment — Lipsky (and maybe also Wallace) gloriously embodies real human person-ness, in a real human moment with another real human being.
But only for a moment.
The crushing devastation comes after the tenderness, when, not seconds after Wallace leaves the room —after this clip ends and Wallace leaves Lipsky again to himself — Lipsky becomes the very same thing that we’ve been as we’ve watched: passive, relaxed, ingestatory, uninteresting, unwriterly, unreal, and inhuman.
F.D. Lipsky grasps for his reporter’s notebook, scribbles notes and quotes down furiously, and once more obliterates his humanity by becoming an observer of it, its consumer — all so that he might make possible the consumption of that moment by others.
He is neither critic nor writer nor human person: he is a man sinking in quicksand, snapping selfie after selfie of his own demise — to remember himself by.
The End of the Tour can only exist because of something that it absolutely antithetical to it. The kind of experience the film represents — the experience the Real David Lipsky must have had in that moment, before the scribbling and scrawling — is not made possible by the production of something for consumption, or the writing of a book about an experience, or the filmic fictionalization of that book.
The End of the Tour is made possible only because a real human person who wanted to know another real human person and took steps to bring themselves into contact with that human person and to get to know, through proximity and closeness and curiosity and gall, that other human person.
The End of the Tour can only exist because of what its viewer should be seeking instead of the film: a conversation; an exercise in dangerous intimacy; a terrible unbearing of souls; an honest attempt at escaping the indecipherable nomad by deciphering each other together.
There are 577,608 words in Infinite Jest.
The Ken Erdedy passage (which I unaffectionately called, early on, the “Where was the writer who said he’d come” chapter) is about a man who thinks that if he does something in such tremendous and terrifying excess, then maybe he won’t have to do it anymore. He’ll have done so much of this pleasurable thing, in such gruesome and torturous amounts, that he’ll thereafter never have any desire to ever even think about doing it again.
Writers who write about climbing Mount Everest don’t climb Mount Everest so they can write about it. They do it because they have to, and then they just happen to also write about it.
I think Jest was Wallace’s Everest. He wasn’t an astronaut, or an explorer, or a doctor or lawyer or fireman. He was a writer.
And writers like Wallace do not have Everests to climb. They have heads: cruel masters who fill themselves and us in turn with words. Put enough writers in front of enough typewriters for enough time and they’ll go absolutely insane.
Until recently, I was writing a book — a long thing tentatively titled “Saint Dave” — which I swore to myself would be, in its final version, 577,609 words long.
Because I had to know.
I had to know what it was to write enough, for long enough, that you end up becoming yourself.
I have since given that up. I have given that up because I would rather live, and be alive, than to write myself raw.
Joan Didion says we tell ourselves stories in order to live. But I think we tell ourselves stories in order to die — in order to stop living for the moments during which pen touches paper.
And I don’t want to die (anymore).
When I turned 22, I decided that instead of anything else, what I wanted most of all — with every cell in my body, with every iota of my being, with every nanometer of my soul and will in my psyche —was to be a real, human person. Not a writer—a real, human person who just so happened also to write.
And I wanted to discover what being a real, human person even meant, and why I, for so long, wanted desperately to be anything but. And why I suspect that I am not alone in wanting these things or asking these questions.
I think Wallace — reading Wallace, loving Wallace, hating Wallace, listening to him and alternatively nodding and shaking our heads, wrestling with his legacy and his death and his work — is a big fat slobbery clue, a flashing signpost along the path to answers.
So I will not be a writer, though I will write; I will write (a little) and I will live (a lot), and maybe even do these things so much that I’ll die (a little — or a lot) on the inside.
Except that what’s born in my place — what rushes in to fill the void left behind by me — might just be what I’ve been searching for since I was born, 24 long, terrible, excellent years ago.
What takes my place might just be what David would have wanted for me.
But it’d be shameful to speculate so.
So I won’t.
And yes, in fact: this makes me immensely pleased.
I know that what I’m saying might sound terribly, awfully obvious, to a not small amount of people who’re reading this. But it’s also very obviously not obvious to another not small amt. of people reading this, these the kind of people who read Wallace — and read about him — obsessively, psychotically, and gluttonously. I know because I was (am) that kind of person, and this all sure as hell wasn’t obvious to me, for a long time.
You don’t crack open a thousand-page novel because you have a vibrant, full, wonderful life. You crack it open because you’re lonely and you’re isolated and you’re afraid.
Because the man who wrote it must be brilliant and so then maybe has something to offer you — something you can’t yet see and must be shown, if you’re going to stop being this lonely and isolated and afraid. And you can taste it, when you read him, this important thing you’re missing. You know you’re close to it and maybe can even touch it, enough to make you feel sometimes like it’s wholly yours and that the deed is finally done. That you have it — when really, way, way back in the back of your head, you know that really you don’t. It’s not yours — not yet. So you read on, read more, read about him — because if you’ve read enough of him to feel you should have it but know you don’t, then maybe someone else who’s read him can reveal what you missed for you.
But what you’re missing you’re missing because you’re reading for it. You want to find it in the privacy of your own home, in your own personal bedroom, under covers, nose buried in tome, or glowing screen.
But it is not there. It cannot be found here.
And this is the unobvious part, to a hell of a lot of people: that what’s found in reading is not salve, nor solution. What you want will never be here, will never be transmitted via this, the easiest way to receive information: via letters and words and sentences, via one-way monologues on an immutable, outward-facing vector.
It is, instead, transmitted electrically in the touching of skin to skin; it rings out in symphonies; it is inhaled and exhaled; it is in air. It hides in eyes, all salty and damp. It reverberates through screams. It’s buried in the cracks and crannies of lips and ears and elbows and toes. What you want (what you need, more than anything, with all of yourself) is wordless — not of words but outside it.
It is of human persons on each and every side of you, some of whom already know it and some of whom, like you, still keep searching in all the wrong places.
Because what you want to have inside you cannot really be had. It can only be carried. It can only be shared. It takes two. It takes a village. It is neither mine nor yours — because these are not really things, this “mine,” this “yours” — but ours.
Which is to say: it is of us.
And when you come to realize this — when you hear it from both inside and outside yourself, and then know it, and then live inside it — it’ll be during the greatest goddamn conversation you’ve ever had.