It is always tricky to imagine what those no longer here would think of the here-and-now: What would the poet Emily Dickinson make of the rapper Iggy Azalea? How would the Wright Brothers fare on the Dreamliner, six miles above the surface of the Earth? But the exercise can also be useful, for the most perceptive critics of times present sometimes lurk way back in times past.
The new film The End of the Tour follows the novelist David Foster Wallace in the wake of the rapturous reception to his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, which is largely about the varieties of addiction that permeate the modern American existence. The End of the Tour is faithfully based on the book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a transcription of a several-days-long interview conducted by Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg in the film) with Wallace (Jason Segel). During the interview, at his house in Bloomington, Illinois, Wallace bemoans the bewildering democracy of the Internet, which most of us were then still accessing through America Online (not yet the slightly more hip “AOL”) and Prodigy. “There are four trillion bits coming at you, 99 percent of them are shit, and it’s too much work to do triage to decide,” Wallace tells Lipsky in Although. And that was before the advent of the cat meme.
[Wallace] seemed to understand something essential about the Internet:
that it is a spigot we would not know how to stop. And that we would drown, except that it would not feel like drowning, at least not at first.
The film comes at a time when we consume entertainment and talk to each other on a medium that, as Wallace correctly predicted nineteen years ago, would make it “easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasureable, to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money.” I would only substitute “money” with “attention,” for it is our eyeballs that the lords of digital content crave. Our wallets are the easy stuff.
Wallace died in 2008, not having quite lived to see the age when heads of state sparred with each other on Twitter and an app that could only message the word “Yo” was valued at $10 million. But he seemed to understand something essential about the Internet: that it is a spigot we would not know how to stop. And that we would drown, except that it would not feel like drowning, at least not at first.
And although Wallace was primarily interested in the alluring qualities of television, he did recognize that a giant box in your living room was nothing compared to a pervasive information network whose node could be as small as a deck of cards or look like a goofy pair of Robocop shades. “At a certain point,” he told Lipsky, “we’re gonna have to build some machinery, inside our guts, to help us deal with this.” On this, too, he was prescient. Never mind the craze of the Apple Watch; last year, CNN pronounced the coming age of “embeddable implants.”
Several years after the events depicted in The End of the Tour, Wallace wrote what appears to be his only fiction about the Internet. Discovered by Wallace biographer D.T. Max, the story is called “Wickedness” and was written around 2000. It is, according to Max, about “a tabloid reporter named Skyles who, dying of cancer of the mouth, is trying to shoot pictures of Ronald Reagan beset by Alzheimer’s for the Web site Wicked.com.” In that story, Wallace calls the Internet “the bathroom wall of the U.S. psyche.” I don’t think he means that as a compliment.
Watching The End of the Tour, I was reminded that Wallace was as much a social critic as he was a novelist. In fact, Infinite Jest works less well as a straight-up Victorian novel than as a Menippean satire of America’s infantile desire to be entertained writ (very very) large. In fact, the novel predicts something like the Internet: the InterLace TelEntertainment system, whose deeply enthralling cartridges were “viewable right there on your trusty PC’s high-resolution monitor.” In fact, the whole novel is about a cartridge so compulsive, people cannot tear themselves away. Sounds pretty much like binge-watching to me.
Wallace clearly recognized, both in himself and American society at large, a deep-seated desire to be diverted. We will watch anything — stupid pet tricks, the Kardashians, stupid Kardashian tricks — to avoid boredom, the whooshing silence in our own heads, the existential dread of feeling the physical and psychic bounds of our own small selves.
But that smallness and silence, in the end, is all we have to live with, and Wallace knew as much. Better to face the scary stuff than hide from it. So when Lipsky asks him why he doesn’t have a television, he answers very plainly: “’Cause I’ll watch it all the time.”
The Internet is much harder to turn off, despite the occasional essay by someone who gave up email (totally…for a week) or replaced her iPhone for an old-fashioned flip-phone (though not, like, forever). How do you demarcate your own self in a world where who you are is increasingly just a bunch of info-quanta bouncing between servers in Provo and Palo Alto? The electromagnetic waves of numberless WiFi connections pass through us, ghostly waves on which data bob like debris. Screens glow through the night, giving the dark hours a strange argentine cast.
Wallace wondered to Lipsky whether a time would finally come when we “put away childish things and discipline ourselves.”
That time, sadly, has not come. Not in Bloomington, not anywhere.
Alexander Nazaryan is a senior writer at Newsweek.