The Dave Show

How David Lipsky Captures the Spirit of
David Foster Wallace

by Tim Personn

A few years ago, I wrote an essay about Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (AOCYEUBY), David Lipsky’s unconventional “biography” of the late David Foster Wallace. The angle I chose at the time were professed doubts about the book’s quality as a piece of literature. Wasn’t Lipsky’s true-to-each-spoken-word coverage of Wallace, I wondered, rather self-indulgent — at best a reminder of the media phenomenon Wallace had become, at worst a cynical attempt to cash in on tragedy? With the release of The End of the Tour, based on Lipsky’s book, these questions have only become more pressing. In my earlier essay, republished here in truncated form, I concluded that Lipsky’s choice to print largely unedited transcripts, the raw material underlying what could have been a more focused prose piece, was not a case of hagiography-by-bootleg; rather, it was informed by assumptions about power in life-writing that he shared with Wallace. And I would argue that the creators of The End of the Tour were not ignorant to these considerations, either. To be sure, the logic of their medium forced them to make different formal choices than Lipsky. However, by (over)dramatizing Wallace’s and Lipsky’s struggles with the intimacy of their assignment and by balancing their storylines against one another, shifting focus back and forth until it has become quite uncertain who this movie is really about, The End of the Tour hints at the kind of counter-profile on Lipsky that Wallace had envisioned: “a profile of one of you guys who’s doin’ a profile on me […] to get some of the control back.”

The Dave Show originally published on Post45

Is Lipsky’s “biography” merely candy for the addicted, starved of Wallace’s words? Why, a skeptic might ask, should I even watch this episode of what may be called The Dave Show? What keeps me from zapping away from conversations that, though insightful at times, often seem to be banal, the true sign of bad art? Happily, there is an answer to these questions. It is the impression of a Dave Wallace like the one appearing on “The Charlie Rose Show” in 1997, a bandana-sporting philosopher cringing under the awareness of being on TV, that should keep us from zapping away, fan and skeptic alike. This hyper-conscious persona, also to be found in AOCYEUBY, reminds us of Wallace’s obsessions and opens up a route of reflection that dispels first impressions of self-indulgence or triteness.

On the road with Lipsky in 1996, Wallace constantly returns to the configuration of context and the rules implicit in it. The tape recorder, the impending piece for Rolling Stone, the pseudo-intimacy of his encounter with the journalist — all these features, Wallace knows, create a situation quite unlike the kind of innocent gathering needed for real communication. “This is very smart,” he remarks to Lipsky in a passage that is representative of many others in this book: “You say something that gets a rise out of me, and I begin talking, and it’s good because I like you, so I’m talking to you. But the tape recorder’s on . . .”

And indeed, AOCYEUBY shows Lipsky, the reporter, asking, and Wallace, the writer, answering. Not one to let the implications of such a set-up go unnoticed, Wallace remarks more than once to the journalist that he would “love to do […] a profile of one of you guys who’s doin’ a profile on me […] to get some of the control back.” Alas, any list of the man’s publications proves that remark to have been without consequence. We don’t know how Wallace would have tackled the task of a counter-profile. What we do know, however, is that this book, the account of a moment when two really smart people met, reads, in Lipsky’s words, like “one of the deluxe internal surveys [Wallace] specialized in — the unedited camera, the feed before the director in the van starts making cuts and choices.”

It is not difficult to imagine Lipsky back at his desk in 2008, listening to the old tapes of his road trip again, a week after David’s death, thinking, with the distinctive experience of having Wallace’s voice invade his own, this is, like, the best DFW novel David Foster Wallace never wrote. Indeed, the semblance between Lipsky’s non-fictional “biography” and Wallace’s own fictional work is striking. To be sure, there are no foot- or endnotes in Lipsky’s book. The author does not merely copy Wallace’s distinctive style and AYOCEUBY is not another book by DFW — even though some of the oral mini-essays Wallace delivered on the road showcase the writer’s mind in overdrive as much as his published writing does. It is, rather, in its spirit that Lipsky’s book most resembles Wallace’s writing. Lipsky, we might say, does to the form of the biography what Wallace did to the form of the novel.

A kind of Kierkegaardian indirect communication, Wallace’s fiction allowed a reader to experience the collapse of her own interpretive predispositions — aloofness, detachment, cynicism — in order to clear the way for an ethical way of life. The mysterious act of empathy that Wallace aimed at to interrogate these powerful affects lay outside the realm of words. Its power and necessity, though, was highlighted from within. For those stuck inside postmodern anhedonia, this way out required hard work. In fact, the emotional labor Wallace’s best fiction required was not unlike, was indeed exemplified by, the spiritual journey of Infinite Jest’s AA members — the whole book a talking cure whose ultimate challenge, an acceptance of the hackneyed slogans of Alcoholics Anonymous, proved too hard a test for some readers to pass. What, almost paradoxically, offset this quest towards spiritual soundness was Wallace’s warm wit and funniness — qualities that also shine in Lipsky’s book. Moreover, with a verbatim accuracy made possible by the advances of electronic media, Lipsky’s “biography” tests his readers’ endurance somewhat like Wallace’s maximalist fiction. Every detail, in Lipsky as in Wallace, is captured on the page and, in the absence of authorial guidance, it is the reader’s task to make meaning of this excess of information.

The form this book took, then, may truly be said to have been chosen with concern to the presumed post-mortem will of its subject. In fact, Lipsky is explicit about this. In the introduction, wryly announced as “the Commentary track — which nobody goes in for until they’ve loved the DVD,” he describes his approach as “the one way of writing about him I don’t think David would have hated.” The DVD metaphor is apt, albeit applied to the wrong section of the book. There is, indeed, a commentary track that runs through AOCYEUBY. It is not, however, the introduction. Commentary tracks run parallel to the feature film’s soundtrack. Like footnotes, they allow for a double focus that simultaneously creates affective distance and proximity to the main feature. In keeping with postmodern conventions, they lift the veil and reveal the magicians behind the screen. Yet they also allow a viewer to alternately focus on creator and creation, like a theater aficionado who glimpses ropes and pulleys above the stage and then, willingly suspending disbelief, turns his attention back to Lear raging at Cordelia — or, for that matter, like a reader of Infinite Jest flipping back and forth between the endnotes and the main textual body, detecting incongruities and making ironies happen.

AOCYEUBY makes a similar focus possible by a peculiar doubling of its author across time and space. The book showcases two different Lipskys: one version of the man in 1996, on the road with Wallace, and an older Lipsky in 2008, sitting at home, listening to the recordings made a decade before. Sometimes this older Lipsky mutters something [intrusions that, in the text, are set in brackets] and, like a commentary track on The Dave Show, you hear his remarks against the backdrop of Wallace’s soft Midwestern speech: less bubbly, less ebullient, but also warm and observant. Lipsky 2008 is, above all, a good reader of character. His mind is anything but dulled by the tragic events of the preceding weeks. To the contrary, it is acute and, like any engaged reader’s, empathetic. He is like you, humbled by the reality of loss, and trying to figure this man out — to intuit the big something that seemed to be missing from all previous writing on David Foster Wallace.

[Wallace and Lipsky] become friends through mutual soul-searching, initially driven by the desire for control, later dominated by a care not unlike the selfless interest a reader has for characters he holds dear.

It is this empathy, both Lipsky’s and his readers’, that drives the book. In a way, the author invites us to write the conventional biography he eschewed. Listen to this guy, he seems to say. See if you can figure him out. And, indeed, through the power of reading, the imaginative work exerted on each new page moves Dave Wallace out of obscurity and more sharply into focus. This slow and meticulous movement towards another mind is mirrored in the 1996 transcripts — in fact, faith in empathy not only underlies the form of Lipsky’s “biography,” it also determines the writers’ relationship on the road.

Thus the attentive reader of AOCYEUBY bears witness to how, over the course of five days, these two writers come to a “no-bullshit” kind of intimacy, partly pushed by Lipsky’s desire for honest material, partly enabled by Wallace’s drive towards the heart of things. “The conversation is the best one I’ve ever had,” Lipsky 2008 reflects, and there is a clear correlation between hours spent talking and a build-up of affection and understanding between the men. They become friends through mutual soul-searching, initially driven by the desire for control, later dominated by a care not unlike the selfless interest a reader has for characters he holds dear. Thus, their encounter demonstrates what genuine empathy can lead to: a connection devoted to sharing, in some ways like the feeling of friendship between reader and writer that Wallace’s best work made possible.

That Lipsky and Wallace lose touch after their encounter, indeed never see each other again, underlines the elusive beauty of such moments. Moreover, the paranoia that descends upon both men from the get-go indicates the difficulty of connecting. Empathy is hard work — at least for those of us who, as Wallace wrote for Rolling Stone in 1999, “are educated and have read a lot and have watched TV critically.” In a culture bombarded by mock sincerity designed to trick consumers into more consumption, those who see through the manipulative workings of the media industry have become wary of any attempts at gaining trust. Hence Wallace’s alertness at hearing the journalist court him on the road: “But the tape recorder’s on . . .” And in the wake of Wallace’s musings about “sincerity with a motive,” Lipsky 1996 is sometimes tempted to relegate Wallace’s hyper-sincere ruminations to the status of pick-up lines, too — a lesson learned, to be sure, from Wallace himself, whose character Orin Incandenza employed ironic anti-pick-up lines as a real form of seduction.

Over time, though, Lipsky overcomes this paranoia, balancing intellectual awareness with emotional maturity, and his success hints at the kind of work needed for real communication. When Lipsky is done, however — the last sentence from the road trip transcribed, the last remark on the commentary track muttered — his reader’s work has just begun. In a way, for Lipsky’s formal choices to succeed, he requires the reader to first have and then move beyond impressions of self-indulgence. And just as a good novel holds the key to its own intentions, teaching the reader how to read it, Lipsky’s book contains a discussion of its own formal strategies.

“Avant-garde stuff,” Wallace tells the journalist at one point, “seduces the reader into making extraordinary efforts he wouldn’t normally make.” From this vantage point, Lipsky’s indirect approach to writing about David Foster Wallace was a good, indeed, a wise choice, his reluctance to make encompassing statements not a cop-out. True, his award-winning 2009 Rolling Stone essay on Wallace’s last days had dealt with the man more directly. But the essay’s focus had been more limited, a behind-the-scenes look at the strange face of suicide, described in contours only.

In AOCYEUBY, Lipsky seems to have some ideas about Wallace, too. But he does not feel the need to convince anyone of these ideas’ accuracy. Rather, presenting commentary and source material side-by-side, he invites the reader into the game of meaning-making. His book puts reader and biographer on a level playing field, with neither interpreter at an advantage. This is a kind of life-writing that shies away from monolithic notions of truth: a writing spawned by Wallace’s own reflections on the power structures inherent in any kind of biographical profile. Lipsky’s profile opens up the door for countless other profiles — as many, in fact, as there are readers of AOCYEUBY. Thus, in a final act of admiration and gratitude to his subject, Lipsky can, indeed, be said to have granted Wallace’s wish to “get some of the control back,” insofar as neither the author nor subject of his book gets the definitive last word.

Rather, the last word belongs to each individual reader, who is asked to empathize and construct meaning accordingly — which is tantamount to saying that there is no such thing as a last word. Lipsky’s approach to life-writing, then, doesn’t just reflect the state of the art in critical theories of reading, which by and large locate meaning in the actions of an interpreter. It also highlights the role of empathy in any such act of reading, inviting a conclusion that reaches far beyond this book and, for that reason, rescues it from charges of irrelevancy or cashing-in. Empathy, Lipsky’s formal choices make clear, is the goal of all serious reading, fiction and nonfiction alike. Safe to say, that is a conclusion David Foster Wallace, who once hoped for a new generation of literary rebels to “treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction,” would have liked.

Tim Personn is a PhD candidate in English and CSPT (Cultural, Social and Political Thought) at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.