David Foster Wallace, Personal Existential Crises, and ‘The End of the Tour’

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What would David Foster Wallace think of this?

I mulled this over before when I first heard about the movie. I considered it while watching the movie. And I’m wondering now, as I type this, what he would say about the whole thing. In fact, the words “What would David Foster Wallace think of this?” crosses my mind whenever I sit down to watch a television show (read: very frequently), whenever I bathe in the glow of my computer screen (read: even more frequently), and whenever I begin to question my personal value system and life choices (read: constantly).

Much like Wallace was consumed by imposter syndrome with regards to his status as A Brilliant Author, I feel like an imposter calling myself a David Foster Wallace fan, since I’ve “only” readInfinite Jest and a bunch of his essays. Though I’m in the middle of The Pale King and I keep a tab of vocab words and neologisms I learned from his writings, I’ve stagnated a bit in interactions with his works. Yet I have seen a live-reading/performance of a selection of essays which bills itself as “part sporting event, part theatrical séance.” So, there’s that.

But I haven’t immersed myself in the DFW intelligentsia the way his rabid cultists have. I know there’s more material to be consumed, and yet I’m holding back. Why? A big part of the reason is— and I’m loathe to admit this, in case Wallace’s ghost is hovering over my shoulder, shuddering in empathetic despair— that I don’t have the time and mental energy to devote to his existentially mind-bending prose. So I shove it aside to the “eventually” ether, where it is slowly but irrevocably buried under pages and pixels. On a deeper level, though, I avoid further writing by or about Wallace simply because I am afraid that they will taint— or to be less dainty, fatally disperse— the colossal, cosmic truths that Infinite Jest exposed me to.

And so I delayed seeing The End of the Tour because I was afraid it would disappoint. I’ll be brief: It did not. It was more than I possibly could have hoped for. And perhaps it was more than Wallace himself could have hoped for.

When I glimpsed promos for this movie, I saw Jason Segel playing dress up. But when he appears on screen as David Foster Wallace, he instantly becomes David Foster Wallace. Since we’re seeing him through Ultimate Fanboy David Lipsky’s eyes, it wasn’t too difficult to buy into the rockstar-like mythos of the character, but it was certainly thrilling. As Lipsky steps over the threshold of Wallace’s house for the first time, I felt a chill that had nothing to do with the scene’s snowy setting. Wallace had dogs! He spoke to them in a dumb baby voice! He had a refrigerator and a couch and a coffee maker! He was…human?

The movie (and, I’m assuming, the book on which it was based), gives DFW devotees even more than just a glimpse at his living quarters— it offers us a deep dive into his unparalleled mind. To say that David Foster Wallace was brilliant would downplay his pure thinky-ness; he was so much more than just a luminous mind. He felt things so acutely and was somehow— in a way that is so inconceivable to this aspiring writer— able to harness extreme pain and extreme pleasure and to hammer out those thoughts into words. His words are transcendent; his words are Truth. His words are hilarious and horrifying.

Jason Segel channels Wallace’s spirit beautifully. His mannerisms, I can’t personally attest to, but his words? Ohhhh, his words. Those vivid, mile-a-minute metaphors, those out-of-nowhere gut-punches of realness!

And, of course, his loneliness. As Wallace points out in the film, anyone who actually immersed herself in a 1,000-page book must suffer from some form of loneliness… so, by extension, the guy who wrote the damn thing must have suffered from this chronic condition all the more so.

Wallace’s loneliness and frustration comes across quite poignantly in this film, but it doesn’t override his humor, his kindness, and his groundedness; Wallace’s mind might have operated in a realm leagues above the rest of the human race, but his heart was firmly rooted among people. When Lipsky asks him questions, Wallace throws them right back— not as a diversionary tactic, but in an effort to truly understand the person sitting next to him. Through it all, Wallace comes across as strangely likable, if profoundly and absurdly insecure about himself; this is a guy who calls himself a “whore” and a “dweeb” in the same breath, worrying about what the Rolling Stone audience will think of him while worrying about worrying too much about what the audience will think of him.

This meta element is in play throughout the film, most notably when Wallace remarks that he’d love to interview Lipsky about interviewing him. Which immediately led me to a spiraling mindwarp in which I fretted over my status as a person who is writing about a movie in which someone is writing about someone who writes. How far removed can you get before you fall off the edge of the spaceship and enter a state of freefall? On a personal note, what is the point of the journalist altogether?

Which brings us to the other David in this story, Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky, played to awkward perfection by Jesse Eisenberg. If Wallace is described as “pleasantly unpleasant,” Lipsky balances the scale as someone who is “unpleasantly pleasant.” And if Wallace made me question my entire existence (he has that effect), Lipsky made me question my choice of career. That may sound like a trivial thing, but it’s not— certainly not at this stage in my life, certainly not at the point where I still believe that I can love what I do to pay the rent.

I saw every journalism-related fear play out in David Lipsky, starting with his editor’s curt response to Lipsky’s unwillingness to ask Wallace an uncomfortable question: “You’re not his buddy, you’re a reporter!” Lipsky lobbies hard for the opportunity to profile the budding rockstar-author, but when he arrives at Wallace’s house, it becomes clear to Lipsky and to us that he is more interested in befriending and impressing Wallace. Whenever Lipsky turns on the tape recorder, he tries to be as casual as possible, but the damage is done the instant his finger presses that Record button; whatever “realness” the two Davids are experiencing evaporates with the appearance of that red recording button, and they sink into their reporter-subject roles. Both Lipsky and Wallace toe this line, muddying the waters of performativity while drudging up the question of whether or not we can ever actually be genuine with another human being.

Now I’ve somehow made this review about me, haven’t I? Of course, even that is vintage Wallace— which is not to say that he was a raging egomaniac in the classic sense, but that he felt so intensely the trauma of being. As he put it in his “This Is Water” commencement speech, that he insisted that our default setting is that we are each “uniquely, completely, imperially alone.” Perhaps empathy is, at the end of the day, just a word.

The night before Lipskysets sail for home, Wallace brings up the most impactful passage from Infinite Jest: the three pages in which he talks about suicidal depression. (If you read nothing else in life, read 695 – 698 of this book.) He compares the plight of the suicidal to the plight of a person standing at the window of a burning building. Though the fear of falling remains constant, the variable is the fire’s flames: “When the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s the terror of the flames.”

The movie could have ended on that note, leaving the viewer to connect the dots to Wallace’s eventual suicide. But Wallace’s life should not be defined by his death. Though he suffered under the enormous weight of sadness, the end of The End of the Tour shows that such a being was capable of immense joy as well.

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