In 1996 David Foster Wallace’s fiction opus, Infinite Jest, hit the bestseller list, and Wallace was hoisted up as one of the decade’s most talented writers. I don’t remember this at all (I was 12 and wasn’t pursuing erudite post-post-modern 1,000-page epics), but this guy was a big deal.
Having read most of his nonfiction by now, I can see why. I recommend his essay collections to most anyone, particularly A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Want to know what it’s like for a tortured genius to be trapped on a cruise liner full of yuppies? Actually, let me answer that for you: yes.
Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is like an alternative to a straight-up biography on DFW. Considering the Wallace was famous for his avant-garde style, a conventional bio just wouldn’t be appropriate, anyway. Instead, this is a string of interviews with DFW by David Lipsky (who’s written almost nothing you or I have read) on the last leg of the author’s signing tour.
Much of the interviewing takes place across the table at a Denny’s or in the car going down an icy Midwestern highway, where Lipsky remarks, “We speak more comfortably looking out the window in the dark as opposed to looking across the table.”
Lipsky’s a fan of DFW’s, and he can keep a good back-and-forth going with his sickenly brilliant interviewee. They flirt with each other a lot–paraphrasable with, “You’re smart.” “Naaw. You know who’s smart? You are.”–as if trying to keep Lipsky’s hanger-on role more comfortable for both parties. There are awkward moments, though, mostly when Lipsky pries for what he’s convinced is Wallace’s safeguarded history of hard drug addiction. This is where Wallace gets “testy”. But really, the interviewer does everything short of grabbing the guy by the shirt and yelling, “Say you were hooked on smack, dammit! Say it so I can go home!”
You can also smell his annoyance with DFW’s habit of one-upping his jokes and witty quips.
A Road Trip With Smart Guys
The trouble with this book is it’s a 300-page-long interview. But if you can weather the onslaught of 90’s pop culture topics that severely date the thing, this sort of book almost works with DFW–a writer whom I’ve said when he talks to himself, you want to hear what he’s saying.
Parts of the format are confusing. At times the tape gets turned off, usually by Wallace, and the conversation continues as written. In these stretches, I don’t know if Lipsky’s pulling from memory or the tape got turned back on later, and the conversation did actually resume like that.
Some Wallace quotes.
“I have this unbelievably like five-year-old’s belief that art is absolutely magic. And that good art can do things that nothing else in the solar system can do. And that the good stuff will survive, and get read, and that in the great winnowing process, the shit will sink and the good stuff will rise.”
“I always fear that when I really impose my will on something, the universe is gonna punish me.”
“I don’t think writers are any smarter than other people. I think they may be more compelling in their stupidity, or in their confusion.”
(On copyediting Infinite Jest) “That was a fucking, fucking nightmare.”
What’s worthwhile here regardless of your interest in this writer is the satisfying glimpse into the neurotic author–at the moment that he’s struck gold. “It’s very nice.” says Wallace. But at the same time he’s visibly worried (in reality, terrified) about the come-down. Once the reading tour stops, once the interviews with him stop, once the magazine articles on him stop, he has to go crawl back into his bunker and write again, “back to knowing just 20 people.” How will he handle the renewed isolation, this guy who’s already spent time on suicide watch in Boston?
The fact that he did eventually kill himself (in September 2008) adds a layer of tragedy to the book (“I knew that if anybody was fated to fuck up a suicide attempt, it was me. Which gives you an idea of my mind-set at the time: And I’ll fuck up even that, and then I’ll be a quadriplegic.”). But the interview format keeps you firmly in that week of 1996: the conversations brimmed with such liveliness that only every now and then would I realize what’s happened to this genius since and shudder.
I bought Infinite Jest and though it will take me eons, I will happily read it. I have a feeling that I did sort of miss out on something by being 12-years-old in 1996, but I’m equally certain that the novel and its influence will be around for a long time.