White and Red With a Dash of Blue Steel
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, apples & peanut butter, Author Vs Voice Vs Persona, Book Review, Cetology, Charlie Rose, Consider the Lobster, Conversation, David Foster Wallace, David Lipksy, Derrida, Dostoyevsky, Guys, Imposter Complex, Infinite Jest, Interview, Literature, Masculinity Studies, Moby Dick, Personal Development, Philosophy, Postmodernism, prose, public intellectual, public perception of writers, Reading, reflection, Sentimental Novel, television, Ulysses, Writers, Writing
It started really with Charlie Rose. In the mornings my wife would usually wake up before me, and in fact she still does, in order to get to school and so given the fact that I had no classes to teach and my job wouldn’t start until around 11 or 12, I would usually have the mornings to myself to putter, drink my tea, eat my apples and peanut butter, and watch videos or read before I left. I usually couldn’t read and eat at the same time and so I pulled up YouTube on my phone. However, I really don’t like wasted time, and so these early morning moments seemed like a chance to grow intellectually so I would watch Charlie Rose interviews because Charlie Rose usually hosts substantive interviews. I watched Robin Williams, Gore Vidal, Bill Maher, Quentin Tarantino, Benjamin Netanyahu, and even Mr. Rogers. I can’t honestly say if my brain got any bigger, but watching those videos while I ate my apples and peanut butter reminded me how underappreciated the Interview format is in our culture.
In the queue was a man by the name of David Foster Wallace, a writer I’d read before and largely ignored, and so like most of the choices in my life that lead to books, I picked the video largely because I had heard rumors and speculation and read something somewhere, and even after the interview I wasn’t terribly impressed. In fact, to be frank, the man bothered me mostly because of the way he discussed academics in a kind of pejorative tone.
I can’t explain the Wallace explosion. Like Orwell before him, and Christopher Hitchens before that, David Foster Wallace just seems to be dominating my consciousness and I honestly believe it has something to do with the fact that I’m beginning to abandon any and all hope that my life will have any real connection to academia. I also wonder why, whenever I have these intellectual storms in which I become consumed with reading the entire works of single author or subject that I can never get myself to dig into the histories of Rome or Ancient Greece. There’s a stack of books with names like Livy, Tactitus, Heroditus, Plutarch, Cicero, and Ovid that sit literally right behind my laptop while I write, yet consistently the books that wind up consuming my time and energy are those written by men, and not enough women, living in the 20th and 21st century.
Perhaps I’m just doomed to be another soulless, shameless Postmodernist. More’s-the-pity.
Still, the name David Foster Wallace buzzed in the background of my head and so when I had coffee with a friend a few weeks later I snapped up a copy of Infinite Jest, ordered two copies by accident of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, bought Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, bought Consider the Lobster, and finally bought a copy of a book that, while it wasn’t written by Wallace, was still half written by the man and largely about him.
Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, apart from having an incredibly long title, is a book that shook me. I was tempted to write some bullshit about the book shaking me “to the core,” and while the sentiment is accurate I distrust sentiment when trying to convey how much a book can affect you. I was used to David Foster Wallace being a writer who always somehow managed to convey thoughts about society, art, literature, and writing that always left me profoundly altered and adrift in intellectual storms that would cloud my reality until I wrote about my thoughts about his thoughts and how fucking true they were, but David Lipsky’s book gave me something far more shocking and I use that word carefully.
David Lipsky’s transcribing of the various conversations he had with Wallace shows me not only a great writer, but a deep human being who seemed to suffer from most of the same shit I did. Later in the book when Wallace and Lipsky are talking they discuss college.
[Lipsky:]…You said being a regular guy was a great strength of yours as a writer, I thought it was smart, but what did you mean by that?
[Wallace:] I think—I had serious problems in my early twenties. I mean, I’d been a really good student. I was a really good logician and semantician and philosopher. And I really had this problem of thinking I was smarter than everyone else. [Reason for faux] And I think if you’re writing out of place where you think that you’re smarter than everybody else, you’re either condescending to the reader, or talking down to ‘im, or playing games, or you think the point is to show how smart you are.
And all that happened to me was, I just has a bunch of shit happen in my twenties where I realized I wudn’t near as smart. Where I realized I wasn’t near as smart as I thought I was. And I realized that a lot of other people, including people without much education, were a fuck of a lot smarter than I thought they were. I got—what’s the world? Humbled, in a way, I think. (214).
Besides these two paragraphs in my paperback copy of the book is an arrow and above it in cursive is written the phrase “My Life.” It’s a pathetic confession but I admit that I often felt during my undergraduate career this combination of superiority and inferiority, and while part of it is simply growing up and suffering through the necessary reduction of the ego, I recognized early on that the kind of education I had received in grade school as well as home, far surpassed what most of my friends had experienced. As such I enjoyed being the smartest kid in class, that is until a new student came down the pike who understood Derrida, and another who knew what the Sentimental Novel was, and someone else who had actually read Dostoyevsky, and so on and etc. and so I quickly developed what is known as “imposter” complex, the belief that you don’t belong somewhere because the people around you seem to be significantly smarter than you.
Eventually I settled into a comfort with my intellect because I realized that I will never know everything and so it was better to keep growing and be, as Wallace noted, humble.
Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is written as a long interview between David Lipsky, who is a novelist but also a regular reporter for Rolling Stone, and David Foster Wallace. The book is specifically an interview for the promotion of Wallace’s book Infinite Jest which had just been published and would, in time, become part of the American cultural consciousness as a kind of American answer to Ulysses. This combination isn’t made in jest…bad joke, it’s an earnest assessment having read Ulysses. The book stands at 981 pages long, but throughout the text Wallace has numbered words and sentences that lead back to end notes some of which range from a single sentence, to multiple paragraphs, to, in one unfortunate instance, well over thirty pages. And so the book stands at actually 1079 pages, 98 being endnotes alone. It is considered an avant-garde masterpiece, and one of the great “challenge” books in the American literary canon if not the world. Entire blogs are dedicated to deciphering the book, and scores of essays exist about the book and the myth that surrounds it.
For my own part I am working slowly through it, but while I did I decided that I would read Lipsky’s recorded interviews to see if I could find the man behind the whale. That’s a personal metaphor for long difficult books by the way. The lovely aspect about Although of Course You End up becoming Yourself is that the book does reveal these two men as realistic human beings as one early passage demonstrates:
[Lipsky:]You’re the most talked about writer in the country.
[Embarrassed to hear myself talk that way.]
[Wallace:]There’s an important distinction between—I’ve actually gotten a lot saner about this. Some of this stuff is nice. But I also realize this is a big, difficult book. Whether the book is really any good, nobody’s gonna know for a couple of years. So a lot of this stuff, it’s nice, I would like to get laid out of it a couple of times, which has not in fact happened.
I didn’t get laid on this tour. The thing about fame is interesting, although I would have liked o get laid on the tour and I did not. (11).
It’s hard, as a man at least, to condemn this impulse because I’ve studied biology, and rock stars, and I recognize how fame influences conscious choices. Lipsky immediately after this notes that rock stars certainly get this kind of notice and perks of fame, but they observe that writers tend to miss out on this kind of treatment. There is a tendency on the part of men to enjoy their fame and this translates into having sex with multiple women because that’s a sign that you’re the dominant male or that you possess some kind of power, but looking at this passage what’s important is how human Wallace appears. Most men, if they became famous, might expect the “groupie effect” and so the note of the missed chance reminds the reader that Wallace was every bit a man.
That isn’t diminishing his legitimate genius, I’m just noting the man would have enjoyed getting some while on tour, and this impulse isn’t necessarily crude, it’s just what seems appropriate from a man who tried to be down to earth as he could be.
Lipsky’s book is not just conversations about missed opportunities, or lack thereof, for sex that makes Wallace become real, it’s also for the fact that he, much like myself, grew up in a house that valued education and books. Another passage shows this while he’s discussing his home life.
[Lipsky:] Environment in house? Lots of reading?
[Wallace:] Yeah. My parents—I have all these weird early memories. I remember my parents reading Ulysses out loud to each other in bed, in this really cool way, holding hands and both lovin’ something really fiercely.
And I remember me being five and Amy being three, and Dad reading Moby-Dick to us (Laughs)—the unexpurgated Moby-Dick. Before—I think halfway through Mom pulled him aside and explained to him that, um, little kids were not apt to find, you know, “Cetology” all that interesting. (49).
I legitimately laughed out loud at this passage, because I have read Moby Dick before, and while the book isn’t always dry, the “Cetology” chapter is literally nothing but a taxonomy of the various species of whales known by whalers and biologists up to that time. If that sounds fascinating but painfully boring that’s because it is, and don’t forget it’s Melville. This brief scene by itself wouldn’t necessarily bring out Wallace’s humanity, but a few sentences down he says:
But I remember, I remember because there was some sort of deal about Amy, Amy got exempted from it, and was I gonna be exempted or not? And I remember kind of trying to win Dad’s favor, by saying “No, Dad, I want to hear it.” When in fact of course I didn’t at all.” (49).
I suspect every child has that moment of recognition. Our parents give us so much of themselves and their time and patience and energy and so as kids we recognize this and try to give something back even if it’s just our own time and attention. My little sister and I would sometimes note that whenever dad talked about economics we would smile and nod, but much like Cetology in Moby-Dick we were left rather bored. Likewise growing up my mother read numerous books about spirituality, and not being a terribly spiritual person myself listening was sometimes a bit of a chore. Still I listened to my parents because they gave me so much emotional, financial, and spiritual support it seemed fair on my part to listen to stuff that they found fascinating and important in their life. Regardless there was a moment of recognition with Wallace and this is where I’m able to address my contester.
So what about Wallace? He was a hyper-intellectual avant-gardist who wrote incomprehensible novels and esoteric essays about television, tennis, and David Lynch movies. What relevance does his personal life have to do with me? In other words why should I care?
Well dear reader that’s where I have it. During this essay I’ve repeatedly referred to David Foster Wallace as human, or noted that Lipsky’s book emphasizes this humanity. This is because I believe in some fashion, the man has become an ideal rather than a human being. And if I may take it a step further, writers in general tend to receive this treatment, their works becoming some kind of totem from which people form a kind of abstract intellectual worship. The novels of Ernest Hemingway are not just stories of moody men drinking, fishing, hunting, drinking, etc., they are in fact looked to by some as wellsprings of masculine spirit. Likewise, the poet Emily Dickinson is revered with a passion that is at times inspiring and at others horrifying, but along with her work comes the image of the recluse. Dickinson is not afforded the opportunity to be a human being, she is the cartoon character of the shut-in, a woman who was so plagued by social anxiety that she had to lock herself away in her study writing poems that no one would ever read. The conflict with this image, as well as that of Hemingway, is that it is devoid of real being. Writers are people, flawed people, but people who possess passion and desire, and Lipksy’s book shows Wallace in this way.
Wallace is often painted as my imagined contester paints him, as a hyper-intellectual who was above human beings and solely existed in thought, but reading Lipksy’s book a different image of Wallace appears: a man who wants his passion and ideas to be understood or appreciated while he shares them with others while also trying to be a normal guy as more and more hype builds around him.
In one passage the pair of them are standing outside of an airport in Chicago and David begins discussing the problem of art in this time period:
[Wallace:] We sit around and bitch about how TV has ruined the audience for reading—when really all it’s done is given us the really precious gift of making the job harder. You know what I mean? And it seems to me like the harder it is to make a reader feel like it’s worthwhile to read your stuff, the better a chance you’ve got of making real art. Because it’s only real art that does that. (71).
On the very next page he continues this idea:
[Wallace:] The old tricks have been exploded, and I think the language needs to find new ways to pull the reader. And my personal belief is that a lot of it has to do with vice, and a feeling of intimacy between the writer and the reader. That sort of, given the atomization and loneliness of contemporary life—that’s our opening, and that’s our gift. That’s a very personal deal, and here are seventeen ways to do it. (72).
Without sounding arrogant, I recognized a similar thought when I first read this passage. Part of that was simply because I spend most of my time reading, writing, thinking about reading, thinking about writing, and wondering what is possible in writing, or, more importantly, what can be accomplished in writing, and sometimes why I spend so much time thinking about writing and not actually writing.
I may sound arrogant, or desperate to sound clever, but I do believe a great many readers read lives of quiet desperation. Novels are mass produced that follow formulas and give the same material, and before my reader believes that I am now about to rail against mass produced paperbacks I promise that I am not. My aim is not to mock readers who willfully ingest such material, my aim is point a finger at the writers. Why is there no desire to play with language and try for something more?
I want to think that perhaps my great collection of essays will actually amount to something accomplished in words. Writing is my solace and my passion, but reading Wallace I was reminded again that it leaves me wanting for an opportunity to find something new. It’s not enough to tell a story about how I discovered a copy of The Stranger in my wife’s childhood bedroom and began reading it before describing its larger significance. The writing has to mean to something or do something that impacts the reader just as much as the material.
I want, and there is the card game. My writings are ever and always words thrown out to some unknown being in the world who stumbles upon this space, and when they read my words they discover that I have written sentences and thoughts not to myself but to others. It’s a cheap trick, but one in which I’ve developed a voice around.
Lipsky’s book could easily become just a long list of beautiful quotes that a casual or superficial reader will ingest to spit back out in conversations to sound smart, but in many ways the style of the book is unlike anything published that I have read because Lipsky manages to present me with the real human being that was David Foster Wallace. The interview format can lead certain writers to just kiss an individual’s ass and then get one or two good quotes from it, but the interactions between Lipsky and Wallace are not just the back and forth exploration of a career. These two men discuss music, publishing, relationships, fast food, movies, smoking, realties of the magazine market, and within every conversation there are moments Lipksy notes that change the dynamic of the text. Whether it’s being interrupted by an announcer three times at an airport, smacking Wallace’s dog when it gets too feisty, sharing a dirty joke, or just noting and reproducing Wallace’s Midwestern accent. These moments coalesce so that the interview becomes two people trying to find and understand one another not only because one needs the other to promote his book and the other needs a publication credit to help his career, it’s about finding each other’s humanity.
Near the end of the book Wallace seems to provide a final summation as they discuss why people are ugly towards one another in this contemporary period:
[Wallace:] It’s more like, if you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think its probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we’re here for is to learn how to do it. [Spits a mouthful into cup] I know that sounds a little pious. (292-3).
I’ll disagree with the man, suggesting only that pious may be incorrect, but at least virtuous, even if that word has fallen upon hard times. Wallace has secured a legacy as one of the great minds and writers of his generation with only a few essays and a few novels, and while that greatness is certainly one of the reasons I find myself warming to the man it’s this last bit where I really recognized his intellectual ability. The mark of a great mind is not necessarily making grand, sweeping generalizations, but small observations that lead to real insight.
More than any of that though, Lipsky’s book is at the heart of my recent Wallace explosion, for while it was some unknowable serendipity and influence that lead me to Infinite Jest, it was the social connection between a few of my friends that lead me to Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, and reading this book has helped me revaluate that tenuous connection.
Is it possible to feel another human being so truly and completely, feeling as if you might be so bold as to suggest that you know that person’s heart and soul but for a moment? The end result of Lipsky’s book is the impression of a long conversation that, at the end which seems almost like saying goodbye, you knew another person’s heart.
Few books bother leave such a stamp on a person’s soul, though many try, and we’re all left wanting for such moments.