Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself
Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky recalls the five-day journey he took with David Foster Wallace during Wallace’s 1996 “Infinite Jest” book tour.
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Writer Mary Karr, who dated Wallace in the early 1990s, said of him, “Data went into his mind, and it would just set off sparks. Wildly funny, unbelievable wattage, such a massive interest in and curiosity about his place in the world. He had more frames per second than the rest of us, he just never stopped. He was just constantly devouring the universe.”Skip to next paragraph
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On this road trip, we see Wallace devouring the universe these two men inhabit. We see it in Wallace’s attention to detail – his complete absorption in reading the Boeing airplane literature – the card no one else reads.
Wallace’s writing mentors told him that “the details matter.” Lipsky, too, gives us that detail – from tobacco spit containers Wallace uses to public address announcements that Wallace riffs on. Sometimes the detail comes in the form of a telling question. “Does this make sense personally?” he asks, when talking about a “sort of an artistic and a religious crisis” he had in 1989.
Lipsky thinks that Wallace is flattering him or trying to get him on his side. I think Wallace is seeking compassion. He wants to know if Lipsky struggles with thisdifficulty in being alive.
Wallace hit his “midlife crisis” at age 27, when he went into a suicide ward while studying philosophy at Harvard. Wallace says he wasn’t alone at the time when he hit bottom; others he knew experienced their lives falling apart at this age, too.
But the difference is that 12 years later Wallace would take his own life. We are reading this book from the uncomfortable place of knowing that while Wallace made it through his crisis, he would not have the 40 years ahead he (and we) had hoped for.
The compassion readers saw in “This is Water” (the commencement address Wallace delivered at Kenyon College in 2005) is everywhere apparent here. Wallace talks about loneliness and the companionship provided by reading a 1,000-page book. Of course, Wallace watched tons of television growing up – which fueled his concept for “Infinite Jest,” but in the Wallace household, everyone also read – together, in the same room. Now, he notes, technology enables us to avoid being in the same room together.
Wallace talks about fear, “the emptiness at the core of the self,” and how, if it can be assuaged, “it’s by internal means.” He points to the importance of treating one another and ourselves “with decency and love, and pure uninterested concern.”
In one ironic moment, he notes: “I really need to find a few things that I believe in, in order to stay alive.”
Perhaps the book’s most moving dimension is the fact that Wallace didn’t know where his own journey would end.
“Art finds a way of taking care of you,” Wallace says, and puts you “in a place where you are more alive.” Wallace’s aliveness is the most compelling part of this book. His humor, his pathos, his brilliant delivery – his tendency to explore the experience of living even as he’s living it – make this book sing.
If art is a way of caring for others, Wallace cares for us through the novels, short stories, and essays he left behind. And Lipsky, in the wake of Wallace’s death, gives us a narrative that does the same.