The only thing that strikes me as more daunting than being inside the thought process of David Foster Wallace might be the experience of being inside the head of the person writing his biography.
If experimental and avant-garde writing “can capture and talk about the way the world feels on our nerves,” as Wallace believed, then David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace is an avant-garde biography of how the world felt on Wallace’s nerves.
If you want a linear read, this biography is not for you. If you’re a Wallace fan, however, you’re not looking for a linear book. But you do want one that pushes you. And Lipsky pushes.
“Art requires you to work,” Wallace tells Lipsky, on their five-day journey during the tail end of Wallace’s 1996 “Infinite Jest” book tour.
Lipsky was sent on the road by Rolling Stone magazine to write a piece on Wallace, then 34, who was considered one of the most important young writers of the time.
A contributing editor at Rolling Stone, Lipsky’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, the New York Times, and other major publications; his stories have been anthologized; and he has won numerous awards. His books include “The Art Fair,” “Three Thousand Dollars,” and “Absolutely American.”
In “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” Lipsky is not telling us about Wallace’s life: He is showing Wallace living his life. His book could only have been written after spending five days with Wallace, on what Wallace calls “our hypothermia smoking tour of the Midwest.”
Wallace and Lipsky argue and taunt each other on topics ranging from avant-garde art to the addictive nature of entertainment (the central theme of “Infinite Jest”), to the exhausting years, months, and weeks leading up to the release of Wallace’s book.
Together they journey from reading to reading, state to state, in diners and airports. In freezing weather, in smoke-filled cars, amid canceled airline flights, the men talk and Lipsky tapes.
“A good book teaches the reader how to read it,” Wallace says. Lipsky’s book offers no road map but we figure it out.
The book features nearly verbatim interviews. Lipsky includes his questions and summarizes parts of the conversation. Contextual data lands on the page, with liberal use of brackets. We get what Wallace himself was after in his own writing: “all the French curls and crazy circles.”
It will either drive you mad, or you will love it for all its messiness. One thing is certain: If you didn’t already love Wallace, this book will make you love him.
There are things here that fans or friends may take umbrage with: disclosures Wallace himself might not have appreciated (his comments about other writers); possible outcomes of the book tour (you’ll have to read the boook to find out); and asides that could detract, if you let them.
But focus on the book’s form or its hiccups and you will miss its purpose. Lipsky, I believe, is being purposefully messy or expansive, a critique some reviewers made of “Infinite Jest.”
The purpose is to get us inside Wallace’s head, and Lipsky takes us there. More aptly, he doesn’t interrupt Wallace as he takes us there. We get to see every synapse firing.
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.”
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.