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Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace
By David Lipsky
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
DFW. David Foster Wallace. Like Pynchon and Joyce, the name conjures the very pinnacle of literary experimentalism. Combined with the hype surrounding Infinite Jest, his 1000-page magnum opus, and untimely death, David Foster Wallace's public persona evokes a literary figure one places on a very high pedestal. He stands above other luminaries like Jonathan Franzen, Bret Easton Ellis, and William T. Vollmann. When leaked images of Jason Segel dressed as DFW hit the Internet, you could set a watch to when the inevitable outrage would hit. I know, right? What next? The guy from 10 Things I Hate About You playing The Joker?
I haven't seen The End of the Tour yet, but I did have a chance to read Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, by David Lipsky. I read it concurrently with The Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, edited by J. Michael Lennon. I mention the book of Norman Mailer letters because these types of books show us, the reading public, another side of the author. Lipsky, assigned to write a story by Rolling Stone, met David Foster Wallace and followed him on a Midwest book tour for Infinite Jest. Unlike the celebrity and literary icon known to most, Although of Course gives the reader a very different image of DFW. He comes across as funny, extremely smart, and deeply conflicted about fame.
In the book, we follow DFW and Lipsky as they converse on a long road trip. DFW possesses a quirky hybrid personality: part-jock, part-hipster intellectual, part-author. We learn about his early life, his troubles with substance abuse, and his fragile emotional state.
Make no mistake, this isn't a book of two guys passing the time. Lipsky and DFW co-exist in a mannered joust of an extended interview. Lipsky needs to pry as much information as he can for the magazine story. DFW works hard not to reveal too much or come across badly. Throughout the interviews, they converse about the publishing industry, politics, pleasure, university life, and numerous other topics. The conversations are framed by Lipsky's introduction, which details DFW's clinical depression and his struggles with the side-effects of Nardil. Unfortunately, our culture still sees mental health as a sign of weakness and personal failing. When I first read about DFW's suicide in 2008, I didn't know how to react. I also knew very little about his mental state and his battles with depression.
Although of Course also offers little details that help to humanize DFW. His folksy pronunciation of certain words (dudn't, wouldna, etc.) and his chronic spitting from the chew jammed in his mouth. We see him with his two dogs, Jeeves and Drone. While many books out there analyze and investigate what DFW meant to the American literary canon, it was refreshing to read about him as a human being. Lipsky prods him about his "ordinary guy" persona and his privileged background (both parents are university professors; he studied philosophy at Harvard, etc.). DFW has a tough time coming up with answers to Lipsky's challenges. On the other hand, DFW's problematic public persona enriches his writing. He wrote digressive, intellectually challenging fiction and essays, yet he constantly strove to understand the inner workings of the American psyche.
I'm rating this lower than usual, not because it lacks merit, but for the opposite reason. It is a highly valuable book, but for a specialized audience. Unless you are an Infinite Jest or DFW fan, there might not be enough here to attract you. The conversations about editors and cutting and writing conferences may come across as incredibly tedious. But to those who enjoy DFW, the book is like a "Making Of" featurette on Infinite Jest. And an added bonus of seeing a literary icon as flesh and blood, foibles and vulnerabilities. Sometimes, when we see those names on the dust jackets, we can be a little reverent. Although of Course provides a way of grounding the reader. DFW watched Broken Arrow and ate at Denny's just like us.
Out of 10/8.9, but higher for David Foster Wallace completists and those interested in the mechanics of the publishing industry.