Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Listening In On David Foster Wallace, My Favorite Dead Genius

david-foster-wallace-with-friend-by-marion-ettlinger We always remember how we came to read writers we particularly admire. When I first read David Foster Wallace, it was in a book of essays, Consider the Lobster, which I picked up in a bookstore in Rome. I remember very clearly reading “Authority and American Usage,” which is a dry title for a crackling funny and devastatingly smart look at how Americans speak English. I was on a bus, and it was raining, and I thought: I could happily read him describing a doorknob for 10 pages.

Readers should never pretend to know writers through their works. Even bearing this in mind, I came to view Wallace’s essays as something like a friend. I read him because I wanted to hear his voice, not because I was interested in cruise ships, lobsters, or tennis and trigonometry. When Wallace hanged himself in 2008, I couldn’t help but take his loss personally – his body of work, his voice, was now a closed circuit, having a beginning and an end.

Much has been published in his wake, but nothing so extensive as David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: a Road Trip With David Foster Wallace. The book is a more-or-less raw transcript of their travels at the end of a book tour in 1996. Lipsky’s interjections, set in italics, are brief. This is a tour of a dead man’s mind. But does it offer insight or morbid miscellanea?

Becoming Yourself is an interesting book, because beyond its binding, it isn’t really a book. A long wind-up provides the needed context: reporting for Rolling Stone, Lipsky linked up with Wallace for the last days of the Infinite Jest tour. As the pair drove, flew and froze in the Midwest, Lipsky grilled Wallace on everything from his life, his art, television, self-consciousness, action movies, drugs, alcohol and Jest, his 1100-page postmodern epic. But beyond that, it’s just Wallace talking. Prior to this, I wouldn’t say I could bear anyone jawing on for more than 300 pages, but Becoming Yourself makes for a brisk, fun read. Wallace gives us an easy ride.

He’s warm, but cagey at first; he’s done journalism (this is after he published the series of Harper’s essays that would become A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again). He knows the game. At his editors’ urging, Lipsky pushes Wallace on his relationship with whiskey, marijuana and black tar heroin; Wallace parries at first, then frankly admits to: a lot of pot in high school, and pills; some acid, also high school; heavy drinking prior to his admission to a mental hospital, though he said he lacked the constitution to be a serious drinker; a little heroin, once.

Wallace commands the conversation throughout. He once tells Lipsky he couldn’t win an argument against the reporter, though that’s hardly true; Wallace easily outbrains his companion, waltzing even when on the defensive (as when discussing drugs). Fans of Wallace’s rambling (but immaculate) prose might be surprised by the informal, jockish cadence to his conversations, dropping heavy dudn’ts and sumthuin’s; they seem somehow to fit his heavy, square frame, and towards the middle of the book, they start thudding out of Lipsky’s mouth, too.

Readers will inevitably sleuth for signs of darkness in Wallace’s words. He tersely tucks them away, but in retrospect, they’re all too obvious.

Discussing his time in a mental hospital, Wallace says he wasn’t “biochemically depressed” like fellow patient Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation. We now know he was, in fact, depressed – call it what you want, but he was medicated, and his 2007 attempt to shake the drug killed him. Watching Wallace skirt his demons (the parts about depression in Jest aren’t “exactly autobiographical;” real depression is “about a quarter mile down the road”) is painful. When Wallace insists he doesn’t want to romanticize depression, Lipsky notes in brackets: “Somehow this is the saddest.”

The best parts of Becoming Yourself are Wallace cracking wise, dropping bits of corn-fed wisdom, enjoying himself. While chiseling the ice off Lipsky’s car: “Don’t lose the scraper. This is my good-luck scraper. A good Midwestern boy develops a relationship with his scraper.” Before an NPR interview, when the radio-journo asks if recording digitally is okay: “So only yes and no answers?” And while watching Broken Arrow, a 1996 action flick starring John Travolta and Christian Slater, as recalled by Lipsky:

"In our theater seats, way up front, slammed against the screen: David a commenting and empathizing audience. His saying “Oh, boy,” when a guy gets thrown out of the train. “Oh jeez” when Christian Slater is going to jump into a railcar. And “Oh boy, oh wow, oh jeez” and then “oh wow” at the end, after Travolta and Slater go hand to hand and Travolta gets speared by a nuclear missile. He winces away from the screen—because he has a slightly soft face, when he winces his cheek kind of folds in. It’s got a lot of lines in it. And then he says, “That was a cool shot at the end when Travolta gets impaled by the thing.” Remember, he likes movies that blow up."

I disagree with Lipsky: this was the saddest. Watching Wallace in a moment of unguarded, childlike ease, gobbling down the sticky, doughy gunk of an action flick in a temple to the very mass-culture he tears down in Infinite Jest, I stopped missing his mind, his prose and the body of work we never got to see; I missed a person, someone I never knew.

Yes, there is a slight ghoulishness to reading Becoming Yourself and relishing Wallace in simple, vulnerable moments. It’s a good companion to Infinite Jest – Wallace is generous in his insights and analysis – but really, you’ll read it for Wallace. You’ll read it because you miss him –and, like the best of his writing, because it makes you feel less alone.

Photo credit: Marion Ettlinger