The reputation of David Foster Wallace, the startlingly original author of Infinite Jest (1996), has undergone a change since his death in 2008. As of 2016, there has been an increased academic interest in his work, with several doctoral theses, monographs and collections of scholarly essays surfacing. But outside the academy, there has been a developing public interest, with the publication of a biography by DT Max, and the high-profile release of The End of the Tour, a Hollywood film depicting a three-day period of Wallace’s life after the publication of Infinite Jest.
Wallace has variously been described as a ‘genius’, and a ‘secular saint’. There is a reverence to a perceived shamanism in his work, primarily because of his posthumously released book This is Water (2009), in which he addresses the urgency of recognising that the ‘really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them’. There is a truth to what Wallace writes in This is Water, but it is a truth that was written as a commencement speech, and adheres to the structure and formula of that occasion. The fact that it has been published in book form has mutated it into something else, something that has an unintended weight in the consciousness of Wallace’s readers.
The End of the Tour shares some of the same problems. Set in the final days of Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest, the film sees the journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) interviewing Wallace (Jason Segel) as they travel around the American mid-west. It is adapted from Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (2010), a long interview that was originally for Rolling Stone (but was unpublished). The film is essentially about reception, with Wallace discussing how uncomfortable his sudden celebrity has made him because it takes the focus away from his work. Ironically, the film seems to ignore its subject’s anxiety about this, and presents a portrait of the man, not the work (in fact, there is none of Wallace’s work in the film, despite it being set at readings. Could this be down to a rights issue?).
The problem with this approach is that the film’s source material is one isolated interview, where Wallace is speaking about himself and his work in a very specific moment in time, and in an improvisational way (there’s an interesting line in the film where Wallace says he is only smart with time to think and access to his library). What Wallace said sometime in 1996, tired from a relentless book tour, has now been canonised as the official word (about himself, about America, about addiction). It has created a totemic Wallace, and this has the danger of altering the reception of Wallace and his work further.
The film ends with a tearful Lipsky declaring that the interview was ‘the best conversation I ever had’, which has the effect of promoting the relationship to something more than the three-day professional meeting it was. Perhaps this emotional presentation of Wallace is the only way to make a literary film accessible, but it does raise the question of who this film is for. Anyone who has a relationship with Wallace’s work is in danger of finding it unsatisfying and slight. Anyone who hasn’t read any of Wallace’s work may see a film about the conversational minutiae of a writer’s life and work as inherently boring.
Reading Wallace’s work is not an exercise in learning about the man, even in his experiential journalism, and it seems futile to try to build up a picture of who he was as a person. His work is powerful and important because it manages to represent human experience in amongst the data storm of modern life. He writes about loneliness and sadness, not as if these things are a monolithic force, but part of a wild array of human emotions (which makes his work both funny and moving all at once). Most importantly, he is an author concerned with making literary art, of telling adult stories in an infantilised world. His work is seductive and intelligent, but resolutely human and moral, which is perhaps why Wallace’s reputation has been easily packaged into that of the shamanic genius.
This piece was originally written for the Institute of English Studies Blog.