The End of the Tour: A Pilgrimage for Flesh People
Aug 18, 2015 by Nickelodeon on The Nickelodeon Blog
Little, Brown & Co. published The Pale King in 2011. There was not much of a to-do about it at Pomona College, where David Foster Wallace taught until his death in 2008. The inattention surprised me at the time, not as much now—grief moves slower than the world around it. But in what will remain a morbid fact of my education, I only heard about Pomona through his death. I was in 11th grade, and my teachers were watching David Foster Wallace tell Charlie Rose things about David Lynch. I borrowed Consider the Lobster. I learned where he taught, and I pronounced it “ponoma” for a few days. The next year, I enrolled in the class of 2014, moved in August 2010. Shortly ahead of The Pale King’s publication in April 2011, a friend at the school newspaper who knew my devotion (a lesser disciple himself) tossed me the story. He pitched it as a retrospective assessment of Wallace’s memory now that his post had been filled and a back catalog of unreleased texts were rolling out as part of a carnoso-messianic revisionism cum capitalist feeding frenzy, still underway. It now includes an entry in Melville House’s grisly “Last Interview” series ($10.53 for ten pages if you’re in it for the last interview, though it comes prefixed with 115 pages of archival miscellany); a devotional-size edition of his 2005 Kenyon commencement speech, © David Foster Wallace Literary Trust ($11.23 for 144 pages at one sentence per page); and his senior thesis from Amherst, © David Foster Wallace Literary Trust, available for $12.55 from Columbia University Press via Amazon ($19.93 straight from the publisher for 80 pages of thesis plus context from the philosophical minor-leagues; all of these are presumably + s&h, by the way, now that the Hachette boycott is well over).
To our dewy undergraduate eyes, journalists overlooked Wallace’s legacy as it concerned Pomona. I was to rectify that, however slightly. I emailed a number of professors, any I presumed had worked upstairs from him in Crookshank Hall. I didn’t know that the English department had been undergoing a thorough staff turnover. From 2008 to my graduation, a little over half of the faculty changed. As a first-year, though, I just wanted to learn more about the guy who had decided my academic career for me. In a sense, I wanted to make sure that I had made the right choice, had followed the right person. That I had chosen wisely.
I received a number of very polite brush-offs. One professor invited me into his office, asked me to sit on his couch, and, very politely, told me he wouldn’t talk to me. Too fresh. I understood. Another professor consented to be recorded. Five years after that conversation, I only remember that he remembered that Wallace was very tall. A new, very smart poetry professor occupied his old office. In the Mulhauser room, up the stairs, where he held his creative writing courses, hung a plaque with the photo from the reprint of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The replacement creative writing professor held his classes in a basement room that, somehow, got more light. California, I suppose—shallow basements. By way of introduction on the first day of class, we went round-robin to say why we decided to take creative writing. One student explained, bluntly, that is was because of David Foster Wallace, and how his absence deeply saddened her. I checked the replacement’s response. Affectively indecipherable. Otherwise, I recall three professors reference Wallace in class in four years, one to apologize for his own lackadaisical attitude toward grammar.
I apologized to my friend, ditched the article. Went into town and bought a copy of The Pale King, hardcover, two weeks before its official release (indie store rules). I still haven’t read it. The paperback edition, © David Foster Wallace Literary Trust, contains four “previously unpublished scenes.” The latest posthumous collection of essays, this time all Wallace, © David Foster Wallace Literary Trust, bared its mythologizing impulse with painful finality: Both Flesh And Not. They chose that over “Back in New Fire,” or “The Empty Plenum.” More expensive in paperback, for some reason, at $13.78 for 336 pages in early-reader-sized type.
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At the risk of creating a mise en abîme of white boys writing, we should consider the controversy that has dogged The End of the Tour since the film’s announcement. No amount of cinematic pedigree justified the project, seen by turns as a desecration, misreading, cash-grab, or simple folly. That the source text, a nearly complete transcript of the five days journalist David Lipsky spent shadowing Wallace on the Infinite Jest book tour for a profile that remained unwritten until Lipsky threw away any pretense to literary distillation and published it whole-hog in 2010 as Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, received as many (aesthetic and philosophical) accolades as (ethical) condemnations, that screenwriter Donald Margulies won both the Pulitzer and a Guggenheim Fellowship, that Jesse Eisenberg is one of American cinema’s great actors and Jason Segel one of its potentially great actors (in search of the right role), or that director James Ponsoldt’s films have been consistently attuned to the emotional intricacies of binary relationships, could not counter the first vision the public got of the film: a truly doofy civilian photo of Segel in full Wallace regalia aiming a bewildered stink-eye at nothing in particular. It’s the face easily conjured by, say, the entirety of “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” yet it seemed to confirm everyone’s fears.
About a month after that photo made the rounds of people interested in the celebrity-literature-schadenfreude nexus (i.e. readers of DFW), the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust openly condemned the film; just last month, his longtime and deeply collaborative editor, Michael Pietsch, dismissed it by misreading the concepts of cinema, realism, phenomenology, and love in one sentence: “The existence of a mythification of this brief passage of his life strikes me as an affront to him and to people who love his writing”; and Glenn Kenny, film critic and colleague, has had the latest word, calling Segel’s performance “ghoulish self-aggrandisement,” among other formalist indictments. (However, his opinion is not widely shared.) No small amount of controversy attended Lipsky’s book, but it was less institutional than a mere question of taste. Visual depiction and embodiment follow different rules though. Ventriloquism actualizes fantasies; profiles, interviews, biography, can only clarify them. “David would never have agreed that those saved transcripts could later be repurposed as the basis of a movie,” the Trust said in their statement. They may be correct. Wallace’s equal lust and distaste for fame are not only on the record, they are embedded in his writing, explicitly and implicitly. His project navigates, on the one side, the capitalist lie of mass culture as the theater of transcendence, and on the other, literary theory’s murder of a coherent Author, Reader, or Text; literary celebrity is the ultimate stage of this conflict.
As such, very curiously but I suppose predictably, few authors have inspired as much biographical speculation, investigation, and presumption as Wallace. Lipsky’s book was something of a windfall, but The End of the Tour has very politely attempted to forestall the messianic impulse that has attended such biographical interest. In that way, it fights against its own source material. Ponsoldt went so far as to say, “The only thing we’re claiming to do is to try to tell David Lipksy’s story.” Or, more elaborately:
This is David Lipsky’s very, very subjective take of his time spent with Wallace. It’s his story about spending a few days with David Foster Wallace, who was a stranger to him, and about how Lipsky was affected by that time. We can’t speculate what Lipsky meant to Wallace. I don’t know. . . . We’ve all had that experience of meeting someone that means a lot to us—whether it’s professionally or a strange relative, an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend, whatever—and we get that five minutes with them or that afternoon coffee and they’re never exactly what we think they’ll be. Or rather, they’re never what we want them to be because people are incredibly complicated, and people are different things to different people.
That is both accurate and generous, because while the film’s emotional arc is primarily Lipsky’s, no one is putting money on down on a ticket for the inside scoop on the author of respectable journalism like Absolutely American (though they might for Segel & Eisenberg, were the world just).
But that’s the curious power of The End of the Tour: its gentle direction, rhythmically shifting dialogue, and disarming performances realign your object of interest. The various personal Wallaces his readers will bring to the film melt into a very particular vision of the author, one devoid of the superhuman will we imagine necessary to write something like Infinite Jest. It is not an ultimate, or a true, or a subversive, or a controversial vision. It is a vision as in a visitation. Lipsky has been forced out of joint by Wallace’s writing, unsettled and modified. He wants Wallace’s fame and skill, but more than that he wants to be able to impact Wallace’s life as much as his own has been impacted. The End of the Tour dramatizes that human desire to reach outward, not as a desire but as a defense, a reflex to exercise control over people who we feel have controlled us. We covet and protect the imaginative catalog of American human types that constitutes Wallace’s literary corpus because of an irresolvable category error in which we mistake identification between the written person and the writing person. We identify with Wallace’s Midwestern bumpkins, head to plate, but also our ethnographer’s swaddling snark. He revealed many of us to ourselves. We hold ourselves in our palms when reading his work, we pass along a form of our body in lending the collections to friends. We buy ourselves back from the Literary Trust. This is why it’s so powerful to think of DFW as both flesh and not, an incorruptible saint, as the liminal, dyophysitic prophet reporting from over the edge of self-consciousness, as the messiah: for all of the power messiahs may wield over you, they always listen back. We have our own emotional power over them, even if only as a reflex. It always feels like desire, though. And in the receding actuality of the historical, pulsing, mercurial David Foster Wallace that The End of the Tour both conjures and denies, sometimes it feels personal—a doomed pilgrimage into the heart of a misanointed messiah. Flesh, you see, dissolves.