I’m a person writing an article about a movie (The End of the Tour) about a person (David Lipsky) writing an article about a person (David Foster Wallace) who writes (most prominently Infinite Jest), but it’s probably a mistake to begin this article with that deadly pronoun (I), as it has really been quite problematic since Wallace’s suicide in 2008. Much of the ever-growing posthumous literature on Wallace seems captivated with trying to represent, or even "resurrect," in the words of movie reviewer David Fear, Wallace’s illusive pronoun since his death. The American public has proven unready to let Wallace go. A somewhat voyeuristic, memorializing, and exploitative conversation has emerged alongside a field of critical work on Wallace: Lipsky's recently published book (which serves as the basis of the new film); two recent biographies; the newly compiled anthology of Wallace's work; and, now, The End of the Tour: On the one hand, an artist’s product can’t be understood abstracted from the artist’s life; however, to see the artist’s text as a cryptogram, holding a secret and powerful knowledge of the artist’s life, is a shallow relationship to that work. In The End of the Tour, criticism of the romanticized idea of Wallace, and the relationship between the person and his work, gives way to romanticization itself. It’s not a failure of a movie (it premiered to wide acclaim at Sundance this year) and it will no doubt satisfy many of Wallace’s fans, but its core idea— to offer a window into the real David Foster Wallace—is a fundamentally flawed point of departure.
The movie follows aspiring Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) as he interviews Wallace (Jason Segel) at the end of his 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest. Imagine Almost Famous translated out of a musical context into a literary one. For the most part, a protracted conversation between the two writers—one aspiring and the other on the crest of critical success—deputizes for a traditional narrative. The one, intrigued by the success of the sprawling masterpiece of the other, wants to see if that other lives up to the words he has written. It’s likely a similar desire that has driven the film’s audience into the theater in the first place: the chance to meet a once-in-a-generation writer, a mega-hyped ‘genius’ destined to revolutionize literature.
In this sense, Lipsky is at the center of the film: it’s a tease when the audience sees Lipsky instead of Wallace in the first shot of the film, in which the young man sits in a cave of books, writing on his laptop. Wallace’s appearance is skillfully deferred, and the audience realizes that the movie is going to be about Lipsky, the reporter who gets to peep in on Wallace, instead of Wallace himself. It’s a perfect set-up to reach that unreachable (except via imagination) person we want so badly to understand. Lipsky is a fan of Wallace, but, like most of the audience, doesn’t actually know him.
The trick of The End of the Tour is that it plays at undoing the reductive, questionably exploitative work of a journalist writing for Rolling Stone, whilst accomplishing that very work once again in the form of a movie. The two writers speak often of the interview process itself: the license a writer has to twist words, frame actions, and paint a picture—a picture that will, above all, grab readers and sell magazines, even, potentially, at the expense of the interviewee. Both
feel ambivalent about the whole endeavor—Wallace for fear of misrepresentation and/or looking egocentric and Lipsky because he empathizes with Wallace. Both, after all, are writers. The End of the Tour is not the Rolling Stone article: it
is an image of the raw material for that article, before it gets sifted and manipulated with the ever-important quarterly earnings report in mind. But the difference between a real conversation and an image of that conversation is substantial. The movie is a conversation on display, rendered for an audience to relate to, take pleasure in, and pay for, not a private, safe, unprofitable conversation between two writers. Furthermore, any trust between Lipsky and Wallace (which might have been genuine back in 1996, when they actually spoke to each other) is a façade here. Wallace is not around to vet his own representation, which, although it might in some ways act as a tribute and an expression of truth, also turns him into a commodity.
One of the most potent recurring themes for David Foster Wallace was the impossibility of connecting to human beings via a spectatorial relationship to a TV screen—it’s always “to,” never “with.” In his essay “E Unibus Pluram,”
he remarks that “to the extent one begins to view pseudorelationships with Bud Bundy or Jane Pauley as acceptable alternatives to relationships with real humans, one has commensurately less conscious incentive even to try to connect with real 3D persons, connections that are pretty important to mental health.” In “Federer as Religious Experience,” Wallace is limpid about the same basic fact: “The truth is that TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love.” In other words, while television is far from condemnable, it is insofar as it presumes to substitute for real relationships. There’s maybe something perverse about an image that tries to say, “I’m real.” The End of the Tour’s lack of narrative and apparent artifice, rather than making the film a more appropriate mirror of reality, makes the whole film feel a bit awkward. The film doesn’t tell a story as other recent biopics do (The Social Network or Walk the Line, for example), but merely gives the audience an entry-point into a presumed ‘real’ experience—a conversation with Wallace. Under the weight of this mission, Segel’s performance often gives way to reality: words ring hollow, gestures seem uncanny put-ons.
But the most troubling aspect of The End of the Tour is the Wallace Estate’s forthright objection to the film. In a public statement from April 2014, the Estate said that “The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust, David's family, and David's longtime publisher Little, Brown and Company wish to make it clear that they have no connection with, and neither endorse nor support The End of the Tour.” The statement continues: “The individuals and companies involved with the production were made keenly aware of the substantive reasons for the Trust’s and family’s objections to this project, yet persisted in capitalizing upon a situation that leaves those closest to David unable to prevent the production.”
An expositive film on Wallace might have worked against the undue and damaging romanticization of Wallace as a ‘disturbed genius’: this one capitalizes on it. Lipsky is an example of the fan who doesn’t believe in Wallace-as-human being, and instead looks for spectacular displays of intelligence at every turn. Instead of just being with Wallace, Lipsky searches for a narrative that frames Infinite Jest as some comeback from heroin addiction or a hospital stint. Lipsky refuses to believe in Wallace as a person, and instead sees a genius in full control of his character: everything he says is carefully chosen, every atom of ‘regular guy-ness’ is a façade. Wallace protests, asserting his humanity, but does not convert his interlocutor—first in an argument as the two drive back to Wallace’s home, then at home, in a violent disagreement that erupts when Lipsky fishes for details about Wallace’s past. But in spite of these explosive conflicts, the film makes no substantial criticism of Lipsky’s relationship with Wallace: the two writer-bros part with tears in their eyes, and we cut to a scene of Lipsky eulogizing Wallace, years later (in spite of the fact that the two only spent a few days together and kept in zero contact afterwards). Perhaps if director James Ponsoldt had pushed their dynamic to a greater extreme, showing how romanticizing one’s idols obfuscates their humanity, he might have continued in Wallace’s tradition of critiquing American modes of escapism. Except now the object of critique would be the connection between an audience and the critic himself. Here it’s worth mentioning the conditions under which I saw the movie: in a big auditorium packed full of educated white people, many of whom would, I imagine, cite Infinite Jest as a favorite book. In other words, surrounded by Lipskyites, who, I worry, might be willing to overlook the Wallace Estate’s objections and the exploitative nature of such a film for the sake of getting a glimpse of their idol, just as Lipsky was willing to overlook the moral implications of writing an article (or, in the end, a book) that would sell.
Of course, The End of the Tour must be read in light of Wallace’s suicide, if not just because his not being alive is likely the only condition of possibility for the film, then also because his not being alive frames the film, serving as the entry and exit points of the movie. Before entering the movie, Wallace is dead—then, within the movie, at the beginning, Wallace dies again, and Lipsky proceeds to remember the time spent with him, before ultimately cutting back to the present in which Wallace just died—and then the movie ends, and Wallace is dead (really) once again. Because of this flashback format, the question of Wallace’s suicide lurks behind every Lipsky-Wallace conversation. Then, when the movie snaps back into the present, we hear Lipsky eulogize Wallace, ending the film in a moment of mourning. The whole movie/memory (which is Lipsky’s) is on account of Wallace’s death—and so to some extent it is a memory meant to explain Wallace’s death, or at least make it commensurate with Wallace and his writings. It’s also worth mentioning that the book on which The End of the Tour is based came out soon after Wallace’s death.
The market in which Wallace's work lives has in some senses been carved out by his death—it’s made it even more culturally profitable to read his work, and so economically profitable to make work about him. But now we’re seeing this market fold in on itself, and shape the work from which it springs. Wallace’s work (and work about it) is now such that, when read, because of its economic and cultural position, in fact critiques its own reading. How to reduce this paradox is beyond me.
ELI NEUMAN-HAMMOND B’18 is a Foster child.
The End of the Tour is coming to theatres in a limited-release on July 31.