Strong, However, at Humming: On the road with David Foster Wallace

Biography, Book Reviews, Memoir, Nonfiction Add comments

By Rachel Sugar

On the heels of the unexpected ascent of “Infinite Jest” to the New York Times best seller list upon its publication, Rolling Stone sent David Lipsky to accompany novelist David Foster Wallace on the last leg of his book tour. The piece never ran. (Always publicity-ambivalent, Wallace was apparently less than heartbroken.) Fourteen years later, and two years after Wallace’s suicide, we have the results of the five-day, cross-country interview in the form of “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace,” a lightly edited transcript of Lipsky’s epic 1996 interview. In his introduction, Lipsky writes that what’s to follow “has the feel of a highway conversation. Late at night, the only car in the world, yelling at other drivers. It has the rhythms of the road: grouchiness, indefensible meals, and the sudden front-seat connections.” It is also in turns a fiction workshop, a buddy movie, a lecture series, a romance and a joke book.

For the acolyte, five days of David Foster Wallace is a dream come true, and even for the uninitiated, Wallace proves a pretty ideal traveling companion. Reading five days worth of anyone’s musings—even musings generated from a mind like Wallace’s—is occasionally trying. Again and again, the conversation circles back to the same handful of topics: Wallace’s discomfort with his sudden fame, his cautious indictment of excess, his self-professed youthful arrogance, his reflections on depression, addiction and television. He’s engaging, deeply likable and epigrammatically quotable. (On dating, for example: “Psychotics, say what you want about them, tend to make the first move.” On his first novel: “were a lot of people who really liked ‘Broom of the System,’ but unfortunately, they’re all about eleven.”) Wallace is also hyper-articulate and almost obsessively self-aware. Lipsky compares his company to “a slug of coffee.” On the page, though, his combination of intellect, self-consciousness and intensity is exhausting.

Exhausting, and worth it. “Although of Course” is probably most valuable for giving us access to Wallace’s powerful mind. At the same time, it manages to transcend the limits of the traditional interview, becoming a story in its own right. It is less “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” than “A Portrait of the Artists as Young Men.” Certainly Wallace does the vast majority of the talking—it is, after all, an interview, and Lipsky is a professional—but one gets the sense he’d rather it be a discussion. After a particularly open discussion of his history with depression, Wallace turns to Lipsky. “Just between you and me, so I feel like I’m talking. Is that, do you have any experience with anything like this?” In the interest of focus, or of privacy, Lipsky’s edited out his own answer. A discussion of marriage—like depression and television, it’s a topic they circle back to—comes closer to dialogue. “Why aren’t you married at thirty-four?” Lipsky asks. Wallace: “You first.”

An older, wiser Lipsky annotates the interview with short, bracketed comments. Some of them are factual, clarifying a particular reference, narrating a pause; others offer cinematic details—Wallace offering him half a pastry, Wallace scraping midwestern ice from his car. Lipsky also inserts more editorial commentary: “Hums while he plays chess: not tremendously good at chess; strong, however, at humming.” More than giving us a sense of Wallace, Lipsky is giving us a sense of himself. It’s through these intrusions that he becomes a character; so much of the pleasure (and power) of the book comes from the relationship that emerges between the two writers, both in their early thirties, long-haired, and ambitious. Wallace has just achieved Great American Noveldom. The younger Lipsky is still hungry for it. They’re a perfect match.

One of the things fiction can do, Wallace tells Lipsky, “has to do with the sense of… capturing what the world feels like to us, in the sort of way that I think a reader can tell ‘another sensibility like mine exists. Something else feels this way to someone else.’ So that the reader feels less lonely.” In the end, “Although of Course” gives a similar gift.

“Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace”
By David Lipsky
Broadway Books, 352 pages, $16.99

One Response to “Strong, However, at Humming: On the road with David Foster Wallace”

  1. Katie Says:

    Wonderful review/compelling invitation to read the book. It’s on my list now. Thanks for the recommendation.

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