The End of the Tour is the nonfiction (well, fictionalized to some extent, because, for reasons I still don’t fully understand or agree with, you’re allowed to add falsehood to nonfiction movies in a way that would be considered clearly wrong in a nonfiction book) story of the 1996 encounter between young Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky and author David Foster Wallace.
After reading Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Lipsky lobbied Rolling Stone to assign him to interview Wallace for a feature piece in the magazine, and he ultimately got his wish. Lipsky met up with Wallace late in his book tour for Infinite Jest, and spent about a week with him, on the road and in his home.
Rolling Stone, though, never ran the piece Lipsky wrote, for whatever reason. (In a piece from after Wallace’s suicide that I read on the magazine’s website, they claim there were just too many newsworthy things going on at the time and so there wasn’t room for it, but I doubt that’s all there was to it.) Lipsky did write a retrospective on Wallace after his death for Rolling Stone, and years later he turned his account of this visit/interview with Wallace into the book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (which I have not read yet but is on my list to read in the future).
Basically The End of the Tour is the film version of Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.
As I’ve written about in multiple pieces, Wallace has become a very important writer in my life. Or really maybe it’s more accurate to say he has become a very important person in my life.
His fiction is kind of a mixed bag for me; I maybe get more out of it than I would most “postmodern” fiction, but frankly that’s faint praise. I suppose his nonfiction is kind of a mixed bag too—I certainly don’t love or agree with all of it—but really it’s from reading his nonfiction that I developed a strange feeling of connection with him that I’ve rarely felt with anyone that I only know as a writer or public figure, i.e., not someone I know in real life.
But again, I’m drawn to him as a person, not just drawn to his writing. The few talks and interviews of his that I’ve come across online I consistently find fascinating.
I’ve thought a lot about why he matters as much as does to me, why I wish I could have had some sort of friendship with him. (It’s not completely far-fetched that that could have happened, by the way; we were both graduate students at the University of Arizona at roughly the same time.) I don’t know for sure, but I have some ideas.
Part of it is that I sense that he’s the sort of person that generates that kind of attachment in a wide variety of people, and for a wide variety of reasons. That is, I suspect that many people have a “Wow, he’s a lot like me!” reaction to him, or a “He’s the kind of person I feel like I could really connect with, that would really get me” reaction to him, but in doing so are focused on very different aspects of him and his work.
I suppose what I find most fascinating about him is his moral sense, but more specifically his obsession with authenticity.
It’s a Holden Caulfield kind of thing, a realization that the world is filled with “phonies,” which is a realization that most people either don’t experience at all, or experience as a youthful phase that they recognize consciously or unconsciously they need to outgrow in order to succeed in the real world, which may be every bit as phony and imperfect as it seems to an appalled child, but is, after all, the only one that we’ve got.
And maybe some people fit into neither category; they see it when they’re young, but then they never learn to suppress that vision in spite of the huge pragmatic advantages there would be in doing so. This is where I think—and I may be completely wrong here—that I most overlap with Wallace.
It’s not that Wallace is all preachy about inauthentic people. I think it’s more that he sees modern social reality as so saturated with image, and selling out, and affectations, that it’s beyond the control or blame of individuals, that we’re all just kind of caught up in it whether we like it or not.
I wonder how that relates to his lifelong depression. Nowadays we’re taught to attribute such things to chemical imbalances or whatever, but I think he couldn’t help but actually live his life with his eyes open, and that the difference between what he saw and how things could be if people could somehow be real with each other was genuinely depressing to him.
But like I say, I suspect everyone has their own picture of him, and that those pictures vary enormously. You can look at his writings and how he lived his life and not at all see what I’m attributing to him (or see it as a minor part of him or a not very admirable part of him). So this is just “my” Wallace. (Or at least it would be if I could articulate it better. There’s a lot more to how I see him, and to why I feel such a connection with him, than is conveyed by the vague or simplistic things I’ve said here.)
When you feel this kind of odd closeness with someone, then it makes sense that you’d have an interest is seeing a movie about that person, but at the same time there can be a certain trepidation about it. The person is so real to you that any portrayal of him can seem inadequate; you can be hyperaware of anything in that portrayal that doesn’t match the real person, or at least the version of the person you’ve developed in your mind over the years.
I really wanted to lose myself in this movie, to experience it as if I were truly observing Wallace himself, but I didn’t have high hopes that that would actually happen. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to get past the realization that this actor (Jason Segel) simply isn’t Wallace.
But I have to say I bought Segel as Wallace from pretty early on. I was better able to experience this like documentary footage than I’d expected.
This is as close as I’m ever going to come to spending time with David Foster Wallace, and I’m pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t a lot more conscious of how it’s really not very close at all. I got caught up in the experience as I’d hoped, and I appreciate that.
One of my strongest initial impressions of Wallace (Segel) was his sheer size. He’s a hulking guy, especially in contrast to Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg).
I’m not saying at all that that’s a problem with the acting or the casting; it’s just not something I was previously aware of about Wallace, at least not consciously. Now that I think about it, it’s consistent with the little bit I’ve seen him in YouTube videos and such. But I guess it wasn’t obvious, because I saw him sitting, or I saw him standing alone at a podium. (I suspect if I go back and watch those same clips now it will be obvious after all, like, “Yeah, he’s a really big guy. How did I not see that before?”)
He’s not just tall, but pretty heavy as well. That’s maybe not surprising given his junk food-dominated diet as portrayed in the movie, but it’s not really what I’d expect of someone with his serious athletic background. Well, maybe if he had been an offensive lineman or something and later let himself go, but he was an accomplished youth tennis player.
I don’t mean he’s particularly intimidating sizewise—actually he’s decidedly schleppy—but his size is certainly something that grabbed my attention.
Come to think of it, Wallace is someone who doesn’t strike me as intimidating in general, physically or otherwise. In spite of the fact that he, a, is surely in the top 1% of the population in terms of IQ, b, at times can have a social awkwardness or shyness that borders on rudeness, and, c, achieved fame, I’ve always felt like I would be totally comfortable just chatting with him as an equal (which is not to say he’d necessarily have been the least bit receptive to that; we’ll never know).
In part that may be because I share two of those traits with him (a and b), but I’m sure it also relates to the fact that he lived very much as a “regular guy” (which is one of the things he and Lipsky converse about in the movie). Ironically, in spite of the fact that based on his abilities and accomplishments he deserves to be thought of as a “larger-than-life” figure, the only sense in which he comes across as that turns out to be physically.
Also, surely it’s relevant that he’s as self-deprecating and troubled as he is. Those aren’t traits that tend to intimidate those around a person.
Though I found the movie version of Wallace fascinating and wanted to spend as much time with him as possible and get to know him as well as possible, I mostly wasn’t drawn in by the movie version of Lipsky, especially early.
Not that he’s a bad, dumb, uninteresting, or unsympathetic guy; he’s OK I guess. Maybe it’s that he isn’t at all like I expect I’d have been if I could have spent an extended period of time with Wallace like this. Maybe it’s that I’m a little surprised Wallace would have opened up as much as he did to someone acting like Lipsky does, and been as comfortable with him. (Wallace says he’s terrified by this whole process, but that’s more his self-deprecating reaction to being interviewed in general. In fact, he loosens up surprisingly well with Lipsky, and in time they’re interacting like buddies.)
Lipsky is timid as an interviewer, very wary of bringing up topics he anticipates could be sensitive, like drugs or depression. His style is pretty much to affirm everything Wallace says, to encourage him to keep talking by being totally non-confrontational and just implying that he’s brilliant and right about everything.
Whether it’s phony and strategic, or genuine hero-worship, to me this “Yes, Socrates” routine is tiresome, and I’m surprised—assuming the depiction in the movie is at all accurate—that Wallace didn’t find it annoying. But as I say, he’s surprisingly open with Lipsky for much of the movie.
I just don’t see myself behaving that way if I had a chance to interview or converse with Wallace. I imagine I’d challenge him a lot more. I wouldn’t be afraid to disagree with him. I wouldn’t be afraid to raise topics he might not be comfortable talking about. I mean, if he refused to talk about something I’d accept that, but I wouldn’t refrain from mentioning it just because he might refuse to talk about it.
I liked Lipsky more as the movie went on, because as they got closer the emotions between them got more intense and Lipsky’s behavior became more genuine. (Maybe Wallace’s did too, but I saw him as mostly being himself from the beginning.) Even when those emotions were negative ones—there’s an interesting, semi-comic, sequence where each gets miffed at the other for the supposed disrespect of being a little too friendly with a woman from the other one’s life—it loosened things up in a good way.
But anyway, Wallace—including the Wallace of this movie—remains an intriguing person to me.
I was tickled by his politically incorrect remarks about wishing the book tour and his newfound fame in general were getting him laid more.
I thought his remarks about how praise affects him were interesting. It’s not unusual for people to claim that they don’t care about being lionized and all that, and often it comes across as false humility, but the way he did it didn’t really strike me that way.
He says that when you’ve trained yourself over the years to not be too adversely affected by negative reactions—which is something a person prone to depression is especially likely to do—one of the side effects of that is that you’re not affected as much as you otherwise might have been to positive reactions. This can be especially true, he notes, when the very reason you’ve developed to not be crushed when critics and book buyers don’t love you is that their opinions really aren’t all that relevant to what you’re trying to do as a serious writer. You can’t very well dismiss them when they’re ignoring or criticizing you, and then turn around and treat them as incredibly insightful about literary talent when they’re giving you rewards.
I think he valued informed criticism, pro or con. But as he said in a Charlie Rose interview that’s available online, much of the praise for Infinite Jest came so shortly after the book became available that he knew many of these people had only read part of it at most. Certainly they hadn’t had time to carefully read and digest the whole enormous thing. So how seriously can you take their praise? But I have to think if someone made the kind of remarks and asked the kind of questions that indicated he “got” Wallace and what he was up to in a given work, and who furthermore responded very favorably to the work, Wallace would have felt a certain pleasure in that. Not saying he would have been ecstatic, but I doubt he would have been completely indifferent to it.
Multiple times in their conversations Wallace’s obsession with authenticity comes out. If anything he’s more concerned about whether he’s deceiving himself about his own authenticity than he is about criticizing others, to the point that he becomes highly self-conscious about it. This is one of the reasons, in fact, that his recent conventional success doesn’t thrill him—he recognizes that when you gain in status, money, fame, whatever, it just raises the opportunities and temptations to sell out.
When Lipsky asks him about his trademark bandana, and they have a brief exchange about it, Wallace says that he wishes Lipsky had never mentioned it, because now he can’t stop thinking about whether he’s guilty of some sort of subtle strategic affectation (Lipsky had suggested that perhaps it had to do with his desire to connect with younger people) or at least whether his bandana wearing is perceived that way. So now whether he continues wearing the bandana or ceases to it will be an unavoidably intentional decision based on just the sort of images-and-how-they’re-perceived considerations that he doesn’t want to be influenced by.
Interestingly, Lipsky doesn’t perceive Wallace as being fully genuine with him. He accuses him of being phony in their interaction in certain respects. In keeping with my understanding of Wallace as putting a very high value on trying to be authentic in a world that makes it exceedingly difficult, Lipsky’s skepticism about his candidness seems to really bother him. He says something like “I don’t have the energy to be faux with you.”
I think he may be trying to convince himself as much as Lipsky though. The fact that he highly values authenticity doesn’t mean he always achieves it, or thinks he does. (He was guilty of a certain amount of embellishing in some of his nonfiction essays, for instance, which he himself recognized as unambiguously wrong.) So he may well be reacting not just to Lipsky’s doubts, but to his own concerns that to some degree they might be justified.
I really think that, toward the end especially, he wanted to open up to Lipsky, and to be recognized as doing so, rather than to play (or be perceived as playing) some game where interviewer and interviewee were trying to manipulate each other. He knew that realistically it was impossible for such manipulation to not be going on at all (he remarks to Lipsky at one point that he’s enjoying their interaction, but that after all “it’s not real,” i.e., to some extent they’re each bound by their social role and their differing agendas of what they want from this article), but he craved to make his interactions with people approach as closely as possible an ideal of openness and honesty.
Even when the touchy subject of his depression and how it might or might not be related to his problems with drugs comes up, and he initially reacts in a prickly manner and doesn’t want to go into it, he shows up hours later in the doorway of his guest room where Lipsky is staying in order to follow up with some clarifying remarks about it.
The little bit said here and there about his battles with depression—which he describes as worse than any physical illness one could have—are among the most attention-getting in the movie, especially since we know that in real life the story ends with suicide.
I have to think The End of the Tour will be much appreciated by Wallace fans—as it certainly was by me—and I also am inclined to believe it could be a good introduction to Wallace for people not already familiar with him and his work. I’m sure the latter could be argued either way—there’s a case to be made that one’s introduction to a writer should always be something they’ve written, and that delving more into them as a person is something that should come later if at all—but I would recommend this film even to those who have not yet read anything by Wallace, as he’s such an odd and fascinating guy.
I also liked the closing image of the film. There’s a real beauty to it. I won’t give away what it is, but one way to think of it is as illustrating that sometimes the best way to be authentic, and to sidestep the debilitating self-consciousness of whether you are or not, is to not be verbal at all and to lose yourself in the now.