Of Katherine Hepburn’s death, Zadie Smith wrote the following:
Two days ago she died, aged ninety-six. I don’t know why I should be surprised, but I was, and when I found out, I wept, and felt ridiculous for weeping. How can someone you have never met make you cry?
I’m not the first to express a similar sentiment about the death of David Foster Wallace. There’s a crucial difference, however. His death, for those of us well outside of his intimate circle, was a very big surprise indeed. Still — Smith gets this part just right — to have felt so ragged after his death felt strange. I felt somehow orphaned.
Intimacy is concentric, and fortunately for those of us stuck in orbit on the outer rings surrounding the bright light that was David Foster Wallace, David Lipsky was admitted to a nearer circle during the final week of the book tour for Infinite Jest. Or, I should say, he was admitted to one slightly more interior circle and seems to have worked his way yet closer. And he recorded it all.
Just out from Broadway Books, Lipsky’s chronicling of a handful of days on the road with Dave (I’m going to call him Dave sometimes from here on out, because it makes me feel better and because the book made me think of him as Dave) might have been a savage, painful read. I expected as much, imagining myself with a box of tissue in a dimly lit room trying once again to work out how a guy like Dave could be gone and what the ramifications of that were for a know-nothing yutz of a no-talent hack like me.
With one minor exception in part of the afterword, Lipsky has avoided the maudlin, and instead of finding myself wallowing in the book and the sadness that attends the realization that its subject is no longer with us, I found it invigorating and validating and playful and fun and mostly delightful.
Lipsky gives us something of a soft landing in the preface, which provides just a teensy bit of background information before setting us gently on our way. The afterword he places curiously before the main body of the text, but even this turns out to be a considerate gesture, for Lipsky wants to leave us with the words of the living Wallace rather than sending us home from the journey with a meditation on his death. Read the afterword when you will, Lipsky advises us, at some break of your own choosing within the text.
I, being sort of rigidly conformist in some ways, chose to read the afterword last, and even that turned out to be an ok decision. For though there was that one crushing moment in the middle of the afterword, Lipsky leaves us with two wonderful things. First, he has given us a picture of Dave as a real live human being (with flaws, yes, but with many personalizing charms as well), which sister Amy had written that she hoped might happen. And second, looking back to a conversation about books as a way of seeking refuge from loneliness, Lipsky closes by saying this lovely thing about his road trip with Dave: “I’d tell him it reminded me of what life was like, instead of being a relief from it, and I’d say it made me feel much less lonely to read.”
This sort of escape from the loneliness of the inner self was, of course, one of Wallace’s projects. Late in the road trip, Dave says, of the particular edge good fiction has over other art forms:
And the big thing, the big thing seems to be, sort of leapin’ over that wall of self, and portraying inner experience. And setting up, I think, a kind of intimate conversation between two consciences.
I am in here.
I’ve listened to many interviews and readings Dave gave, and so I have something of an idea of what he must have been like to listen to. Yet in interviews and readings, people tend to speak in different registers than in everyday life. (I’m reminded of the distinction Dave makes in the grammar essay between time and place for saying “that ursine juggernaut bethought himself to sup upon my person” and “goddamn bear!”) One of the great pleasures of Lipsky’s book for me was his emphasis on Dave’s midwesternisms. They reminded me always that Dave was, mostly (especially after the first day or so of the trip), just a guy having a conversation. Taken in hand with the audio I had previously heard of Dave, they made Lipsky’s transcription seem real and alive. I felt as if I could hear Dave himself speaking the words. It was kind of Lipsky to have emphasized this for us.
Some have complained that Lipsky himself was too present in the text, that he peeks in with a too-high frequency with brief bracketed interpolations. I found the interjections helpful and well-meaning where others have found them self-serving and annoying.
The deeper into the book I got, the more pages I dog-eared, so that by the end, I figured I might as well just enlist the help of a strong friend and fold the corner of the whole book down on itself. The two men talk about movies, parties, fame, loneliness, the genesis of Infinite Jest, and much more, and it’s all riveting.
Lipsky’s book is a real gift. He brings us maybe one concentric ring closer to a sort of intimacy with Wallace, who sought in his work to learn how to leap over (and outward from) the walls of the self in which he was (we are) imprisoned. While Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself can’t help but remind us of Wallace’s death, it is most concerned with a pivotal point in his life, and it was — contra my fears — a real joy to read. Gaudeamus igitur.