Sunday, April 3, 2011

Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky

Among the many factors that can determine the longevity of an artist's career beyond his lifetime is a compelling life story - one that adds the barest seasoning to an already intriguing catalog of work. Because of this, David Foster Wallace is well on his way to becoming the transcendent American author of our times, judging by David Lipsky's recent book, "Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace." The book is equal parts mythmaking and mythbusting, allowing the reader to engage in whichever feels right.

With the release of David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel "The Pale King" only weeks away, I thought it was time to tackle this work, which frankly cries out to be made into a movie. It's an obvious road picture, as Lipsky transcribes the running dialogue he recorded between himself and Wallace during the book tour for "Infinite Jest." Lipsky taped their conversations as part of a profile he was preparing for "Rolling Stone." Wallace was flush with success, his likeness gracing news magazine covers, the words of his cult sensation essays gratefully quoted, his abundant ambition evident in his newly published 1,000 page novel. He arrived in the popular consciousness like a thunderclap, and twelve years later was dead by his own hand following his surrender to clinical depression.

Because of Wallace's tragic end, it is impossible to read these conversations without feeling various emotional tugs - poignant appreciation of how talented he was, a mournful anger when considering what was ahead of him, a knowing laughter at some of his opinions, seasoned with humor. What grabbed me in reading it was the spiritual dimension to many of his observations.

When reading, it's necessary to remember that Wallace is not offering his opinion out of a need to express himself. He's selling a book, and its a book that he knows is good and will forge his reputation as a serious American writer. Moreover, he's responding to questions designed to ferret out his opinions on life, his background and what he's hiding about his nervous breakdown and drug use, and his answers (and off the record comments) are calibrated to satisfy a reporter's curiosity.

The book is overflowing with his particular persona, right down to the awkwardly structured, overly long title, which comes from one of Wallace's statements. It's amazing how vague the dialogue is. Wallace is hesitant to make a definitive statement, so he qualifies his statements, and sprinkles them with mitigating phrases, and kinda, sortas and maybes, like, abound. This is a painfully self-conscious dialogue, as the interview is self-conscious when the interviewee is overly conscious of what he perceives are his own inadequacies to the moment itself. But he is also refreshingly honest about some aspects of his career, such as how unsatisfying he thinks the ending to "The Broom of the System" was. He both praises and savages John Updike, and points out the flaws of Stephen King while at the same time lauding him. He believes that the death of serious reading will mean that identity has also ceased to exist. He sees the flaws in experimental writing. He has endless riffs on movies. All of these observations are laid out in caffeinated, postcollegiate patois, complete with all the you knows, uhs, and likes that we all struggle against in our own daily speech. Some of this is superficial pedestrian woolgathering masquerading as philosophy, and some of it is brilliant observation. The distance between the two isn't all that great.

Wallace also lays out some of his theories on what it will take for the writer to grab the attention of his over-stimulated, undereducated, 24-hour-news cycle audience. As Wallace is talking, we are pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, with the Internet only just beginning to grab the attention and time of the public. What strikes Wallace, again and again, is the "loneliness" of modern life - how little connectivity has actually connected anyone. And upon reading, the horrifying reality is that this condition has only worsened since these interviews took place.

But Wallace also believes that human beings are "absolutely dying to give ourselves away to something." He believes this, but he also believes it is virtually impossible to write in a contemporary voice about God:

"I mean the culture, it's all wrong for it now. You know? No, no. Plausibly realistic characters don't sit around talking about this stuff. You know? So...I don't know. But the minute I start talking about it, it just, it sounds number one: very vague. Two: really reductive. And the whole thing to me was so complicated, that you know it took sixteen hundred pages of sort of weird oblique stuff to even start to talk about it. And so feel stupid, talking about it."

Of course, the real characters of this book are talking about it, and neither sounds like Dostoevsky. So why does he feel uncomfortable talking about it? "Because I don't have a diagnosis. I don't have a system of prescriptions," he says. Yet later, he and Pinsky understand that modern America and their generation is growing up in "the rubble of the old system" - that is, the "ridiculous and hypocritical...old authoritarian...don't-question-authority stuff." But, like Jonathan Franzen, Wallace has nothing to replace it with, no direction to point to, no diagnosis, no prescription. He knows enough to know that the same generation is "dying...on the toxicity" of the idea that pleasure and comfort provide the ultimate meanings for life.

"I'm talking about the number of privileged, highly intelligent, motivated career-track people that I know, from my high school and college, who are, if you look into their eyes, empty and miserable. You know? And who don't believe in politics, and don't believe in religion...And who just..who don't believe in anything. Who know fantastic reasons not to believe in stuff, and are terrific ironists and pokers of holes. And there's nothing wrong with that, it's just, it doesn't seem to me that there's just a whole lot else."

But reading this, it's evident there is indeed something wrong with that, and Wallace knows it. One wonders whether he did have some idea of what was wrong, but didn't feel comfortable providing an answer. I'm not suggesting a Christian answer, though it is interesting that Wallace leaves Pinsky to go to a church where "everyone more or less wants to leave each other alone." Much of Wallace's work deals with the loneliness, the lack of meaning, the aimlessness of existence, and the search for meaning, or just, how to kill time. But a writer with the ambition to write an epic novel, with the courage to look at the hole in modern existence, is also mature enough to recognize that he doesn't have all the answers. The question of existence remains. Being able not to believe in something isn't necessarily a strength, when one ultimately doesn't believe in anything at all.

In the book's forward, Franzen provides an observation: "Does it look now like David had all the answers?" In retrospect, we can see that he at least was on to the right questions. But Lipsky's epitaph resounds: "His life was a map that ends at the wrong destination."
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1 comment:

  1. I'm trying to find the source of the title "Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself" - do you know in which statement this was said?