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Don’t Believe the Hype: David Foster Wallace and The End of the Tour

By Christopher Schaberg.

1. There is a clever scene in the closing minutes of James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, when David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) is out in his driveway scraping snow and ice off his Honda Civic, and David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) furtively takes last-minute notes as he makes his final observations around Wallace’s frumpy home. At one point Lipsky enters a nearly pitch black room, and we see a dim ray of light wash over Wallace’s writing desk: we get a glimpse of a well-used personal computer, a notepad and pen, bookshelves against the wall…. It is the wish image of a writer’s sacred den, a domestic shrine that emanates the residual aura of the Author at work. It strikes me that this is one of the things some viewers want from this movie, and maybe from David Foster Wallace in general: the architectural plans, the supply list and tools, for writing—for really being a certain kind of writer. Of course it’s just a fleeting glimpse, and we know the movie is wrapping up at this point, soon to fade out.

2. I saw the film on a Saturday morning in New York City the day after it opened. The theater wasn’t crowded at all; the vibe was mellow and subdued. I chuckled several times throughout the film, but I didn’t hear anyone else laughing. The experience was like sipping warm Earl Grey tea while someone tells you a long and sometimes unintentionally funny story in a comfortable if awkward living room. I watched the movie with a former student of mine who now lives in the city. This student is working hard to become a writer—I mean to really be a full-time writer, and I sincerely believe he has what it takes. Just two nights before, we had workshopped one of his new essays, apiece that overtly grapples with—and extends—David Foster Wallace’s classic essay “Consider the Lobster.” This student was in my David Foster Wallace seminar at Loyola University New Orleans the first time I taught that class, in 2011; Wallace is one of the writers who inspired my student to want to write, and to think critically about the world. So it made sense that we should go to The End of the Tour together. I had also considered seeing the film the night before, with a few friends, as Wallace kept coming up in conversation over dinner. (In the end, we were all too tired, and we dispersed to continue our individual, ordinary lives.) But so Wallace is in the air, and there are a lot of opinions, attitudes, and emotions swirling around The End of the Tour.

3. And here’s the thing: the movie is perfectly okay! It’s a well-made film, with admirable acting, nicely detailed regional touches (Joan Cusack in a Ford station wagon is Minnesota), and tense moments that are deftly handled from a cinematic perspective. It is also a movie of ideas, as Steve Zeitchik noted in the L.A. Times. It raises for consideration some (if not all) of the central concerns of David Foster Wallace’s writing: existential loneliness, the threats of increasingly immersive technologies, and the risks of constant entertainment, rampant consumerism, and celebrity culture. Nothing in the movie breaks from the overt themes of Wallace’s actual writings, unless you want to go meta and insist that the movie itself is everything Wallace would have hated—but then, the joke is on us, too, as in one scene Wallace, Lipsky, and friends sit in a familiar looking theater watching a movie, and we all sort of gaze obliquely at one another for a few odd moments.

4. One thing that hit me as we watched the film was just how ordinary it all was: the movie, the treatment of the characters, the airport scenes, the car rental lots, the appetites temporarily satisfied with junk food, the outbursts and mumblings…. There is a scene in which Lipsky practically begs Wallace to admit he’s brilliant, and Wallace rebuffs him. Wallace values his “regular-guyness” not as an affectation but as a survival tactic, and as a sincere reality. This is a reality (and not just of being a writer) that we are reticent to admit or openly embrace: no one escapes the ordinariness of everyday life; no one escapes being regular. No one. Sure, there are moments (at widely different scales) of excitement, passion, genius, violence, and rage…there are inequities and injustices that are horrible and that we (hopefully) work to address or redress…. But these are all set against a profoundly mundane backdrop—really the overwhelming foreground—of ordinary life. Wallace’s writings wiggle into the ordinary, the regular, even when his topics occasionally appear charged or esoteric at first blush. But, too, writing is ordinary. It’s just a life, just a form of living life.

5. Two of the most common complaints about the film so far have been A) Wallace would NEVER have approved of or been comfortable with the movie, and therefore it should not have been made, and B) Jason Segel doesn’t do an accurate job of representing Wallace—it’s a caricature, a greatly exaggerated animation of the Author’s tics and foibles. These objections often follow one another, but they are something of a contradiction: presumably, if Segel had captured Wallace perfectly, or if the casting had been different and preferred, the role would be more permissible? On the other hand, if one truly believes on principle that the film should not have been made at all, then there is nothing to talk about in terms of the film itself. It should be a conversation stopper. Instead, it’s a floodgate. If we want to talk about the film, well then we enter into complex topics such as the work of art, the politics of representation, the society of the spectacle, and so forth. And IF we want to talk about art, we can make no easy judgments, segmentations, or prioritizations between the film and the novel, the fiction and the nonfiction, the life and the death. We have to plunge in.

6. As I mentioned above, I teach a class on Wallace’s work at Loyola University New Orleans, and so I’ve witnessed some of the intellectual gymnastics, interpretive tendencies, and gut responses that contribute to the turmoil around this latest incarnation of Wallace. My students (and I should say they are usually 50/50 female/male, and not just white) tend to come to the class either as fans or incredibly leery of Wallace, or sometimes somewhere in between: neutral, genuinely curious (their older sister or brother used to lug around a tattered copy of Infinite Jest). Either way, my students share a desire to know what the deal is with this writer: Was he really a genius? If so, can we beat him at his own clever games? (Out-write him, out-critique him—at the very least, outlive him?) And if he’s not the genius he’s cracked up to be, why not, and what’s the hype all about then?

7. I recently wrote an essay about the phrase “critical thinking” that began with a brief quandary in one of my classes concerning Wallace’s short story “Incarnations of Burned Children.” I learned from my students that this story is apparently a staple of some introductory creative writing courses. So what is it about “Incarnations of Burned Children” that beginning writers are supposed to learn? How to create detached perspective, sentence pacing, narrative suspense, offbeat description…writerly things, things having to do with writing about the world, writing in the world, writing the world. How to tell a story. The story itself is allegedly about childhood trauma and the ripple effects on family, culture, modern life—ripple effects that reverberate both directions, in & out. But as a piece of writing it’s something taken also to be an inspiration to write. Wallace was a writer; Wallace taught writing, and his writings continue to generate more writing: as homage and in admiration, as literary criticism and history, and now as an oblique form of reflexive cultural critique: what would he think of this movie? And does that even matter?

8. One question we have to back up and ask is whether this new movie will encourage people to write. Indeed, it has already prompted numerous responses in prose: see the incisive reviews, reflections, and reactions by Anna Shechtman, David Edelstein, A.O. Scott, Glenn Kenny, Mike Miley, Jason Tanz, Hannah Gerson…the list goes on. If all this writing is not exactly like Wallace’s in style or form, is it at least in a similar critical vein, or probing spirit? (Raising questions of media, writing, self-awareness, irony, etc.?) And if so…what’s the problem exactly? To put it bluntly: What do we want from Wallace, if not avid engagement with Wallacean thinking and writing?

9. Yet if we do want to do justice to Wallace’s actual writing, don’t we need to think a bit more flexibly—I almost want to say dialectically—about fiction and non-, about these things in tension called authors, stories, movies, and, well, contemporary life? If Wallace provides us with one useful tool, isn’t it an unsettling device, like a hammer claw for the brain? Where we think things are nailed down and sealed tight, they’re really not, or shouldn’t be. We must loosen our most deeply held assumptions, our habits of thought and action. If we have our minds made up about the accuracies or inaccuracies of The End of the Tour, its pure motives or ill intents, aren’t we falling into just the sort of hermeneutic trap that Wallace would point out and (however quietly or circuitously) decry?

10. In a 1969 essay called “What is an Author?”, Michel Foucault proposed the following: “Writing unfolds like a game that invariably goes beyond its own rules and transgresses its limits. In writing, the point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to pin a subject within language; it is, rather, a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears.” In The End of the Tour, the maximalist novel Infinite Jest seems to exert this gravitational pull—both on the author as well as on readers and potentially predatory journalists. As an act of writing, it has this slippery quality that galls Lipsky and Wallace alike: as much as the novel exists as a concrete thing in the world, it has also gone viral, and has mutated somehow—the novel cannot be pinned down, least of all by its author.

11. If Infinite Jest in part is an elaborate experiment that submerges film & film criticism in the deep pool of a novel, might it not be okay to have a film that tries to flood the screen with the work(s) of a writer? If it were just a fictional writer, maybe. But, as Roland Barthes claimed just before Foucault’s essay, in 1967, “To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause….” Because Wallace has attained the status of a Big “A” Author—someone with clear intentions, who wrote with utter decisiveness (so the legend goes)—this creates all sorts of trouble for the film, which must at every turn wrest itself from the clutches of this monolithic entity, the Author—this entity which is actually a void. Barthes advocated “the death of the Author”—letting go of the fantasy of authorial singularity—as a radical break, unleashing the interpretive and creative potential of readers. And while Wallace may certainly have believed that there is always a living author at the nexus of any text (somewhat amending Barthes), he would probably have readily admitted the unstoppable dissemination of the written text (and the Author in tow), too. Wallace was in on these debates; so if we take Wallace seriously—including his knowledge of the late-60s and onward poststructuralist theories of the Author (see Wallace’s own review essay “Greatly Exaggerated” for a rundown)—there should be nothing surprising or appalling about The End of the Tour. It is a readymade extension of Wallace’s writing and thinking in more than one sense.

12. I went into The End of the Tour with teaching writing in mind. This coming semester I am scheduled to teach a class I’ve never taught before, Introduction to Creative Writing. This may sound basic enough, but even the beginning writer may suddenly and unwittingly stumble into the thorny brambles of celebrity authorship, the vexed relationship between writing privately and having a public persona, and the maelstrom of publishing in the digital age. These matters are interesting to me on an intellectual level, and they offer important lessons and pose puzzles for students who want to become writers. I appreciated the brief scene toward the beginning of The End of the Tour where we see Wallace teaching his creative writing class at Illinois State University—it looked pretty genuine, almost real. I know it’s just a movie—I know—but the unpretentiousness of this scene was impressive. There is a strange continuum here, with the humble, humdrum college writing classroom on one end, and (a movie about) a high-profile public book tour and slick reportage on the other end. On the one side, you have ordinary life and regular people trying to communicate in earnest; on the other side, you have big deals, fast talkers, expense accounts, and the total commodification of art. Perhaps David Foster Wallace—as a writer, and as a subject of fascination—touches so many nerves because he can be charted, mapped, or trapped at various points across this continuum.

13. To say Wallace could never have anticipated and/or would never have approved of a cinematic depiction of himself seems to underestimate or outright miss Wallace’s own insights about commercialism, screen culture, and our penchant for entertainment. Wallace may or may not have ‘liked’ the movie (also, these things can change!), but I don’t think he would have been surprised in the least to see the ways that his Author-function has attained notoriety in the wake of his death. Had Kierkegaard been around to consider the case of Wallace, he could have written a book called The Screening Unto Death. Wallace was well familiar with literary fame and the more artistic ambitions of indie film, as well as their occasional coincidences, interminglings, and bumpings up against one another. Look at the very short story “Death is Not the End”: Wallace represents an accomplished poet/Author as an object of spectation and as abject human embodiment, simultaneously. Consider the character of David Wallace in The Pale King who “becomes creature of the system” (thanks to Ian Bogost for reminding me of that line, which Anna Shechtman employs smartly to end her recent essay on the film). See how Wallace turned a movie set rather inside out and into a hilariously intricate panoramic essay in “David Lynch Keeps His Head.” Are we that far from the very preoccupations and fascinations that comprise Wallace’s own writings? It’s possible that Wallace may be rolling in his grave about The End of the Tour; it’s also possible that he’s simply rolling his eyes, nodding along with us, or maybe even snickering.


Christopher Schaberg is associate professor of English and Environment at Loyola University New Orleans. His new book, The End of Airports, will be published in November.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 12th, 2015.