- Sam Anderson
- "It's like the Nixon tapes for DFW-heads."
- 05/10/10 at 12:25
David Foster Wallace’s interviews were always show-stoppers: erudite, casual, funny, passionate, and deeply self-aware—like he wasn't just answering the questions at hand but also interviewing himself, and his interviewer, and the entire genre of interviews. Last month, David Lipsky published essentially the Platonic ideal of the form: the book-length Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself—a sort of DFW version of a DFW interview.
The book is a little time capsule. In 1996, at the very end of his Infinite Jest book tour, Wallace agreed to give Lipsky total journalistic access for a Rolling Stone profile. He wasn’t thrilled about it (“this stuff is real bad for me ... I said yes to this, so that I could in good conscience say no to a couple of things that are just way more toxic”), but as an interview subject he was—as usual—pretty much ideal: honest, patient, and fully engaged. Lipsky shadowed him for five days. He slept at his house, played with his dogs, observed his writing class, drove him through a blizzard, sat next to him on airplanes, joined him for Denny’s meals, and participated in endless hotel-room junk-TV binges. Meanwhile he recorded hours and hours of conversation—trivial, goofy, intense, occasionally slightly testy—covering everything from the malaise of fin-de-siècle America to the seductive power of Alanis Morissette (“I just find her absolutely riveting”).
Lipsky never wrote the profile (he got sent off instead, he says, to do a story about heroin addicts in Seattle), but he held on to the tapes. After Wallace’s suicide in 2008, he unearthed and converted them, basically unmolested, into this book: a 300-page channeling of DFW’s famous voice at precisely the moment it was becoming that famous voice.
I found it totally fascinating. We get to watch DFW’s signature self-consciousness churning at a length and ferocity unprecedented outside of his actual published writing. (“I don’t mind appearing in Rolling Stone,” he tells Lipsky at one point, “but I don’t want to appear in Rolling Stone as somebody who wants to be in Rolling Stone.”) It’s like the Nixon tapes for DFW-heads—full of telling moments that would have been stripped from any reasonable magazine article. One of the effects of Wallace’s prose is to make you irrationally want to be his best friend, and Lipsky creates a reasonable simulacrum of that experience.
This also marks the official beginning of the book industry’s processing of DFW as a departed figure. (Other Wallace-related books are scheduled to come out in the next year or so, most notably D.T. Max’s biography and Wallace’s own posthumous final novel, The Pale King.) As such, it raises all kinds of issues: Wallace's literary legacy; art versus self-help; the culture of 1996 versus 2010; DFW the talker versus DFW the writer; and on and on and on. We're going to spend the next week or so hashing all of this out, sharing our own DFW experiences, and pondering the writer's obsession with Top 40 mid-nineties alternative music.
The Reading Room members are:
DT Max, author of the New Yorker piece “The Unfinished” and of an in-progress Wallace biography.
Jason Kottke, pioneering culture blogger and longtime DFW-head.
Laura Miller, Salon book critic.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of the novella A Field Guide to the North American Family, frequent contributor to the litblog the Millions.
Sam Anderson, New York Magazine book critic.
Let's start with D.T. Max. Given that you’re writing a more traditional biography, I'm curious to hear what you thought of Lipsky’s approach. Do you think this genre—the infinite transcript—can get into the little crevices of DFW’s life and personality in a way that more straightforward biography maybe can’t? Were there any, for you, surprises here? And please, if you can, unravel for us the metaphysics of Wallace's Alanis Morissette obsession.