I really enjoyed James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, which primarily covers the last days of David Foster Wallace’s 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest. Wallace committed suicide in 2008 after his antidepressants proved no longer effective. He was 46. The End of the Tour is based on David Lipsky’s 2010 non-fiction book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which is basically a transcript of Lipsky’s conversations with Wallace from that book tour. Wallace is played by Jason Segel in an award-caliber performance, and the film co-stars Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky, who’s sent to cover Wallace’s literary stardom for Rolling Stone.
The film has stirred up some controversy. Wallace’s estate has been opposed to the film since it was announced last year. (The estate is similarly not fond of Lipsky’s book.) Film critic Glenn Kenny wrote an angry essay in The Guardian that berates The End of the Tour, claiming that the film gets everything wrong about David Foster Wallace. On top of that, Ponsoldt and screenwriter Donald Margulies have taken some liberties with the events, inventing conflicts and motivations that weren’t present in Lipsky’s book.
As much as I enjoyed The End of the Tour, I’m also forced to qualify that enjoyment. I’ve been mentally navigating these different concerns about the film trying to figure things out, because at the heart of all this is a real person whose death is still painful to those close to him.
Although of Course You End Up Being Different Things to Different People
“Simple thing: everyone sees him differently.” — David Lipsky, Although of Course…
David Foster Wallace is a person and an idea. That split is impossible to avoid, and more complicated than the Platonic notion that I’ve seemed to present. There’s the person who existed, and then there’s this other level, a kind of public version or public perception of the person who existed, or an idea of Wallace through his writing and interviews–a text. While the real Wallace was available to his friends and family, for everyone else there’s just a public version or a text. There’s something about the intimacy of writing, and I think this is discussed in Lipsky’s book, that makes readers think they know an author. That seems to hold true for lots of creatives since so much ineffable stuff about your inner life is communicated through creative acts. Any connection that’s made through art might seem more profound because of this ability to articulate a common yet personal feeling of joy, sadness, or affection between people who’ve never met. Art can make you feel less alone, and it can help you understand someone else. But often only so far or just a facet.
There’s another layer to this person/persona split, of course. I’m not judging the propriety of it (at least for now), but people can do whatever they want with that public idea of a person. They can find meaning in the persona, impose their own meanings on the persona, reconsider the persona without considering the actual multi-faceted person behind that public idea. It’s one reason why David Foster Wallace winds up meaning different things to different people, or being a different person to different people–a literary wunderkind, a rockstar of the book world, the next _______, the voice of _______, a friend, a confidant, a relative, etc. Recently, a piece by Molly Fischer ran in New York Magazine’s The Cut considered David Foster Wallace a hypermasculine hub for chauvinistic literary bros. (Sometimes a big, hard novel is just a cigar. A really big, hard cigar.)
Kenny in his piece for The Guardian touches on this when he writes, “Something I’ve noticed since Wallace’s suicide in 2008 is that a lot of self-professed David Foster Wallace fans don’t have much use for people who actually knew the guy. For instance, whenever Jonathan Franzen utters or publishes some pained but unsparing observations about his late friend, Wallace’s fanbase recoils, posting comments on the internet about how self-serving he is, or how he really didn’t ‘get’ Wallace.”
Kenny and Wallace were friends who met and corresponded regularly or at least semi-regularly. Lipsky, by contrast, was an outsider sent to observe Wallace for a few days and then left. Kenny takes issue with the way Lipsky presented Wallace in the book, writing:
In the opening of Yourself, Lipsky describes Wallace speaking in “the universal sportsman’s accent: the disappearing G’s, ‘wudn’t,’ ‘dudn’t’ and ‘idn’t’ and ‘sumpin.'” Segel takes Lipsky’s cue. But in my recollection, Dave spoke precisely, almost formally, the “Gs” at the ends of gerunds landing softly, not dropped.
I can’t help but feel both of these perceptions and ideas of Wallace were accurate simply given the nature of these respective relationships. People act differently around friends and colleagues than they do around strangers, particularly journalists. There’s a constant self-consciousness that Wallace has when talking to Lipsky, mentioning how Lipsky can craft an image of Wallace that may not be the real Wallace. To that I wonder how much of the sportsman’s accent was Wallace’s own way of maintaining control of his persona, presenting a certain type of David Foster Wallace for this interview. Ditto the various asides to high culture (e.g., John Barth) and low culture (e.g., “movies where stuff blows up”). Wallace suggest he and Lipsky play chess against each other in the book during an early interview. Make of that what you will. (Sometimes a game of chess is just a metaphor for a sword fight with cigars.)
These differences in proximity to Wallace, intimacy with Wallace, and personal perception of Wallace don’t delegitimize Kenny or Lipsky. It’s just pointing out that they each saw facets of a man and each came away with their own assessment. Wallace was Kenny’s friend, and Kenny saw more facets of the man over a longer period of time. For Lipsky, he got a glimpse of Wallace at age 34 at the end of a book tour during “one of those moments when the world opens up to you.”
Although of Course You End Up Becoming a Fictional Version of Yourself
“So we’ve ended up doing Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory in My Dinner with Andre.” — David Lipsky, Although of Course…
So there’s a persona, and then there’s a movie, and that’s where these issues of proximity, intimacy, perception, and propriety become even more difficult. The End of the Tour, even though I enjoyed it, is a recreation and fictionaliziation of real events and real people, all of which is depicted at various divides from the real thing. Since so much of the basis for The End of the Tour is Lipsky’s book, the film presents a version of David Foster Wallace as filtered through Lipsky’s perceptions. Though Lipsky tried to be unobtrusive in the transcript, there are numerous observations in book, ones that wonder what Wallace is thinking in the moment, that assume certain answers are calculated deflections, that editorialize the nature of Wallace’s smile in just the choice of adjectives.
On top of that, The End of the Tour is the book as restructured by screenwriter Donald Margulies, tweaked further by director James Ponsoldt, with an additional layer of interpretation by the two lead actors who are reciting the real-life dialogue. While the lines may be straight from Lipsky’s book, there is a gulf between the real people and the page and the screen. Lipsky, even in just the book, points out an artifice of a subject and journalist in forced-interaction that occasionally feels like something genuine. He likens an exchange they have to something out of Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre. (When not engaged in a kind of big brother/little brother semi-envious duel, Lipsky in the film generally plays Wallace Shawn to Wallace’s sage-like Andre Gregory.)
This series of divides from the real events to the film are less like photo copies of photo copies that become blurrier and blurrier with each subsequent version, but more like interpretations of interpretations that are distorted but perhaps share an amorphous-something in common from iteration to iteration. (This simile might be just be my charity for the film since I liked it.)
Short version: real life and the film are a long way apart, and one is left to wonder if there’s mostly capital-T Truth between the two or mostly capital-B Bullshit.
There may be another layer to all of this that gets a bit more difficult. Anytime a writer writes about writers or writing, there’s inevitably a little bit of the writer’s own ideas about writing that wind up in there. So while the film is a recreation of conversations between two real writers, the way it’s framed seems to allow Donald Margulies to write about his own ideas about writers to some degree. Lipsky gets to represent a type of male writer, Wallace another kind of male writer, and a dynamic of masculine opposition, jealousy, and respect emerges as these personas interact. Margulies introduces a fabricated moment of sexual competition between Wallace and Lipsky, and also a mute hostility or resentment leading into the last act. Both of these fictions play into a larger theme of control and writerly chess that was real in the text at a subtextual level, but mostly they’re also just inventions to facilitate a dramatic arc.
The moments of The End of the Tour I liked least were the parts that seemed too bent or overshaped, particularly in the framing narrative, which was dominated by certain kinds of writerly cliches (e.g, watching a writer type in a fit of inspiration). It may have been Ponsoldt and Margulies’ ways of incorporating an idea from Lipsky’s book regarding Wallace’s death to lend this wandering conversation a path: “Suicide is such a powerful end, it reaches back and scrambles the beginning. It has an event gravity: Eventually, every memory and impression gets tugged in its direction.” To that, while reading Although of Course…, I couldn’t help but pause anytime Wallace brought up killing himself in passing, as if it were just some self-deprecating remark.
I’m not sure The End of the Tour necessarily needed any explicit or neat emotional arc since these things rarely exist in real life. As a movie, The End of the Tour could have just done the My Dinner with Andre thing (or the Richard Linklater thing, if you prefer) and existed as this peripatetic meeting of minds on the road.
And yet I liked some of the invented moments since they reminded me of other exchanges I’ve had with friends, or experiences with people I know, or trips I’ve been on, or that secret insecurity when talking with writers I admire who are way further in their careers than I am. Sometimes bullshit feels true even if it’s not factual. (This might be a messy but succinct definition of Werner Herzog’s “ecstatic truth.”) Then again, like Kenny brought up earlier, this justification of invention might ultimately be self-serving.
Although of Course You End Up Becoming Impossible to Encapsulate
“They already feel as if they know you–which of course they don’t.” — David Foster Wallace in Although of Course… by David Lipsky
Eisenberg’s portrayal of David Lipsky hasn’t gotten much flak, but that’s because Lipsky’s alive and not a major/mythologized persona in the literary world. (You don’t read any essays that reduce his work to dick-wagging.) Lipsky’s role, in the book and the film, is predominantly a vessel into the thoughts of David Foster Wallace. Segel’s been widely praised for his performance as DFW, though I think Kenny’s criticisms of his performance are worth noting since they highlight differences in perception, person, and persona between people:
Physically, Segel’s got Wallace all wrong too: bulky, lurching, elbowy, perpetually in clothes a half size too small. This, too, contradicts my own memory of Dave as a physically imposing but also very nearly lithe and graceful person. But as Segel’s exuberantly horrible dancing at the end of the film practically blares in neon, this awkwardness represents Segel’s conception of a Genius Who Was Just Too Pure And Holy For This World.
Kenny also wrote that the David Foster Wallace of The End of the Tour is “for those people who cherish This Is Water as the new Wear Sunscreen: A Primer For Life.” It’s like Kenny’s Lloyd Bentsen burn: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
This comes back to the idea of facets of people and the way The End of the Tour winds up being these layers of interpretation by different parties about a real person. As much as I like Segel in the film and think his performance is strong, it’s not David Foster Wallace in the way that all portrayals of real people are not the real thing. Christopher Walken impersonations are generally caricatures of his start-stop vocal rhythm; all Michael Caine impressions are just people just saying, “My name’s my cocaine.” Segel can’t possibly recreate all of the small facial expressions, body sways, or winces of David Foster Wallace, or even the same physiology, but he offers an impersonation suited to the film. (Good vs. good enough. Another writerly concern?) If Lipsky’s a vessel into Wallace’s thoughts, Segel’s Wallace is an interpretation of a persona. People and their personas, while linked, aren’t the same.
So what to make of the propriety of The End of the Tour? Wallace died less than 10 years ago, and here’s a movie that the estate was not involved with in which Wallace’s death is a framing device. It’s painful, and it may always be too soon for anyone who knew Wallace personally.
The End of the Tour aims to be a tribute to a writer, as if that makes the pain more bearable, and yet the movie veers dangerously close to hagiography. David Foster Wallace, the film persona, embodies an idea of a good writer with a troubled soul, maybe too troubled to live in a fallen world. That might not be overstating it either given the way the movie concludes. My friend Leah Schnelbach of Tor.com also liked the movie, but she rightly used the term “St. Dave” to describe some of the uncomfortable fawning over DFW when it’s not offset by his depression and underlying sadness. Maybe tributes unintentionally and inartfully stumble into hagiography or near-hagiography as they try to make a final sincere statement about the subject.
There’s no neat wrap-up to these rambling thoughts on The End of the Tour, because even though I’d meant to write this a while ago, these ideas remain unresolved and half-formed. I still think it’s generally a very good film about writers despite some of those weaker bits, but that might be because it’s so rooted in the actual conversation of two writers. Even when they’re not talking about writing, it sounds like writers talking. As for David Foster Wallace, the persona on film as portrayed by Jason Segel, he’s just an interpretation of one part of the real David Foster Wallace during a particular point in his life.While many times removed from the real thing, this persona makes the actual man’s absence more apparent.