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The End of the Tour

August 7, 2015
The End of the Tour

I am, among other things, a big fan of David Foster Wallace’s writing, both fiction and non. I stop shy of proselytizing door to door, but when a friend says something like “sticking it to the man is the new man”, I’m right there suggesting he read Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram” from the Summer 1993 Review of Contemporary fiction and later anthologized in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

And so my feelings about The End of the Tour are bound to be complicated, to say the least. It starts well before I can even watch the movie, with the question of whether the movie should be watched at all. I mean, of course I’m going to — and by now I have — but there’s been an outcry from the “Wallace camp” (among others: his editor at Little Brown, Michael Pietsch, and his wife, Karen Green) that Wallace himself would have “howled the idea out of the room” if someone had suggested making a movie about him while he was alive. But the author, as they say, is dead, and there were no howls early on enough to stop this ball from rolling. Still, it’s true that Wallace was profoundly ambivalent about the idea of his own fame — that’s kind of a big part of his own point during the time we see depicted — and I can’t deny that he would probably have stopped this film if he could have.

On the other hand, The End of the Tour is an odd sort of biopic, in that it’s not really one. That is, it’s not based on or trying to be a biography of Wallace like D.T. Max’ Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. Instead, it’s an adaptation of Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, David Lipsky’s account in 2010, after Wallace’s suicide, of a five-day road trip with Wallace on the book tour for his most famous work, Infinite Jest. It’s this period in the mid ’90s that really crystallized what I love about Wallace’s writing, and a lot of his thoughts get laid down most directly in the aforementioned “E Unibus Pluram”, in the accompanying interview with Larry McCaffery, and in his dialogue with Lipsky. It’s a snapshot of what was in Wallace’s head right at the time that he became aware that his writing was going to make him famous, and it’s got that ambivalence baked right in. If the film flies in the face of the misgivings Wallace might have had were he alive, at least it is in part about just those misgivings.

But still, how can I even think of considering this film at all after excoriating Amy and Finding Vivian Maier as exploitative, even as they foregrounded their subjects’ ambivalence about or avoidance of fame? Am I, at heart, just another fan desperate to get my own little emotional chunk of my idol by any means necessary? Am I letting my feelings for the public author overwhelm my respect for the private man?

I’ve thought a lot about this. A lot of criticism, as I see it, is about figuring out where and how these lines are drawn. What makes one work good and another bad, even as they share a certain similarity? In this case, I think it comes down to the care and respect the filmmakers show towards their subject. And it’s definitely a judgement call on the part of the viewer; opinion on The End of the Tour is a deep fissure through the community around Wallace-the-author, as can be expected from a group of people that is deeply suspicious of every mention of the man’s name in print. If we spend days parsing out whether a given writer or director or actor or whoever really gets Wallace’s writing, or whether they’re just piggybacking on his fame for hipster cred, this movie is bound to create a feeding frenzy in our little pond. It can feel downright protectionist at times.

As for myself, I go into The End of the Tour with a cautious optimism, and that starts with the director, James Ponsoldt. I loved Smashed as one of the best alcoholism narratives I’ve seen on film, in large part because I saw echoes in it of what I loved in Wallace’s writings about addiction. And then there’s Jason Segel, at whose name many Wallace fans recoiled in horror: “Our Man played by the guy from Freaks and Geeks, How I Met Your Mother, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall?” Well, other than the fact that How I Met Your Mother had a lot more going on below its simple sitcom surface — and Josh Radnor did work a lot of Wallace into Liberal Arts, after all — I also remember that Segel as the guy from Jeff, Who Lives at Home. And, like a lot of Duplass-produced movies, I loved that one for the way it resonated with Wallace’s own New Sincerity. And, for that matter, with Ponsoldt’s own.

And but so, just over eight hundred words in, we come to The End of the Tour itself, only to find that the question of whether or not the film’s version of Wallace was “accurate” isn’t even the right question unless you really insist on making it the question. Because, like I said, this isn’t a biopic of Wallace, and the story isn’t even really about him. I mean, yes, it’s about Wallace in that he’s a huge presence that shapes the entire film, but of course Lipsky’s story is ultimately going to be about Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg).

It’s Lipsky whom we follow here, as he hears about Wallace’s suicide and digs out the old recordings he made back in 1996. It’s Lipsky who reads the New York magazine review of Infinite Jest, and whose ego deflates when he compares Wallace’s novel with his own, The Art Fair. It’s Lipsky who wheedles his editor (Ron Livingston) into sending him along for the last stop on Wallace’s book tour, desperate to make his bones at Rolling Stone, but also to figure out how it was that Wallace succeeded where Lipsky was still scrabbling around the edges.

Or so he saw himself. In fact, both The Art World and his short story collection Three Thousand Dollars were received to wide acclaim. And yet something still felt missing; like “Jack” from Chuck Pahlahniuk’s 1996 novel Fight Club, going back to his father over and over again asking, “what do I do next?”

“Surely”, the film’s Lipsky thinks, “someone who has succeeded as much as a writer can possibly succeed must know what to do.” And he comes into the trip so focused on that wrong question that he can never manage to hear what Wallace was, in his writing, and is, in his own desperation, trying to tell him: that there is no end to this.

We’ve told the old story so often it’s become a hoary cliché: as children we assumed grown-ups knew what they were doing, but now that we’re the grown-ups we find ourselves just making it up as we go along, trying to do the best we can. And no matter how many times we repeat it, we never really learn the lesson. It’s a hard one. Through two careers, and now even in writing these reviews I’m always caught up in the sense of isolation and fear and panic. Sometimes I think there’s some secret that everybody else knows and nobody will tell me. Or if it’s not that, maybe I’m just a complete and utter fraud and the reason it feels like I’m never getting anywhere is that I’m actually terrible. And again, nobody will tell me.

It happens so often that there’s a name for it: impostor syndrome. But the usual advice — to remind yourself of the reality of your accomplishments — rings hollow, since it requires taking an external perspective that someone struggling with it by definition lacks. It assumes that all you need is to try a little harder to raise your self image, when maybe the real answer is that there’s something subtly poisonous in an entire culture that showers fame upon great successes, and ascribes them to great talents who Have It All Figured Out. Maybe it served some purpose to our culture once upon a time, or maybe it just never really caused much harm until now, but we need to start recognizing this unspoken assumption we’re all carrying around.

But in a culture that doesn’t talk honestly about its shortcomings, people find ways to work around the damage. One of the big ones that Wallace cares about is by distracting ourselves with empty pleasures. As he and Lipsky run through a convenience store grabbing junk food he asks, “what would be wrong if we always ate like this?” It sounds like a rhetorical question, but he really means to consider it: what damage do we do to ourselves with a diet of empty calories?

And it goes beyond snacks; entertainment can absolutely be fulfilling or empty. And this isn’t to say empty entertainment is inherently bad. Film Crit Hulk — himself a fan of Wallace — frames his enormous discussion of Bond movies with the idea that they’re junk food that can be enjoyed in small quantities. But a steady diet of empty calories of any sort, cynically pumped out by people who see you as nothing more than a resource from which they can extract money, does something harmful to the human soul. It’s that sheer, rotten emptiness that gets critics so riled up about certain movies.

Irony is another defense, and maybe the more insidious one for the way it convinces us that it speaks the truth. In 1996, Lipsky lives in New York and moves in posturing, intellectual circles where a veneer of sophistication can shield him from all sorts of hurts that would follow if he admitted how much he cares. He asks Wallace why a writer would want to live out in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, but he can’t hear the answer. And, of course, irony goes hand in hand with the cynicism it takes to make and sell empty products. Empty consumption makes you a victim, but irony makes you, on some level, a victimizer.

Wallace has, at this point, realized this ragged emptiness that most people either doesn’t notice or makes a point of ignoring or distracting themselves from it. He’s gone through hell before finding this question, and he’s only just begun to try to find an answer.

Lipsky is so set on the questions he brings to the table — all tinged with the filters he’s accustomed to using as his armor — that completely misses it when Wallace tries to explain how they all miss the point. Eisenberg brings his nervous energy to bear in this hyperattentive tunnel-vision, and while he clearly shows Lipsky’s devastation when he realizes he’s missed something, it’s not until much later that it becomes clear to him what it was, and by that point it’s an old scar of regret that aches when he moves it just so.

And so it’s Lipsky who we learn what it’s like to be, while Wallace looms as huge and out-of-reach as ever. The End of the Tour is about what it’s like to meet David Foster Wallace, not to be him. And it’s Ponsoldt’s impression of what it’s like, laid on a skeleton shaped from Lipsky’s book by playwright Donald Margulies. It’s not Wallace, and it doesn’t feel like reading him does, but it clearly respects and loves and misses the man who will now remain beyond anyone’s grasp.

Nearly seven years later, that wound is still fresh, and I’m sure it pains the people who knew him in person far more than it ever could me. Of course we want a world where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts, but isn’t the entire point that these armors that keep us from our pain can ultimately keep us from each other, too? David Foster Wallace is too important to be tossed around carelessly, but he does us no good if we keep him on a high shelf, encased in lucite, and live in mortal terror that someone might scratch him. We have to share him, and know that even if someone else uses him in a way we wouldn’t, it’s not automatically abuse. Verify, but trust.

And, if after all of that you still can’t bear the thought of the sullied likes of Jason Segel portraying David Foster Wallace, take comfort in the idea that he’s actually playing a fictional, alternate-reality version that bears a striking resemblance to the author. The Wallace that appears in the movie is, with apologies to the real one, a sort of “pro forma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation, which has no direct, provable connection to David Foster Wallace as a person”. I think he’d get a kick out of that, in some abstract, metafictional heaven.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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