Thursday, April 24th, 2014

The Dead Cannot Consent

segal wallace The End of the Tour is a movie currently in production based on David Lipsky's 2010 book, Although of Course you End Up Becoming Yourself: a Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. In 1996, shortly after Wallace’s sudden burst into literary superstardom with the publication of Infinite Jest, Rolling Stone had sent Lipsky to conduct an interview with with him. The magazine spiked the interview, and years later, after Wallace's suicide, Lipsky incorporated the material into his book—to my mind, the best about David Foster Wallace that anyone has yet written.

There is every reason to anticipate that the movie will be great: It stars Jason Segel as Wallace, and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky. (Anyone who supposes that Segel is too lightweight to play Wallace credibly, I will assume, has not seen him in the 2011 Jeff, Who Lives At Home, though Segel’s genius is equally apparent in many a deceptively goofy performance.) The director is James Ponsoldt, whose splendid The Spectacular Now contains a sensitive and idiosyncratically observant treatment of substance abuse, among many other things. I will certainly see the movie (Si Dios quiere, as my grandma used to say) and even if it is not as great as I hope, I am sure there will be a lot of pleasure to be had in seeing a favorite book come to life.

On Monday, however, the Los Angeles Times published a report under the headline, "David Foster Wallace's Estate Comes Out Against 'The End of the Tour'":

The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust, David's family, and David's longtime publisher Little, Brown and Company wish to make it clear that they have no connection with, and neither endorse nor support “The End of the Tour.” This motion picture is loosely based on transcripts from an interview David consented to eighteen years ago for a magazine article about the publication of his novel, “Infinite Jest.” That article was never published and David would never have agreed that those saved transcripts could later be repurposed as the basis of a movie. The Trust was given no advance notice that this production was underway and, in fact, first heard of it when it was publicly announced. For the avoidance of doubt, there is no circumstance under which the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust would have consented to the adaptation of this interview into a motion picture, and we do not consider it an homage.

The question arises as to exactly why "The Trust" should have been given "advance notice that this production was underway.” Lipsky's book was published by Crown's Broadway Books (a division of Random House) and was based on his own experiences and recordings of personal conversations with Wallace on the eponymous road. Nobody else was in the car; Lipsky is entirely within his rights to write freely about events in his own life, including the five days he spent talking with a fellow author and recording their conversations with that author's consent. Neither is it in any way correct to dismiss Lipsky's book as the mere rehashing of some old unpublished interviews. The older Lipsky, the expert and much-decorated writer who produced this book, is the fulcrum upon which the whole is balanced; the book is very subtly constructed, the comment of an adult on his younger self, and on the man that younger self both admired and keenly, dispassionately observed—and not least, on all his younger self failed to see.

"For the avoidance of doubt." Is the implication here that the public should have access only to those works that "The Trust" "considers an homage" to Wallace? Why even speculate on the sad and unfathomable question of what Wallace would or would not have consented to, had he not committed suicide? As Tom Scocca said so brutally and so incontrovertibly back in 2011, "David Foster Wallace took himself out of the conversation about what David Foster Wallace wanted, after all." He failed himself, and surely everyone else failed him too.

Since his suicide, several works by Wallace have appeared in print, among them, This Is Water, the book version of the 2005 commencement speech he delivered at Kenyon College, published in 2009; the unfinished novel The Pale King followed in 2011; and Both Flesh And Not, a collection of previously unpublished essays, appeared in 2012. And there are more to come, including a book on tennis, and a sort of “greatest hits” collection, The David Foster Wallace Reader.

In a 2011 Times article about the publication of The Pale King, Wallace's longtime editor Michael Pietsch (now CEO of Hachette, which owns Wallace's publisher, Little, Brown and Company) said, "[Wallace] would never have wanted [The Pale King] to be published in an imperfect form if he had lived to finish it, but he was not alive to finish it.” He added that Wallace had left a 250-page section of the book in the center of his desk: “To me, the fact that he left those pages on his work table is proof he wanted the book published.”

Pietsch pieced The Pale King together from a mass of disconnected materials—handwritten journals and notebooks, a two-foot manuscript, stacks of computer disks, a cardboard box full of research materials—containing little clue as to Wallace's intentions with respect to their order or disposition.

"It’s my version of the novel,” [Pietsch] admitted, adding that he talked to Little Brown’s e-book staff about creating a version that would enable the reader to arrange the chapters in any order, but was told that was technically unfeasible. Eventually all the manuscript materials will go to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, he pointed out, and “scholars will have a field day. I’m sure they’re already sharpening their teeth.”

There should be no cause for the sharpening of any teeth, it seems to me. Any honest effort to discuss, to understand, and to build on the conversation Wallace's work began should be honored by readers in the spirit of intellectual curiosity and open-heartedness he himself embodied in his short life. The efforts of Michael Pietsch are to be admired—as are the efforts of David Lipsky, and of all involved in the forthcoming film. However troubled his personal life may have been, in the world of letters, Wallace's candor and brotherliness taught a whole generation of readers to try, at least, to live and reason in the same way. The tragedy of Wallace's death left an empty space where a mighty voice should have been. Nobody can take its place, and nobody should try.

Maria Bustillos is a writer and critic in Los Angeles.

Photo by Vanessa Andrade

20 Comments / Post A Comment

Taffeta Darling (#260,337)

While I agree with this in spirit, I can't understand what "value" the movie is going to add to Wallace's legacy. Why attempt to cinematically flesh out a presence that is so incandescent, so forceful within the work of the author himself? I like Jason Segal and Jesse Eisenberg, but it's hard not to see this movie as something of a vulturous attempt to suss out something about the author that the author himself didn't give to his audience.

Who knows, though. It could be great.

15621765@twitter (#246,189)

I adored the book, and I know I'll see the movie (I'll be hate-watching it), but I do think the Wallace estate had to make a statement of some sort, lest some weirdos think this is an Office David Foster Wallace Biography of some sort.

I think the book worked whether or not you knew anything or cared anything about Wallace, which is why the movie is sort of a no-brainer: it's a buddy story about smart neurotic people on the precipice of big things. Who wouldn't want to see a film like that?

KarenUhOh (#19)

I really hate to appear/be cynical, but, here goes: is this about money?

Tulletilsynet (#333)

I don't understand why people want to tell each other what books and movies not to write or produce. I suspect I might be able to figure it out if I really put my mind to it, but to hell with that. Meanwhile, it's a good thing for those people that there are lawyers they can hire who know what phrases to use to make it sound as if others are somehow not entitled to write and produce those deprecated books and movies.

Taffeta Darling (#260,337)

@Tulletilsynet I think the only thing people are getting worked up about here is that there are many chances for the movie to fail miserably: a laughable impersonation on Segel's part and/or appealing to the lowest common denominator they can get away with are the two that come to my mind. I guess there's a greater onus on this movie to be GOOD because David Foster Wallace's work is so widely respected and admired, and anything less than the best will probably feel pretty cheap.

jfruh (#713)

@Taffeta Darling while I honestly sympathize with this sentiment, I have to ask, and I do ask sincerely: is there really a "lowest common denominator" that a DFW film would appeal to? While obviously there are all sorts of ways the movie could go wrong, I have a hard time imagining some audience for a David Foster Wallace biopic that wouldn't have a lot of high-minded feelings about David Foster Wallace, if you follow me.

Taffeta Darling (#260,337)

@jfruh Sure, that's why I said "the LCD that they can get away with." I don't mean Adam Sandler–flick low, I mean twisting DFW's story into some sort of easily digestible "suffering genius" narrative a la A Beautiful Mind or something, so that his extreme depression is presented as also sort of cool and exciting and mind bending, which I don't think is either fair or even remotely accurate. (That treatment was probably unfair to the guy behind A Beautiful Mind, too.) I don't know if that's a crazy fear on my part, but I *really* don't want them to make his plight palatable by giving it some sort of "edge."

Taffeta Darling (#260,337)

@Taffeta Darling Though, now that I think about it, I have no idea how that would go. I guess I'm just speaking from my hatred of most movies these days, since they nearly all go for either over-the-top sentiment or explosions.

Taffeta Darling (#260,337)

@Taffeta Darling I also haven't read the book, so I don't know if there's even room for that.

February Vok (#271,397)

…Jason Siegel, a genius? The scale of perception here is so fully skewed, the choices and discriminations so lame, that none of Ms. Bustillo's discernments, warrants, or arguments can be trusted. This is parody, this article, yes? Jeff, Who Lives at Home is unwatchable; The Spectacular Now is a bit of After School Movie pap. Putting Wallace's life in the hands of these specific movie makers, and then having Bustillos defend them, is compounding terrible aesthetic choices, until a sort of vortex of errancy threatens to whisk away any hope we might have of speaking of DFW's work–the fiction, not the motion picture–intelligently. Jason Siegel as DFW…a young Monte Hall to play Kerouac? (Why didn't they do that in 1967?) It's all compounded hackery. It's actually a new tech-age, high-irony kitsch that's being invented right under our eyes. Both the DFW movie and Ms. Bustillo's defense of it fit inside this new paradigm of atrocious taste.

ThomasEarlham (#271,400)

If only you weren't so terribly lonely in your estimations of "Jeff Who Lives at Home" and "The Spectacular Now", one might give greater weight to your curmudgeonry.

Needless to say (unless you really don't know) "Wallace's life" is not being put into these filmmakers' hands. I mean that literally and figuratively, because it isn't even as though a telling of his life is being put into their hands, or anyone's. It's a book by Lipsky, about one week in Lipsky's life in which David Foster Wallace plays a part, albeit an important one. The estate has no place to get upset, or frankly, to say shit about any of it.

hieronymusbosch (#271,437)

It's not curmudgeonry to have an opinion contrary to (roughly) 78% of mainstream moviegoers; it's simply good sense. Hollywood is a den of vipers. I can't think of anything I'd like to see less than J. Segel in DFW-drag cashing in on a tragedy. Lipsky's book isn't even a book, it's a transcript. The idea that he deserves any kind of financial compensation for banal commentary on his imagined 'rivalry' between himself and Wallace is insulting to Wallace's memory. The Wallace estate (i.e. HIS FAMILY AND THE PEOPLE WHO ACTUALLY KNEW HIM) has every right to speak out against it. I find it disgusting that Wallace fans are so up in arms in response to their complaints, eager to see "Their Man" depicted on the big screen by the latest popular shithead actor while they stuff their faces with popcorn and fail to think critically about what is happening right in front of them. Have some decency, cretins.

KarenUhOh (#19)

As an enormous fan of David Foster Wallace, fascinated by his legacy*, and determined to keep an open mind about this project, frankly: I'm dreading it. Sure, it could be great; but Hollywood and even "Indie" film culture has its own legacy of watering down far more often than enlightening up.

Trying to make sense of such a complex individual in 90-120 minutes (and, sorry, but why Mr. Lipsky is worth a film, aside from a chance to cast Jesse Eisenberg, I just don't get it) scares me.

Plus, who the hell but a bunch of book geeks, literary manques, and snobs will want to see this? I wonder what the turnout will be in Champaign-Urbana.

*Personal as well as aesthetic reasons.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@KarenUhOh I get this some (though to me, it's more like, oh here is a very very good book, let's make a movie of it. But then, people wound up going to see My Dinner With Andre)? In any case, it is bound to be considerably more interesting (again, for me) than seeing Andrew Garfield mangle Spider-Man or whatever. Even if it's terrible, I'll enjoy mocking it!

What I really object to here is the piety. The reverence. The pearl-clutching. Not least because all this tender concern comes too late. ("Too late!")

KarenUhOh (#19)

@barnhouse I read the book, and I'm having trouble seeing a film from it. That's probably my own conceptual limitation.

I spent a fair chunk of my relative youth wishing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had been made into a movie. But I never figured out how one would get that voice onto film. When it happened–with a director as cut out for the job as anyone–I thought, Well, he failed miserably, because it's so incoherent, while stodgily cleaving to the plot–and he sort of succeeded, because it's so incoherent, while stodgily cleaving to the plot. The verdict: it's no Where the Buffalo Roam–which is awful, but so awful it gets at HST's anarchy.

Back to this: again, I really don't care about David Lipsky. He is not why this move matters a whit to me. DFW is a character ripe–maybe begging–for biographical treatment (which is why this movie has appeal), but how the hell do you make a film from that? How many compelling scenes of someone scribbling into notepads can you shoot?

lorianlong (#271,499)

i don't think i've seen a more pure case of smarmy exploitation than this movie. evil is real and wallace would have hung himself for this.

ThomasEarlham (#271,400)

Gen. George S. Patton, Wyatt Earp, Dorothy Parker, Charlie Parker, Truman Capote, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Richard Nixon, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Jackson Pollack, Hunter S. Thompson, Jim Morrison, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, Ben Bradlee, Howard Hughes, Katharine Hepburn, Johnny Cash, Isak Dinesen, Abraham Lincoln, Sergeant York, FDR, JFK, Malcolm X, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Rubin Carter, Muhammad Ali, Peter Sellers, Marilyn Monroe, John Nash, John Holmes, Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, John Dillinger, Al Capone, Mahatma Gandhi…

But DAVID FOSTER WALLACE?! You're crossing a line, Hollywood!

lorianlong (#271,499)

yeah to make a film 6 years after a person–whose life and art was one long howl against this very kind of film–puts a noose around his neck seems like crossing a kind of line

scrooge (#2,697)

You've got to hand it to these DFW fans, they're so incredibly intelligent, far-sighted and discerning they can review (and with such wit and elegance) movies that haven't even been made yet.

roomgirl (#271,789)

What is going on in this article? Is Maria attacking the DFW trust, or proselytizing to the trust, or objecting to the trust issuing a press release, or is this article supposed to be like a lesson on super basic tenets of artistic freedom?

Or is this article saying, now that we've been told the DFW trust, his family and the people who knew him, have had no part in the creation of this film, we can rest easy knowing that the DFW appearing in the movie will be 100% the Lipsky version, a version of DFW rendered in three days nearly twenty years ago?

Is that what Maria is saying because wtf? Here is a movie about David Lipsky that has been selling itself as a movie about DFW, cashing in on DFW's popularity and very recent death, seeking wide distribution and no doubt hoping Segel's portrayal of DFW becomes definitive — all just five years after DFW's death, and apparently without the blessing of his family. I'm not sure why this film should automatically fall into the category of honest efforts to "build on the conversation Wallace's work began."

So yeah, Lipsky is free to engage with his own reality/art. Sure. I get that. But also duh we can see why DFW's family and friends might be opposed to this movie on grounds that are perhaps more human and less academic, right? And whether or not we think he's a dick, we're better off knowing this is Lipsky's DFW, rather than assuming any sort of collaborative endeavor between him and people who knew DFW more intimately, right?

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