Every artist, every writer goes under the hammer. But under ordinary circumstances, since a writer’s real ambition is to be anonymous and since his work is done in private, one arrives at some way of living with the hammer.
— James Baldwin, interviewed in The Black Scholar, 1973
Last week, I watched The End of the Tour with the author David Lipsky in a Palisades screening room. The movie is based on his 2010 book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which describes the five days in 1996 he spent interviewing the late David Foster Wallace.
Lipsky had been on assignment to Rolling Stone when he spoke with Wallace, but the intended profile never ran. “While I was in Illinois, Jann [Wenner] had read a thing about how heroin had become re-popularized in the NW and Seattle,” he said. “I think the lead singer of Blind Melon had died. And so he wanted to do a big package on heroin; I went and lived with these heroin addicts for a month. And then I came home, and it took two or three weeks to write and close the story (“Junkie Town”, Rolling Stone, May 30th 1996.) At that point, Infinite Jest had come out four months earlier, so we couldn’t do the story. So then, to say [to Wallace], ‘Hey, all that work, you were so careful to get your story across, and there isn’t going to be a piece’ — that was just embarrassing.”
After Wallace’s death in 2008, Lipsky wrote a story for Rolling Stone, “The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace,” which won a National Magazine Award. A book based on the taped interviews was the next natural step. But he didn’t want to write an ordinary biography; he was determined to give a sense of what it was like to spend time with Wallace. “I didn’t want to compromise,” he said, “or write a book where I was making assumptions about what Wallace felt like, but could say instead: ‘here is the transcript.’” The book he wound up writing is gentle and self-effacing, a faithful depiction of Wallace as he presented himself to the world: funny, humble, brilliant, tender, challenging. There’s a natural sympathy between the two men, their conversation a Vulcan mind meld of insights, quotations, jokes, references to television and movies and above all, literature and writing.
The heart of Lipsky’s book is in this talk, but The End of the Tour is not a literary movie. At its center, instead, is the portrait of the fine and difficult man we meet in the book. Or rather, two such men; Jason Segel as a highly evocative Wallace, and Jesse Eisenberg as a dramatically smaller version of Lipsky. I love the movie, even so. And feel that both Segel and Eisenberg achieved miracles honestly.
Lipsky and I spent the first hour or two just talking and then watched the movie, with plenty of pauses for questions and the occasional American Spirit cigarette (orange box).
I’ve been trying to analyze the rock star element of Wallace’s mystique. There’s something just wrong with it? I don’t know quite what. But from the instant your book came out there were all these complaints, mixed in with the praise — oh no, what is this book, and now there is a movie, Jason Segel is going to suck! — but I loved Jeff, Who Lives at Home.
I actually loved him in I Love You, Man.
I LOVED him in I Love You, Man.
He looks like Wallace in that movie.
There’s something sweet about the furious complaining, at the same time it just exasperates me.
Two things. One is that I really pushed for Jesse. When we met, we had lunch in a diner, and I showed him how interviewers would use the tape recorder. I was talking about what it was like to drive out there and stuff like that. Then we got up and we were walking the check over to the cash register and he looked at me and said, “You’re much taller than I am, and you are Wallace’s height.” I said, “Yeah but trust me, visually, for the story — the story the movie is telling — it will really work that you aren’t the same height as Jason.”
And in the book it’s the same sort of thing, do you know what I mean?
It’s a deliberate choice, to make yourself smaller, so that you can tell the story better.
The book is about David. So it was just enough about me that you’d understand while we were talking and having a good conversation, but not enough so that it would seem like I was trying to make it seem… like I was trying to make us the same height.
Wow. But you ARE. Actually you are taller.
No, no — I —
You are stealthily being much larger than you choose to appear.
This is the second thing: When you were talking about fanboys, there are so many things that are just format, things that don’t wake us up, right? David said that when something does come along that’s actually good and that does wake us up, we go berserk, and we don’t know how to treasure it. It’s in Of Mice and Men, a book I haven’t read, but I know from film representations: There’s one person who would keep petting bunnies so hard that they die. The culture hugs the things that it loves so hard.
That goes back to what I think is the not-real story about the movie, which is that it’s about literary ambition? It’s not. It’s about literary love, it’s about loving someone’s work and then finding out that you love the person, too.
This whole idea of being “the best” writer seems kind of questionable to me.
Hemingway once wrote to Fitzgerald: Your problem is you keep trying to write masterpieces. Just write as well as you can every day, and know that it will be good and at the end you’ll have a really good book. But if you try to write masterpieces, nothing will come. That’s what happens to people when they get the acclaim that they want for their work. That’s what David says at the end of the book: If you listen to the outside culture, if you care what they think about you, the weapon pointed at you goes from being a .22 to being a .45…
There’s a moment in the movie where Segel says to Eisenberg on the airplane, “David, this isn’t real.” And in the book he goes on, and says, “What’s real is being in a room with a piece of paper,” right?
What’s real is that the movie has the same sense of who this person was when he was alive that the book has. The other stuff — people writing essays about how they won’t see the movie, or former friends of his saying that they don’t like the way it is? — that’s the part that in the movie, and in the book, David is saying, “It isn’t real.”
I wrote that book primarily as a fan. Here is how this great writer thought about his life, and this is how he lived. This is literally just what he would want strangers to know about him. Remember, he’s working the tape by the end of the book — he’s stopping it, deciding how he wants to phrase his life, and then turning it back on.
Why didn’t you keep in touch with him?
Right when I came home he’d sent me my shoe back. It was charming and funny, with a note — “Yours, I presume?” — It was great. But he was a much more powerful writer than I was. He was someone whose blurb would matter, if he reviewed your book kindly or talked about your book in interviews. If I’d tried to be his friend, that would have been an unavoidable part of the friendship. So I made a note to myself to not try to contact him until I had some work of mine that had been valued by the culture — people had really loved the first two books, but they weren’t part of the culture in a serious way.
Remember, he had said, “It will be interesting to talk to you in a few years, because my experience is that when you get what you want you won’t feel especially better.” I didn’t want to have that conversation with him until I could have it with some knowledge. And so when the West Point book came out and it was on the cover of the Book Review and on the list, I would write letters to David. And then I would look at them and send them to myself and they just seemed so loopy I just couldn’t send them.
Then my producer at NPR said, we want to do a new book series, name a book that’s just come out that you think is great. I said there aren’t any, but the best book of the last year is David’s second collection of essays, which was Consider the Lobster. That was kind of a smoke signal that I assumed that he might hear or see. And then two years later, he was dead.
Watching the Movie
Jesse Eisenberg (as Lipsky) is learning of Wallace’s death. He can’t believe it, but soon he is describing his feelings about Wallace to Robert Siegel on NPR: “To read David Foster Wallace was to feel your eyelids pulled open…”
How’s this feel to you?
Like the thing that I wanted to do… it’s done.
We pause, just accidentally, on a closeup of the tape recorder, in quite sharp focus.
The weird magic of a tape recording. The eighty-six thousand seconds that are in every day: These have been preserved. When I first watched the movie, this is what I thought: This series of five days was there, right, as a sound thing? And then here it was visually, also.
The biggest thing for me, and we’ll see it when we get to the house… I didn’t think I’d ever be in that house again. Because by the time I was ready to write about David, that house had been sold; he was in California. The people who had bought the house had done a remodeling, and stuff like that. Also they didn’t like people going there looking for Wallace.
So when you go inside: seeing his bookcases again, seeing his mantel again, seeing his kitchen again — that was really thrilling. Just being able to be in that house again, that I never thought I would see another time.
The camera enters the kitchen.
Do you know… I asked them for a Whataburger magnet to go on the refrigerator.
New York: Infinite Jest has just set the literary world on fire. Eisenberg/Lipsky is incredulous, envious.
Do you know Walter Kirn? That was something that James [Ponsoldt, who directed the film] was great about. He wanted to recreate that time, so it’s not just some fake review.
Oh yes, that’s one of my favorite parts of the book, when you’re discussing the reviews.
Lipsky’s girlfriend: “Guess you’ll have to read it.”
That’s just so ludicrous. You knew his work intimately.
When I read the State Fair piece, all of a sudden it was not just his intellect. It was also sensuous, you know. It had the whole world and not just the brain, and it was thrilling how he had made that shift. That was June ’94, “Ticket to the Fair.” He had been really smart and his phrasing was great — but then all of a sudden he had populated the world around that great brain too, and that was just totally exciting. We had tried to get him into the [Rolling Stone] Hot List before — that’s when you pick all the cool things that are happening, and we knew that Infinite Jest was coming out, so we made a big push to get him in there, but we couldn’t.
Eisenberg’s Lipsky arrives in Illinois.
And they got the car that I had! A forest-green Pontiac Grand Am.
Interior: Wallace’s house. The recorder is off. Wallace explains that he might want to take some stuff back after he has said it: will Lipsky agree? “Yes” — then he turns the tape recorder back on and says, a little unpleasantly: “You agreed to the interview.”
That didn’t happen.
Yeah, no, so: Jesse asked me, were there times when David seemed like he didn’t want to talk anymore? and I said yeah, there were. But look, he’d agreed to the interview. So — that line isn’t in the script; that’s something that Jesse knew was a nice way of explaining. Because you have to make a story. That makes me look a little bit bad or whatever, but it…
It makes you be a journalist, instead of a fellow reader.
Okay. But they have a hundred and five minutes to make the story; so that version of me is part of the envelope to get what is really valuable.
So, satisfy my curiosity about this: These two guys, in what we’re seeing, in a minute’s conversation, they’re speaking maybe two percent of the actual word count that took place, I’m guessing.
That’s right. That conversation over pizza, we’re talking about Tolstoy, and it was one thing I really wished had been in the movie. The challenge, he says, is: “I have received five hundred thousand discrete bits of information today, and I have to decide on the twenty-five that mean something to me.” And he’s saying that before the Internet. That was one of the things we talked about the first night that I would have loved, but I guess there wasn’t room for it.
Ponsoldt is a great director who is perfect about how people talk to each other. I could tell that he would be great for this in the same way I knew that Margulies would be great writing the script. He is able to make whole plays out of just people talking. He won the Pulitzer for Dinner With Friends, but he did this great play about artists called Sight Unseen, just two artists talking over a weekend.
The part about drinking in front of someone… about being in program, whatever. You knew so many more secrets about this man’s life than you have told.
One of the things that was important to him was not to be on record as having gone through any kind of program. And they were very good about doing the same thing here. It is everything he was willing to talk about when we were together for five days. But you know, other things that you knew — they weren’t things that he wanted to talk about.
So you could feel a margin.
Segel’s Wallace talks about wanting to profile the reporters who’ve been coming to talk with him: “It’d be a way for me to get some of the control back… Because if you wanted–I mean, you’re gonna be able to shape this essentially how you want. And that to me is extremely disturbing.”
Okay, so here’s what’s great. He wanted to do that, as opposed to someone doing a biography of him. And I was able to do that in the book. And here he is, saying the same things in the movie.
Segel and Eisenberg are in a Midwestern restaurant onscreen; the real Lipsky, watching, is thrilled.
What a paradise: They’re smoking at the table!
Segel as Wallace: “Why am I watching all this shit? It’s not about the shit… it’s about me. And what’s so American about what I’m doing?”
This is great.
The refrigerator reappears onscreen, complete with magnet.
Whataburger! Ha! ha! ha! Very cool.
Segal/Wallace, on American entertainment: “Sittin’ in really expensive chairs, watching the best most sophisticated electronic equipment money can buy.”
As we are right now.
“Why are we so empty and unhappy?”
Except I’m really happy, though.
Yeah, me too. It’s a really good movie… that’s the difference.
“So look, as the Internet grows in the next ten to fifteen years and virtual reality porn becomes a reality? We’re going to have to develop some real machinery inside our guts to turn off pure unalloyed pleasure… or I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna have to leave the planet…”
I would give up a lot of stuff in the first part of the movie to have this. He made this guess in ’96, right? You could give up anything you wanted to give up, to have this scene in the movie. What he says is so brilliant.
Wallace says in the book that you have to be able to perceive how an alien consciousness will respond to what you’re saying, and I connect that with something that Martin Amis said in an essay about Ulysses: It’s the title of his book, The War Against Cliché, which is about keeping people awake. And he said: Joyce didn’t love the reader, as you have to do. Wallace says art finds a way to take care of you, and that’s what I kept feeling in his stuff.
That’s so true. Like the closest Joyce comes is “The Dead.”
Exactly. At the end of the essay, he says that Joyce had all the elements, he could have become the cleverest boy, the most charming, the most popular and instead he became something else: He became the teacher’s pet. In a way, the culture is trying to make David into the teacher’s pet.
Ah. That is so good.
By the way the thing you just did is what… when Eisenberg was asking me what it is to be interviewing somebody? I said, the key thing is that whenever the person you are interviewing says something that you know will be useful —
— something awesome —
— You look and make sure that the tape recorder is on.
Are you at all a Mamet fan?
No, not a bit.
You’ve seen Glengarry, right?
Okay, I love that movie. It’s so — oh, no it’s great!
You are so fired.
Okay, I’ll go —
No, fine, I understand. You’re such a guy.
It’s smart! It’s beautifully written —
— you are guilty. Of being a dude.
There’s two acts — I think a lot of women love that play and movie too — some —
— there is one woman —
— there are no women, okay.
The first act of that play, that movie, we’re seeing the three different sales techniques: We see the old, sweaty style of selling, then Al Pacino as Ricky Roma selling to Jonathan Pryce, and it’s so smooth you don’t know it’s a sale, so beautifully set up. Then, the next morning, their office has been robbed, and it’s a different set of problems, and Jonathan Pryce’s character comes back wanting his money back from Ricky Roma. And his name in the play — it’s like a smile to us — is James Link. The role that Jesse [Eisenberg] has to keep playing between these great parts of the book — and all that Wallace is saying — is James Link.
This isn’t in the book and you didn’t put it this way, but I just felt I’d intuited something, between the three men in the book, each one sort of pulling his own way —
— and there’s a fourth, which is Wallace’s death —
Ah. Yes. But through these various lenses I formed the impression that in truth, Wallace himself thought of you as someone admirable, in whom he could confide. Someone who found things easy that for Wallace, were maybe not so easy.
Here’s a really unusual person who is out on some kind of periphery or margin that is unfathomable, so difficult to understand. But here is another person to identify with and see him through… who likes him.
There’s this warmth… so like, some of the stuff I’ve read about the movie, which is a way to get people to know the movie exists? It doesn’t matter, they may be saying silly things like, why I won’t see the movie, or blah blah. But it’s a way of getting the noise loud enough so that people say, “Oh — is there a movie about David Foster Wallace?” All that is a way to get you to this very sweet thing about two people talking about what it is to read, what it is to write and what it is to decide kind of how you want to live your life.
Do you want to hear how close [Segel] is?
Lipsky plays, on his phone, the original 1996 recording of the entire story of Michael Ryan showing up to fetch a towel from Wallace at the health club, and then we watch the filmed version. It would not be so very easy to tell the Jason Segel version from the real thing, I think. As well as sounding markedly more Midwestern — Wallace was then living in Illinois, after all — the voice sounds noticeably younger than the Wallace whose voice I got to know much later.
He nailed it, right? The thing is, he’s so casual about how good he is that you won’t notice it.
Segel/Wallace flirts with Eisenberg’s girlfriend over the phone.
I can’t believe that there is any accuracy in this. The dynamic of this.
The dynamic of this isn’t wrong, in that he is a better talker than I am. So like he’s calling my girlfriend —
Yeah, and you know, it’s about a half hour, they have the time right, too. And in a way you feel helpless. It’s like splashing in deep water, to have someone talking to your girlfriend who she’s happier to be talking with than she would be speaking with you; the vibe is absolutely correct.
Oh yeah… they were just talking about Harper’s.
An even more cringe-making interpersonal disaster involving beer and Wallace’s ex.
Oh, the beer scene! I hate this.
Yeah… it’s true, by the way.
It’s sooo irritating. How much actual sexual tension was there, in this?
When I was looking at my notebook afterwards… I think it was more we’d been hanging around for like two days and I think he’d forgotten it was a story. It was just more like we were just two guys and I was talking to his former girlfriend he still had feelings for. It wasn’t so much sexual tension as like —
A role change?
Segel as Wallace: “… a person who has really exhausted a couple other ways to live and taken them to their conclusion, which for me was a pink room with no furniture and a drain in the center floor which is where they put me for an entire day when they thought I was gonna kill myself, where you don’t have anything on and somebody’s observing you through a slot in the wall… and when that happens to you you get tremendously — unprecedentedly — willing to examine other alternatives for how to live.”
That’s a great joke. And so when I watch the movie I’m the only person who laughs, because… that’s a beautiful joke.
I just wrote down “unprecedentedly” for that very purpose, because that’s how he made jokes, he would choose this one word that is so hilarious and so terrible.
Exactly: “unprecedentedly.” Where Segel is —
But here’s a funny thing, like Segel is aware that it’s a gag also, because he listened… I matched the screenplay to the moments from the trip. I sent them like a one-hour, five-minute concordance… he listened to it. If you go back you’ll see, he smiles a little.
They’re hungry. Segel as Wallace: “I want to take you somewhere really nice.” And then they’re at a McDonald’s.
So the McDonald’s thing leads up to a great joke that’s not in the film, which is Wallace’s description of McDonald’s — “It’s bad, but in a really good way.” It still is a good joke in the movie (“I want to take you somewhere really nice”) but that great line — “bad, but in a really good way” — that should be the slogan for McDonald’s nationwide.
The thing Wallace was so great at saying: What everyone already knows.
Alexander Pope. “What oft was thought/but ne’er so well expressed.”
I love Pope so much. Do you know Essay on Man?
I do, but I love Rape of the Lock, such a good joke… by the way, that can’t be taught because it says —
Because it says “rape”!? Oh my god, I hate everything.
Elaine Benes: “Everything’s the worst.”
Eisenberg’s Lipsky gives a copy of his own novel, The Art Fair, to Segal’s Wallace.
Did he ever read it?
I don’t know. I never spoke to him again.
It’s a really good movie.
I don’t think there are other movies that are like it.
There aren’t. It’s not the book, it couldn’t have been the book. It has beautiful things in it that are not in the book that I appreciate and love. But there are a few howlers, though. There were complaints that the ending was sentimental, like on the Wallace listserv, because he is dancing, but I’m like no, y’all, remember, this is made from the book, and what you’re seeing is what David Lipsky is imagining to have happened. There’s nothing sentimental about it.
It says that in the script: this is David’s imagination.