The End of the Tour is a film adapted from the memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, by David Lipsky. It begins with news of Wallace’s suicide* reaching Lipsky, who then digs out his audio tapes from the five days he spent with Wallace at the end of his author’s tour for Infinite Jest.
The movie does several things right. It definitely gets the feel of a book tour: the rental cars, hotel rooms and airports are impersonal, unfriendly and seem designed to suck all the enthusiasm from you. The hardworking book store personnel are glimpsed, as well as the contact person charged with getting Wallace on time to the bookstore, radio station and so forth. The three actual readings shown in the movie—one sparsely attended, the other two packed—both have the right atmosphere.
But that’s only window dressing on the central relationship, between Wallace (Jason Segel) and Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg, looking like he’s never smoked before in his life), a Rolling Stone writer and unsuccessful novelist. Lipsky’s source book is literally a transcript of those tapes he accumulated, and the screenplay seems an accurate, if judiciously pruned, transcript of those transcripts.
The central problem is one that’s endemic to movies about writers: it’s pretty much impossible to show them doing the thing that makes them interesting. A movie about a musician can always show him or her performing; a biography of an actor can show the main character on stage or screen. But a writer? It’s impossible, as I wrote about two weeks ago.
The result is that Wallace comes across as a typically self-important “bro-lit” doufus. His responses to Lipsky’s questions aren’t those of a great intellect, but of a nervous guy suddenly caught in a spotlight he both courted and feared. Listening to him, the viewer can’t help but think, Why am I watching a movie about this guy?
But then you remember that the movie is about the patron saint of bro-lit.
In an article on The Cut last August, Molly Fischer observes:
“Make a passing reference to the ‘David Foster Wallace fanboy’ and you can assume the reader knows whom you’re talking about; he’s the type who’s pestered at least one woman to the point that she quit reading Infinite Jest in public. Infinite Jest — a novel that appears high on the list of ‘Books That Literally All White Men Own.’”
Well, I don’t. I’ve never read Infinite Jest. I’ve tried—just like I’ve tried The Fountainhead and Ulysses—numerous times, but I just can’t get past the dense, over 1,000-page, look-at-me pretentiousness of it all. As a writer, I typically try to stay out of the story’s way and tell it as simply and accessibly as possible; Wallace is the exact opposite of that, as was James Joyce, and possibly (though I can’t say for certain) for the same reason: big book equals big thoughts. And with lit-bros, that “big” standard also implies that something else is big (and I don’t mean hands).
I intended to try Infinite Jest again this spring, before I saw the movie, but every copy in our library system was checked out—apparently there’s an Infinite Summer reread in progress. It says something that you have to seek out peer pressure just to get through a book, but since I haven’t read it, I can’t say what. Perhaps it is the book the lit-bros claim it is. Perhaps it’s my pulp-sired, SF-reared white trash core that simply can’t comprehend its greatness.
Or maybe, to quote the patron saint himself (from page 36 of Lipsky’s book), it’s actually this:
“My tastes in reading lately have been way more realistic, because most experimental stuff is hellaciously unfun to read.”
As both a writer and a reader, I’d rather have fun.
*None of this is meant as any comment on Wallace’s subsequent death. I’ve been touched by suicide enough that I wouldn’t do that.