Monday, May 3, 2010

Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace

Right off the bat, let me apologize to my readers for this too-long and rather narrow post, subjectwise  — I fully realize that this post and the book it's describing won't appeal to anyone who hasn't read Infinite Jest or who doesn't care about David Foster Wallace. But I loved reading "Becoming Yourself" and wanted to write about it in some detail in case someone out there is a DFW fan and hasn't come across it yet.

And but so, if you ARE as big a fan of David Foster Wallace's writing as I am, then reading this book may be as difficult as it is illuminating. The reason: How do you square the light-hearted, good-natured writer that splashes jokes and humor throughout these pages with the man who suffered from a crushing depression and hung himself 12 years later? It's truly tragic, and while I loved reading this, it made me immensely sad a lot of the time, too.

But let me back up for a second: The story behind this book, for those unfamiliar, is that in early 1996 at the height of David Foster Wallace's newfound Infinite Jest-resultant fame (and he was quite the literary rock star!), Rolling Stone sent reporter David Lipsky to follow him around on the last leg of his book tour. The article was never published, but the result instead is this barely edited transcript of their conversations about life, literature (both traditional and avant garde), television and film, dogs, drugs, depression and dozens of other topics over the course of five days.

Several themes emerge from the conversations:
1) DFW was hyper self-aware, but also almost painfully shy and self-conscious and always self-deprecating — Almost every important answer DFW gives is couched with a sort of disclaimer that he's aware how what he's saying could be misinterpreted in print. He's constantly asking Lipsky to be nice and portray him positively in the article — which is one of the reasons why Lipsky is terrified to actually write the piece (thankfully for Lipsky, RS canceled the article). One of the best parts of the book is near the end of their time together when Lipsky asks him about his "act" of appearing as a normal person, when everyone knows he's so much smarter than everyone else. This is one of the questions (along with questions about his past drug use) that really rubs DFW the wrong way, because DFW insists that he's been nothing but genuine throughout. He's not posturing or being anyone but himself. It's easy to understand Lipsky's skepticism, because it's amazing to think that someone who was as smart as DFW was really can come off as a guy you'd love to have some beers with — making jokes about being disappointed that his fame hasn't gotten him laid, discussing music and movies, or warning Lipsky about using the bathroom 'cause he "just wreaked a little havoc."

2) DFW was uncomfortable with his meteoric rise to fame, especially after a somewhat pockmarked past, including a stay in suicide-watch ward in the late 1980s  — He really had no idea how Infinite Jest would be received. He knew he'd written a good book, because he'd worked so hard on it, and at that level he was satisfied and proud. Finishing that book was his personal justification (even with two other published books under his belt) that he was truly a writer. His reaction to the critical acclaim and massive attention as almost a pop culture icon (every girl wanted to date him, every guy wanted to be him) was only that it would erode his credibility as a serious writer, both in his own mind in the mind of his readers. In fact, his biggest concern was that the fame would affect his writing — that he would be so worried about making his follow-up as impressive and worthy-of-attention as Infinite Jest, that he'd get bogged down in a loop of perfectionism. Here's how he puts it: "I have an enormous ambition to be centered...I mean this stuff, it's really scary...I'm now so scared of having the ambition to be regarded well by other people."

3) DFW was as incredibly smart and incredibly funny in person as he is in his writing — In the introduction, Lipsky describes DFW's voice as a writer as "the best friend you'd ever have, spotting everything, whispering jokes, sweeping you past what was irritating or boring or awful in humane style." I couldn't agree more, and DFW's wit, charm and intelligence is best illustrated with some quotes from the book: 
— On reading vs. TV (and DFW LOVED TV): "...a book has to teach a reader how to read it. You teach the reader that he's way smarter than he thought was. I think one of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you're dumb." Later, when they're talking about why books are losing ground to other mediums (and remember this was 1996!), DFW argues the reason is that reading requires its consumer to do work, whereas TV doesn't — it's incredibly passive, and Americans are incredibly lazy.
— In response to a flight attendant who has announced that "Smoking only is permitted outdoors." DFW: "Permitted only outdoors. It's not the only thing that's permitted outdoors." Lipsky adds: "Irritated as a grammarian and as a smoker."
— NPR radio guy prior to interview DFW: "We're gonna record digitially. I hope that's okay." DFW: "So, only yes and no answers?"
— On being a writer: "I don't think writers are smarter than other people. I think they may be more compelling in their stupidity, or in their confusion."
— "Although of course you end up becoming yourself" — DFW is talking about the influences of your parents, but then, of course, at some point you diverge and forge your own identity.

The one thing that bothered me as I read this book (other than the fact that Lipsky seems to be constantly trying to prove how smart he is to DFW, and thus inserting himself quite frequently into the narrative) is something I read in a recent interview. Lipsky said he never talked to DFW again after the time they spent together, and I wondered why. The two have such a great rapport, and admit to each other that they think of each other as friends after the time spent together. So what happened? 

It's worth noting that Lipsky did eventually use the material for an article —  a wonderfully moving tribute piece to DFW soon after he died, which RS, dickily, seems to have removed from their site (or at least you can't get to it anymore without jumping through an unreasonable number of hoops), but you can read it here. If you're a DFW fan and haven't read this piece yet, clear your schedule for the next hour, and do it now. Finally, here's my blog in which I chronicled my own battle with and victory over Infinite Jest.


  1. Thanks for a beautiful post, Greg. You just made me want to go out and get Infinite Jest right now...

  2. Wow, this sounds really great. I have to admit, I didn't know much about DFW before reading Infinite Jest last summer, and when I was done I was so tired I didn't do much research about him later. This book sounds like it would be a good way to get to know him, in some ways, more than I might reading some other fiction. Thanks also for linking to the RS article.

  3. Thanks for this excellent review and commentary on DFW. I am off to check out the links you provided.

    Well written my friend, well written.


  4. i REALLY have to get myself into gear and read his work!

  5. @bibliophiliac - Thanks for the kind words! Please, please, please, if you've been thinking about trying Infinite Jest, just do it! Everyone else is, and it's cool. ;)

    @Kim - His life is fascinating, and provides some really interesting context for some of the crazy parts of Infinite Jest.

    @Cym - You're too kind, my friend! Thank you. What did you think of the RS article?

    @mummazappa - Yes, yes you do! ;)

  6. I was actually a lipsky fan, and turned on to Infinite Jest by the anticipation of this, Lipsky's most recent book (which I started and didn't like (oh no!) before I put it aside for I.J.-- which I LOVE!)-- I thought Lipsky had a case of hero worship, but I am seeing now how justified it is!

  7. I came to Infinite Jest via Consider the Lobster -- a collection of DFW's essays. I was more fascinated by IJ than in love with it. And very fascinated by the man behind it.

  8. This is a great review... thanks for providing me the link. We voiced a lot of the same opinions in our reviews, which is a good affirmation for me since you've been a fan of DFW for much longer. It's good to know that I came away with the same feelings about DFW (and Lipsky). I can't wait to read more of his stuff.