The acclaimed writer and beloved writing teacher’s suicide ten years ago (Sept. 12) shocked his fans and students. The film The End of the Tour, released last year, captures the essence of David Foster Wallace and may have recalibrated how we think about the writing life.
When a writer, artist or rock musician commits suicide at the height of their fame, their lives often assume the stature of legend. All work available before the suicide is suddenly, and then exclusively, viewed through the lens of that final act. And, invariably, posthumously released work that would not warrant worshipful adulation if the person were to live and continue working, possesses a power far beyond its intrinsic worth.
I confess that I only got interested in David Foster Wallace’s writing after his suicide, which took place ten years ago this September. It was actually only after reading the post-suicide story about him in Rolling Stone that piqued my interest. Until then, I’d lumped him with the literary pack swarming out of university MFA programs. With that head scarf, scraggly facial hair and flowing locks, I had Wallace pegged as a sort of grunge version of Thomas Pynchon, who I confess to finding all but unreadable. However, I was touched by Rolling Stone story of his struggles with chronic depression, a condition I’ve battled the past 30+ years myself—a condition millions of Americans battle every single day of their lives.
So I found a copy of Wallace’s non-fiction collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and read the title piece. Only then did I realize this was a once-in-a-generation writer. After I read Infinite Jest, I became convinced of it.
Infinite Jest was the Ulysses of the new millennium, a door-stopper-sized novel (1,079 pages, 388 footnotes) published in 1996 that every hip young soul purchased but did not get around to reading—or started it and never finished (guilty as charged, at least initially). Like James Joyce’s tale of a day in the life of Dubliner Leopold Bloom, Infinite Jest did not make for light and breezy reading. In fact, at about page 17 of both novels readers may find themselves at a crossroads—whether to slog on, knowing they will be lost for the next several hundred pages, or to put the book aside and accept defeat. And yet, buried in there are sections of writing as good as you have ever read, like drinking a real cup of coffee after a lifetime of swilling Maxwell House.
Here is Wallace in a radio interview around the time Infinite Jest was published. Perhaps this will help anyone who is contemplating diving into it:
However, if all we had of David Foster Wallace was this Jest, infinitely tormenting us with its inscrutability, his “cult” vibe might be harder to sustain or understand. But, happily, there was another DFW—the writer of essays, travel pieces and autobiographical musings. Had he not taken his life in 2008, Wallace might have attained something of the vibe of George Orwell just on the strength of the non-fiction collections A Supposedly Fun Thing and Consider the Lobster (and the posthumously published Both Flesh and Not).
The material contained in these books are the equivalent of free-form reports from the front lines, and slit trenches, of American culture—porn film industry, political campaigns, animal rights activism, right-wing talk radio, a state fair, the cruise ship industry, professional sports. They alternately make your eyes water, your side hurt from laughing and your mind spin from the nonstop whirr of Wallace’s word-slinging, all the while he is practically apologizing for taking up your valuable time with his confusion. Perhaps he shined in non-fiction because he could focus on a specific subject and work outward from there. He dug deeper into some of these subjects than any writer before and mines ore that no one else, with the possible exception of Nicholson Baker, can reach.
Which brings us to last year’s melancholic film The End of the Tour, which uses the transcript from interviews conducted with Wallace by David Lipsky as the foundation of a screenplay. A flimsy concept, on its face, but one that works well for the deeply affecting film, directed by James Ponsoldt. You actually enter the world of two writers, with all the false camaraderie, spite, frustrations, almost agoraphobic fear of facing the public, and the overriding sense that writing is a solitary act.
The DFW army was collectively wary, if not outraged, when word arrived that a film was going to be made about their man. How do you make a decent film about a writer? How do you capture the self-effacing brilliance of Wallace himself, especially when the actor hired (Jason Segel) was best known for his role in a TV sitcom? The End of the Tour answers that question.
The End of the Tour forces viewers to recalibrate their preconceptions about writers and the writing life. For starters, there is little that is romantic about a writer’s life. The most exciting things that happen in a writer’s life takes place in his or her fantasies. Philip Roth (RIP), who stopped writing at age 80, once told an interviewer, “Writing in a room by myself is practically my whole life.”
How do you make the writing life translate to a medium whose oxygen is action, movement, unfolding plot and growing tension?
But Segel is nearly note perfect as Wallace, a sort of galumphing, shambling mess with a heart as big and fragile as Antarctica, bringing a sort of haunting earnestness to lines like, “The more people think you’re really great, the bigger the fear of being a fraud is.”
The trailer for The End of the Tour:
Here is part of an interview with the real David Foster Wallace, conducted by Charlie Rose a year after Infinite Jest was published:
The End of the Tour vaults to the top of the list of films about writers partly out of default. Because there simply are not many decent films about writers.
Here are a few that might qualify.
*Sunset Boulevard: This is a great Billy Wilder directed film, of course, but William Holden’s character is a hack screenwriter, not a tormented genius like Wallace. The trailer to Sunset Boulevard (1950):
*The Lost Weekend in which Ray Milland drinks himself silly, based on the riveting novel by Charles Jackson, himself a hopeless drunk. It is more about dissipation than writing. Was Jackson a drunk because he was a writer, or was he simply a drunk who wrote?
The original trailer for The Lost Weekend (1945):
*Barton Fink was a lesser Coen Brothers movie, in my estimation. Its writer, portrayed by John Torturro, was hard to take; indeed, the more believable writer/character in the film was W. P. Mayhew, brilliantly captured by John Mahoney. It’s a riff on William Faulkner, who went to Hollywood simply to drink and take the studios’ money while pretending to write scripts. In this scene, young Barton Fink meets his hero…in the men’s room:
* Capote, simply on the strength of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance, is worth seeing but the writing theme takes a back seat to Capote’s emotional distress over his secret love for one of the killers in In Cold Blood.
Here is one instance in the film where Hoffman/Capote plays the writer:
* The Long Goodbye, directed by Robert Altman from a novel by Raymond Chandler, is blessed by a truly over-the-top performance by Sterling Hayden as Roger Wade, a novelist with a writer’s block.
Here’s a scene with Hayden, who was reportedly drunk on the set most of the time:
* A Fan’s Notes: Yes, they actually made a film based on Frederick Exley’s only great “novel”, starring Jerry Orbach and Burgess Meredith. But it’s more of a curiosity item than anything else. This film adaptation is so obscure, there are no available clips.
* My Dinner with Andre: A playwright (Wallace Shawn) meets an old friend (Andre Gregory), an itinerant stage director, for dinner and…conversation ensues. But what delicious conversation!