In the late fall of 1997, I got a phone call from David Foster Wallace. Wallace had been a model of gentlemanly calm throughout the editing process on his essay about David Lynch for Premiere magazine, where I worked at the time. (It wasn’t until our third session that he stopped calling me “Mr Kenny.”) But now he sounded close to panic. A friend of his, Wallace said, had been listening to an NPR segment about the Noah Baumbach film Mr Jealousy and had heard one of the actors name-check Wallace as an inspiration for the character he played. Wallace was freaked. And he didn’t live near a cinema where the indie film was playing. So he asked me to do him a favour and investigate the situation.
A day or so later, I assuaged his fears by assuring him that Chris Eigeman’s character in the picture was not in any way mimicking Wallace. I even (somehow) checked out the NPR segment, and it turned out the invocation of his name had been pretty generic: Eigeman had described playing a male “voice of his generation” type of writer, mentioning both Wallace and Jay McInerney, the latter a fellow whose public persona is almost the precise inverse of Wallace’s.
Wallace’s sigh of relief when I gave him this news is something I remember pretty vividly.
That conversation came to mind again when, last week, I read a statement from Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s longtime book editor and friend, to the Los Angeles Times about the new film The End of the Tour. “David would have howled the idea for it out of the room had it been suggested while he was living,” Pietsch wrote. Pietsch’s statement did not prevent the newspaper from titling the piece “How End of the Tour became a very David Foster Wallace kind of film”. It proceeds to slather praise upon the film, and on Segel’s performance as Wallace, while the objections voiced by Pietsch and others are included perfunctorily, with a weary sense of satisfying a tiresome journalistic-balance requirement.
Sundance 2015 review: The End of the Tour – Jason Segel passes infinite test of playing David Foster Wallace
James Ponsoldt’s compassionate, fascinating – and unauthorised – study of the great, late American novelist focuses on a five day road trip with a foe-turned-bro journo played by Jesse Eisenberg
This is less and less of a surprise these days. Something I’ve noticed since Wallace’s suicide in 2008 is that a lot of self-professed David Foster Wallace fans don’t have much use for people who actually knew the guy. For instance, whenever Jonathan Franzen utters or publishes some pained but unsparing observations about his late friend, Wallace’s fanbase recoils, posting comments on the internet about how self-serving he is, or how he really didn’t “get” Wallace.
This trend has played out again in the press around The End of the Tour. When the film, an adaptation of the journalist David Lipsky’s book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace was announced, the David Foster Wallace Trust registered its objection. The writer Maria Bustillos (who styled herself a kind of Wallace expert by republishing, with precious little real insight, juicy marginalia about his mother from his marked-up books) promptly contributed a tetchy piece to the Awl titled The Dead Cannot Consent. Referring to “The Trust” as if it were some Orwellian construct rather than a small entity headed by Karen Green, who was married to Wallace from 2004 until his death, Bustillos sniffed: “Why even speculate on the sad and unfathomable question of what Wallace would or would not have consented to, had he not committed suicide?”
I would dare say the question is not particularly unfathomable to Green, or to Bonnie Nadell, Wallace’s literary agent, or, indeed, to Pietsch. For them, his wishes are not, and never were, abstract intellectual questions. “I know journalism is journalism and maybe people want to read that I discovered the body over and over again, but that doesn’t define David or his work,” Karen Green tried to tell people in an interview with the Observer in 2011. “It all turns him into a celebrity writer dude, which I think would have made him wince, the good part of him.” They’ve been left to weigh all they knew about him against the weirdly proprietary claims of his fans.
I did not know David Foster Wallace as well as Green or Pietsch or Nadell did, but I knew him well enough that I could, while he was alive, refer to him as “my friend” in print and he wouldn’t balk. He also granted me the nickname The Mollifier in the acknowledgements to his 1997 essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I spent a weekend in Las Vegas with Dave in 1998 at the AVN awards, which he later wrote up as Big Red Son. (There, he called a version of me “Dick Filth”.) When he was in New York, I’d sometimes have a meal with him. We maintained friendly relations even after the handling at Premiere of what became Big Red Son made him angry enough to use the word “bowdlerized” (entirely accurately) in a note in Consider the Lobster. We mostly spoke on the phone, and after 2004, the biggest portions of our conversations had to do with how fortunate we were to have met our respective spouses. The last talk I had with him was in May 2008, and he was very encouraging after I bitched to him at length about losing my day job. He died that September.
Even from that limited vantage, I found The End of the Tour risible. In my own film criticism I’ve often defended work that comes up short on historical accuracy, insisting that each picture is a circumscribed world in and of itself, for better or worse. This posture of detachment went out the window the first time I saw the movie. It follows fictionalised versions of Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) and Wallace (played by Jason Segel) over a five-day period in 1996, bookended by scenes set in 2008 in which Lipsky’s character reflects on Wallace’s death and legacy. And the in many ways very conventional independent film left me so angry I actually had trouble sleeping the night I saw it. I lay awake obsessing over the best phrase that could sum up Jason Segel’s performance as Wallace. I came up with “ghoulish self-aggrandisement”. For me, it recalls a line from a Captain Beefheart song: “I think of those people that ride on my bones.”
When I try to look at the picture from a less personal perspective, eg, as a movie about two bro-ish dudes in the 90s doing Writer Stuff, and then years later one of them kills himself, The End Of The Tour is still lacking. As is Segel’s performance. Far from being a “channeling” of Wallace, as some have called it, Segel’s performance is, to me, more of a feast of Heavy Indicating. A tic here, a tic there. Much brow furrowing. Even when the camera captures him from behind, you can see him thinking really hard about what it’s like to be such a tortured genius. Wallace the artist and Wallace the conversationalist take a distant back seat to Wallace the eventual suicide. Even when he’s cracking wise, there’s no light or lightness to the character. When uttering lines like “I’d rather be dead” or “I’m not so sure you want to be me”, Segel might as well be nudging the viewer in the ribs. He, and the movie, insists that suicide loomed over everything Wallace did a full 12 years before the end.
Segel’s Wallace is never really dark, either. He’s just Kinda Sad. The Wallace who would suggest intense immersion in pornography as an alternative to self-castration never rears his head in The End of the Tour. Nor does the author of the impossibly knotty short story Octet, whose vertiginous finale begins: “You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer.” This is a movie for those people who cherish This Is Water as the new Wear Sunscreen: A Primer For Life. Who believe the simplistic claim, most recently put forward in the above-mentioned Los Angeles Times piece, that Wallace was “fiercely opposed to irony”. What Wallace was opposed to was cheap, reflexive irony, not literary irony, but neither Lipsky’s own book nor its resultant movie are terribly concerned with the literary; they present a Wallace happier to talk about Alanis Morissette than John Barth. The literary critic Christian Lorentzen noted, in a recent New York magazine essay, that the movie manages to betray Wallace’s thought in Wallace’s own words, and that’s almost exactly true.
And in the end, having sat through the film twice, I haven’t been able to resolve the contradiction of my experience and the film’s portrayal of Wallace. In the opening of Yourself, Lipsky describes Wallace speaking in “the universal sportsman’s accent: the disappearing G’s, ‘wudn’t,’ ‘dudn’t’ and ‘idn’t’ and ‘sumpin.’” Segel takes Lipsky’s cue. But in my recollection, Dave spoke precisely, almost formally, the “Gs” at the ends of gerunds landing softly, not dropped. Physically, Segel’s got Wallace all wrong too: bulky, lurching, elbowy, perpetually in clothes a half size too small. This, too, contradicts my own memory of Dave as a physically imposing but also very nearly lithe and graceful person. But as Segel’s exuberantly horrible dancing at the end of the film practically blares in neon, this awkwardness represents Segel’s conception of a Genius Who Was Just Too Pure And Holy For This World. This extends, too, to the aforementioned talking-about-Alanis-Morissette business. A what-would-you-do-if-you-met-her exchange appears in Lipsky’s book. Wallace’s response to the idea is sceptical with respect to celebrity dynamics, but not hapless. As rewritten by screenwriter Donald Margulies and acted by Segel, it makes Wallace come off like a high-IQ Beaky Buzzard.
Meanwhile Eisenberg’s Lipsky is given to us deprecatingly at first, as a pushy city slicker who wants what Wallace has – genius, fame or more specifically, literary “it boy” status – and can’t understand Wallace’s ambivalence about those same things. It turns out the self-critical perspective is there to better valorise Lipsky at the film’s end, in which he’s portrayed as the still-living writer who carries the message of Wallace, to NPR, to bookstore readings – everywhere he goes. Like Johnny Appleseed, I suppose.
Is it just me? Dave hasn’t even been dead 10 years. And if I have not made it clear with my own humble example, his death is still a very raw thing to those who survived him.
The movie’s reverence actually works in reverse; it’s stifling. Margulies’ script almost seems to be pleading with Wallace itself, saying “Look at this, look at this tribute, why don’t you want this, why didn’t you want this?” The reason the question is a bad one, I think, is that nobody involved in the film perceives that “this” with the unsparing acuity with which Wallace did. Instead, they all worked very hard and delivered a “celebrity writer dude” portrait on an admittedly very tasteful plate. “Too soon,” indeed.