Every Story Is a Ghost Story

I think probably what I’ve noticed in readings, is that the people who seem most enthusiastic and moved by it are young men. Which I guess I can understand—I think it’s a fairly male book, and I think it’s a fairly nerdy book, about loneliness. And I remember in college, a lot of even experimental stuff I was excited by, I was excited by because I found reproduced in the book certain feelings or ways of thinking or perceptions that I had had, and the relief of knowing that I wasn’t the only one, you know? Who felt this way. Who had, you know, worried that perhaps the reverse of paranoia was true: that nothing was connected to anything else.
 David Foster Wallace from the interview Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself with David Lipsky


It’s the 5:45 PM showing of The End of the Tour, the film adaption of David Lipsky’s (Jesse Eisenberg) book-length interview of late author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). The movie, which I saw at New York’s Angelika Film Center, follows Wallace and Lipsky over five days in 1996. Lipsky, on assignment from Rolling Stone, drove with Wallace from Normal, IL, where Wallace was teaching in the English department of Illinois State, to Minneapolis, MN, for the last leg of the book tour for Wallace’s 1000+ page tennis academy and halfway house satire Infinite Jest. The lights are coming up soon at New York’s Angelika Film Center, and if I had an ounce of foresight and came three days prior Jason Segel would be sitting in the front fielding questions which would probably have made this a whole lot more interesting. Instead, while the theater is still only backlit by the rolling credits and with the techno/ambient song The Big Ship by Brian Eno making everything vibrate a little bit, no fewer than eight separate and alone young men are bolting down the aisle, trying to beat a crowd that barely filled half the seats anyway.


We should talk first, I think, about Wallace’s observation about the lonely young male fans of Infinite Jest that you quoted above. Molly Fischer, writing for New York’s fashion blog early last week, characterized Wallace’s fans as a new generation of literary chauvinists, drawing heavily on one of Wallace’s own essays on John Updike to make the point.
To help understand Fischer’s argument (and how it might work with Wallace’s observation about his fans), I want to make the distinction here between “serious literary” types and the self-described lonely young male. That Wallace is relatively unpopular among the former could be attributed to his popularity among the latter (for proof that the “serious literary” types are reflexively suspicious of the popular novel just take a look at the NYRB Press and how many names you recognize). I think the difficulty in reading Wallace (at least Infinite Jest) is more in the breadth and depth of the work than the sentence-to-sentence reading — it’s not like you’re ever completely disoriented in the way that you are in Gaddis’ work, and, for all the highbrow allusions and film theory jokes, Infinite Jest is well within the difficulty rating of any other widely commercial work of literary fiction.

So here’s the issue: Wallace’s work, because of all the apoplectic praise that Infinite Jest received, gets this outsized reputation in the mind of the lonely young male who wants to look like he’s a serious literary type. And because actually being a serious literary type involves a lot of work, he can instead just use Infinite Jest and Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow like coffee table books and hope that it somehow gets him laid.

Where I think Fischer’s argument falls short is that it’s basically a strawman. Nobody likes someone who pretends to like certain books because he thinks it makes him cool/ manly/ attractive. She glosses over completely the question about the presumably passionate and genuine young male fans who were showing up at Wallace’s readings. Like, sure, some people might’ve gone to a book reading to get laid, but the vast majority of the lonely young men showing up (presumably) were just nothing like her cartoonish characterization. The genuine fans are the ones who, as Wallace said in the interview, feel in the experience of reading Infinite Jest the “relief of knowing that I wasn’t the only one.”


Let a few observations serve as shoddy, empirical assumptions. Many of the “genuine fans” of Wallace are still typically male. They identify with the themes in Wallace’s wheelhouse (loneliness, ecstatic pleasure, psychoactive drugs, etc). There’s still a requisite level of conceit here. Anyone willing to commit to cracking and carrying around a 3 pound tome has to think on some level that they’re intellectually worthy or some kind of peer of Wallace’s. But assume there’s still a meaningful distinction between these guys and pure snobs. 

They’ve also read a lot of Wallace’s work. There’s at least two possible directions to run with this. The genuine fan could just be really jazzed by the ideas floating around Wallace’s corpus. He could think that there’s some big, theorem-like truth in it all that can only be reached by consuming each and every lemma along the way. Or, maybe more compellingly, genuine fans are chasing, from essay to essay to short story to novel, that same voice itself that, no matter the narrator, lingers somewhere in the background of all of Wallace’s writing.

It’s with that voice that the genuine fan builds a deeply personal relationship. It comes easily. There’s a sort closeness that comes naturally in hearing something you’ve thought all along in words better than you could have come up with yourself. Taking on work after work, then, prolongs the conversation. It holds Wallace in the same room as the reader for at least a little while longer.

I think with writing it’s really feeling that, their brain voice for a while becomes your brain voice. and that you feel--the Vulcan Mind Meld perhaps is a better analogy. That just, they feel intimate with you, in a way, that it’d be great to be friends with, but that they are your friend. 

There’s a question worth asking here, though. Who is it, exactly, that fans think they’re talking to? Before even the release of The End of the Tour, Franzen wrote in the New Yorker of the fans that really read Wallace seriously tend to make a “benignant and morally clairvoyant artist/saint” of him. Some of this is naturally seductive. In his suicide, Wallace slips neatly into the archetype of the artist could see what we all can’t and couldn’t take it. 

And then there’s the way Wallace presents himself too.


So I think what you’re getting at is what does DFW do for the self-described lonely young male that Gaddis and Pynchon and Barth do not? And we have to wonder whether there is something particular and irreplicable, for a certain kind of reader, about the distinctive, self-effacing, blisteringly smart authorial voice that Wallace, unlike his many imitators, occasionally creates in rapturously pure form. James Wood of The New Republic wrote a brutal review of 1999’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (which he’s since tempered) that captures the timbre and gist of most of the anti-Wallace criticism, criticism that feels true and devastating for Wallace’s weaker work (e.g. the authorial intrusions in Brief Interviews, the metafictional pussyfooting and unreadable dialect writing of Girl with Curious Hair, a solid 2/3 of Oblivion outside of “Good Old Neon,” “The Soul Is Not a Smithy,” and “The Suffering Channel”) and is at least partially applicable to his best stuff. Wood asks, after deciding that Brief Interviews is fundamentally unreadable due to the echoes and ghosts of Gaddis et. al, asks: “Which way will the ambitious contemporary novel go? Will it dare a picture of life, or just shout a spectacle?”
Wood’s criticism is leveled at pointing out some fraudulence inherent in Wallace’s work because of the clear and present influences of this same holy trinity of American postwar/ postmodern fiction writers — something that seems, to this college-age American literature student, more or less inevitable. Yet the stylishness and logorrhea of Wallace’s writing make it difficult to distinguish between the “spectacle” and the sincere. So sure, you can see Pynchon’s paranoia, Barth’s authorial intrusions, and Gaddis’s formal experimentation on a mind-numbing scale in Wallace’s work, especially the early period that ended with Infinite Jest, but it’s often a tough call whether the experimentation has a point beyond pure referentiality. Then again, as Pynchon-Barth-Gaddis’s many detractors would tell you, the formal experimentation there can feel just as empty.

This movie has inspired a whole lot of hand-wringing and soul-searching on the part of DFW adherents, partially because Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is considered outside of the acceptable purview of the serious fan, and partially because the movie, in turn, has spawned a glut of truly awful Slate and Gawker-style thinkpieces by people earnestly unacquainted with Wallace beyond the fame of Infinite Jest. More worrying than the indignant blogs are the denunciations by Wallace’s friends, notably Jonathan Franzen, of the kind of public beatification of Wallace as a persona after his suicide in 2008.

A large part of the awfulness, both of the thinkpieces and the beatification, comes from fans feeling like they know Wallace, a point that Lipsky is smart enough to preempt. The question is posed in the film whether the closeness and intimacy of Wallace’s writing — all the stuff about loneliness, solipsism, depression, addiction, mind-numbing entertainment — is really creating a closeness between the fans and the author. The alternative is that this connection is, by its very nature, fraudulent, an illusion, fairy farts, and that each author and reader are locked in their separate cages of consciousness. And we run into a stickiness about the ability of fiction to be a place where, in Wallace’s words, “loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated,” for to accept that is to presuppose the possibility for a fight to be staged between solipsism and language. Which is a pretty huge philosophical bullet to bite, despite the infrequent but, I think, universal experience of just that fight.


In the final minutes of the movie, when the college aged guys in the audience (remember them?) presumably started stretching their hamstrings for their sprint down the center aisle, Wallace is at a dance at a Baptist church. Brian Eno's "The Big Ship" is cascading through the theater, washing over the audience.
The scene is pure fiction. Posthumously, it became known that Wallace used dances at the local Baptist church as a cover to attend AA meetings, though he denied outright to reporters, including Lipsky, that he was ever part of the program. The End of the Tour falls for the lie as much as Lipsky did at the original interview’s end.

There’s still value here. After 100 or so minutes of watching Segel play a Wallace with nearly diagnosable paranoia about how he appears to Lipsky and how Lipsky will present him to the world, we get to believe that for some moment, long after Lipsky leaves Wallace’s home in Normal, IL, that Wallace gets to leave himself behind too. For once he’s outside of his head and having fun. It’s a lie within a fiction, which is to say that it’s just more fiction. 

There’s just one sacrifice that this interpretation requires, though. Whoever it is that serious readers of Wallace think they’re getting to know, or growing close to, it isn’t the “real” Wallace. The End of the Tour is itself just another attempt for fans, like Lipsky throughout the car ride, to get in the head of the “real” Wallace, someone they’ve never met, but that they think knows them so well already. There’s definitely something sad here considering that this is an author for whom solipsism ranked highest among his fears, for whom reading was one of the few conduits from one mind to another and could really beat loneliness. The truth is only that the Wallace that fans think they’re getting to know is much harder to pin down. He’s a voice, one that, though tantalizingly close to the real thing, is something separate from the man who committed suicide in his study in the fall of 2008.  

But then of course this Wallace, the one contained within thousands of pages and each line of his prose, is still very much alive.

I think one thing about probably you can expect that somebody who’s willing to read and read hard a thousand-page book is gonna be something with some loneliness issues. Or somebody who’s looking, somebody like me or perhaps like you, who isn’t always able to get the sense of intimacy they need. You know, in regular day-to-day intercourse. And is going to this. So that, I think it was really more that they were lookin’ for a friend, and I don’t mind bein’ somebody’s friend. Although there’s an upper limit to that. But the weird thing was that, their, they come to you on an unequal basis.
They already feel as if they know you — which of course they don’t.