I had a deadline of April 1st to finish a piece – some hybrid of an essay and review – for The Millions, the subject of which was to be the forthcoming Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky.
Other folks seem to have an easier time writing about this book than I have. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks trying to sort out what it is, exactly, about this book that rubs me the wrong way, and how to express this in a review without coming across as unnecessarily harsh. How does one review this book?
(I know other reviews are starting to surface, but I generally avoid reading them until my own work is done.) What we have here – the subtitle is “A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace” – is a few days’ worth of extemporaneous conversation between Wallace and Lipsky, who was assigned the job of interviewing Wallace for Rolling Stone magazine during the book tour for INFINITE JEST. Fair enough, and interesting enough – but Rolling Stone never ran the interview, and so Lipsky shelved the tapes and transcripts and went about his business.
Then Wallace committed suicide, and now we have this book.
Is it fair to suggest that this book would never have seen the light of day if Wallace hadn’t ended his life? Not because it lacks material of interest – back to that later – but, simply, why now? Why not any other time? I’m generally not cynical, or at least generally enjoy thinking of myself as someone who isn’t cynical, but Wallace’s life ended for reasons tragic and sad and unfathomable. It feels a little bit dirty and shameful, looking over 300 plus pages of interviews and knowing that when he spoke these words he wasn’t thinking of his eventual demise – but that when we are reading them, it is difficult (and maybe unjust) to consider them separate from our knowledge of his suicide.
Do we even have an obligation (assuming such a thing were possible) to approach this book without seeing it through the lens of how Wallace’s life ended? The interview was granted, not extracted. Wallace worries about how he’ll come off, how his writing could be affected by such a prominent interview, but he knew he was putting himself out there. It’s not his secret diaries. Why shouldn’t we read it? Because we think Lipsky is trying to ride the coattails of a dead star, and we think that turning our noses up will somehow send the publishing industry a message that this isn’t cool? Sorry, but that horse has already left the barn. Nabokov left explicit instructions not to publish THE ORIGINAL OF LAURA, but a few games of Morality Twister later, “he would have burned it if he really meant not to publish it” and “we have an obligation” win the day, and what we get a half-baked collection of notes that don’t add up to anything and a dead man’s wishes disregarded.
Which, again, isn’t exactly the case here.
Existential hand-wringing aside, what we have here is a half-baked collection of notes. I can understand the decision to just go ahead and cram everything in there, since it’s not the article for Rolling Stone, and except for the bits that Wallace was clear about wanting to be off-record, how can we know? Well, we can’t, but that doesn’t mean the man shit gold. Does Lipsky need to tell us what Wallace’s burps smell like? Could we have done without knowing what music was playing in the restaurant? I don’t know who served as editor on this, but if there wasn’t a way to present this as “everything from the four days” without including what comes across as Lipsky putting in a Freshman Comp scene-setting performance, then maybe we could have seen this presented a different way.
Wallace does have interesting things to say here, about culture, entertainment, television, and writing. Lipsky’s stated claim about what “the book would like to be – a record of what David was like, when he was thirty-four and all his cards had turned over good, every one of his ships had sailed back into harbor” certainly sounds admirable. He also asserts, though, that this is a worthy book because Wallace spoke just like he wrote, which is a dubious assertion in most circumstances, and even more so with Wallace. It seems akin to saying that somebody delivers Powerpoint presentations “just like” the way they sing in the church choir. Unless your subject’s name is Richard Powers, I’m not buying it.
The other problem (aside from all the above fretting) is that there’s an overarching feeling of Lipsky being unable to resist shaping the narrative every chance he gets, alternating between cryptic signifiers and wisehead “I’m a writer and we’re relating as writers and now that this is a book you get to see us relating as writers” remarks. You can’t go more than two or three pages without Lipsky’s shadow falling over the text. And you aren’t reading this book for the Lipsky, are you? The biggest problem here is that, like it or not, his fingerprints are all over it. And I didn’t like it.