Let’s judge a book by its cover, shall we?
The book in question is David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself: a Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, and it is the first work resembling a biography of Wallace since his death by hanging in 2008. As such, it is an odd start – less a biography than a casually edited transcript of a week-long conversation between Wallace and Lipsky – but for right now it’s all we’ve got.
And perhaps it’s fitting that Wallace get to present himself in his own words. Words are, after all, what we come to Wallace for – that unique and explosive alchemy of high and low, of literary and pop, of slangy and technical, of intimate and cerebral. Or as Lipsky describes it in his afterword, placed oddly but cannily before the main text of the book (in imitation of Wallace’s experiments with form, but also so as not to have the reader’s final impression of Wallace be of his tragic death):
“He wrote with eyes and a voice that seemed to be a condensed form of everyone’s lives – it was the stuff you semi-thought, the background action you blinked through at supermarkets and commutes – and readers curled up in the nooks and crannies of his style.”
So ordinary and not. Somehow extra-ordinary, ϋber-ordinary, able to tap into the unarticulated places that we all share. “A condensed form of everyone’s lives,” emphasis on condensed as contrasted with everyone. Or as Wallace himself expresses it:
“If a writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart they are. Wake the reader up to stuff that reader’s been aware of all the time.”
This waking up is what we – or at least I – come to great writers for. But for this existential alarm clock to go off, we must see ourselves in the writer. He must be everyone. And it is the job of the biographer to tease out this everyone – to emphasize the ordinariness over the genius which allows the writer to express it. Genius, if it exists (and is not just the product of concentrated effort), is why we are drawn to writers; ordinariness is what allows us to apprehend genius. Even in a book as seemingly hands-off as Lipsky’s, the agenda of teasing out the ordinariness behind the genius is present.
And we need look no further than the cover to find it.
[Note to the reader: this is not a review in the traditional sense. If you want the subjective opinion of a stranger as to whether this book is “good” or not, there are dozens of those in major newspapers, magazines, and journals around the country. This is, rather, an analysis of the rhetorical project of Lipsky’s book as I see it.]
In the cover photo, Wallace sits in a study or office with his dog on his lap. An innocuous photo, but let’s think for a second about what it means. A dog is middle-American – you could even say middle-world. People of all races, ages, countries, and income backgrounds own dogs. Man’s best friend. The idea here is that Wallace, for all his “tortured brilliance,” is ordinary. Relatable. If you don’t believe me, check out the countless profiles on Wallace which use his dogs, his habit of chewing tobacco, and the fact that he wears a bandana not to be hip but because of his sweating issues, as proof of his ordinariness. Check out Lipsky in the introduction, describing his first impressions of Wallace’s house in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois:
“I’ve also been surprised to find the towel of Barney, subbing as a curtain in his bedroom, and the big poster of the complaint singer Alanis Morissette on his wall.”
But lest the reader forget that, for all his ordinariness, Wallace is in fact extraordinary (and note the word surprised in the previous sentence; Lipsky is surprised chiefly because this ordinariness is unexpected), this scene is set in a study. A reliquary of thought and creative production. He is surrounded by books. Stacked sideways and at crazy angles, presenting a view of the artist as someone who can’t be bothered with the details. Not pretentious, however – the lone book spine we can read is The Encyclopedia of Film, which while no doubt a substantial volume, is hardly Wittgenstein. This could very well be coincidence – and I’m not saying all these details are calculated – but it achieves the desired effect of the cover as a whole: to make the extraordinary relatable, to make genius ordinary.
If we share so much with a brilliant mind, the cover suggests, perhaps, by a kind of transitive property of human intellect, we too can be brilliant.
Now let’s move to the title. Although. Of course. You. End Up. Becoming. Yourself. I’ve broken it down into discrete language units to emphasize how important each is in conveying the central idea of the book. Appropriately enough, the phrase comes straight from Wallace’s mouth – a toss-off line in the context of a book-length interview, but one which takes on new weight when made to stand alone on the front cover and, in doing so, to speak for the book as a whole.
Although: This gives the effect of an ongoing conversation we are just now joining. A classic postmodern technique (yes, at this point we can say that: classic postmodern), the idea that narrative has no beginning or end – and it is one that plunges us into the moment and creates a sense of casualness that a more rigid structure would deny.
Of course: creates a rhetorical bond between reader and writer. “We both know this,” it says. “Now let’s think about it together.” This is a technique Wallace uses frequently in his nonfiction and some of his best fiction (see the narrator of Infinite Jest), a position which implies the reader is every bit as smart as Wallace. That this is a lie – we wouldn’t be reading him if he weren’t somehow smarter, more alive than us – is beside the point. It’s a lie that flatters us and makes us feel at home in the text.
You: Just as the slightly awkward abutment of the two prepositions although and of course creates a sense of naturalness – which in turn seems honest, and therefore inspires trust – so does the familiar pronoun you. You is the same thing as one, but in place of this stiff, academic generalization, we have a word that points at the reader and includes him in the generalization. Like of course, it establishes a rhetorical bond: the you here is closer to we than it is to one. It is, in fact, all of us.
End Up: I’m going to skip over this for now, since the important thing is how it plays off of becoming. I will say, however, that it has an informal quality that fits with the title as a whole.
Becoming: This book is a process. While it chronicles a road trip, it is also a trip toward the self. Wallace’s self, yourself. The interesting thing is that this self is not a birthright – it is a destination, somewhere you end up. This is another postmodern idea, the self as constructed, but with a twist. You don’t create the self you would like to be – though there is a great deal of that going on in this book – but the self you need to be. Or maybe it is not created at all, but discovered. As in Wallace’s writing, postmodern techniques are used for old-fashioned ends. Moral ends.
(Here, for reference, is the excerpt on the back of the book, which I feel comfortable including under the umbrella of the cover:
“If you can think of the times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves…I know that sounds a little pious.”
Everything is here. The casualness, the self-awareness – “I know that sounds a little pious” – the idea of self as active creation. As moral duty.)
Yourself: We are along on this process of self-discovery with Wallace. Anything that happens to him happens to us. His problems and questions are ours. As such we relate to genius – become it, in fact – which is precisely the reason we read the biographies of extraordinary people to begin with.
We want to understand why we are not them, sure, but we also don’t want to lose the dream of becoming them.
How do these themes carry forward into the book? At first glance, Lipsky’s biography appears to be the product of laziness – a quick cash-in on the Wallace legacy. As mentioned, the book is essentially a direct transcript of a week-long conversation between Lipsky and Wallace during Wallace’s tour in promotion of Infinite Jest. Lipsky’s intrusions are minimal. I will quote a few at random, not so much for their content, but so that you get a sense of their flavor.
A few section headings so that we know where we are:
“First Day,” one reads, “David’s House, Tuesday Before Class, In the Living Room Playing Chess, His Dogs Slinking Back and Forth Over Carpet.”
Bracketed asides contain additional thoughts of Lipsky’s – sometimes purely informative, sometimes meditative, sometimes undermining – about Wallace or the subject at hand:
“[Hums while playing chess: not tremendously good at chess; strong, however, at humming]”
Or later, as they discuss why Wallace won’t take an advance on his work:
“[This remains chess: as if I’m trying to trick him into castling prematurely.]”
But mostly they talk: about the way literature works, about the perils of fame, about what it means to be human in an age of nonstop self-gratification. To readers of Wallace, these will be familiar themes – present in almost every word he wrote. But they also talk about Bruce Willis movies, Wallace’s boyish crush on Alanis Morrisette (endearingly, Wallace keeps calling one of her songs “I Wanna Know” instead of “You Oughta Know”), about Wallace’s desire to get laid on tour and his disappointment that it hasn’t happened yet.
Again: ordinariness combined with extraordinariness. The conversation flows between these two modes with the naturalness of, well, a conversation. Lipsky is more archivist/editor than writer. His interruptions have the informative purpose and staccato style of editor’s notes. What this does is allow us to be there with him.
If Wallace, in his writing – and Lipsky and his editors with the design and format of this book – makes every attempt to have us feel that his mental journey is ours, then we are also Lipsky, along for the ride. By using the road trip as the book’s organizing principle, Lipsky not only literalizes the internal journey (just as the external journey is made metaphor by the title), but he furthers the impression of Wallace’s ordinariness. Road trips traffic in the mundane: hotels, Denny’s restaurants, time spent cramped in rental cars or waiting at baggage claims. Bad pop radio, hours with nothing to do but talk.
And bond they do. At first, Wallace is guarded. He gives the answers he thinks Lipsky wants. He is careful to downplay the impact of his newfound fame and his excitement over the book tour. Part of this, as he states repeatedly, is a way of making sure he stays grounded. But it is also a calculated attempt to seem humble and unpretentious. Here is one of Lipsky’s asides:
“[He has sized me up as a guy who likes “laying”… I now know he did this sort of thing as an approach, and I can see it here, his trying to guess what people, what I wanted. That’s who he is too: trying to read people.]”
This is not to say he is being dishonest. Rather, it’s honesty with a motive. The simple and miraculous thing that happens in the course of this book is that the motive seems to drop away – or maybe it simply changes, from manipulation to communication. Wallace begins to trust Lipsky. Compare this to the earlier talk of getting laid:
I really have wished I was married, the last couple of weeks. Because yeah, it’d be nice to have somebody to um—you know, because nobody quite gets it. Your friends who aren’t in the writing biz are just all awed by your picture in Time, and your agent and editor are good people, but they also have their own agendas. You know? And it’s fun talking with you about it, but you’ve got an agenda and a set of interests that diverges from mine. And there’s something about, there would be something about having somebody who kinda shared your life, and uh, that you could allow yourself just to be happy and confused with.
It’s probably naïve to think that this version of Wallace is any less calculated than previous incarnations. Wallace is too smart for that. But the effect has changed. We get, more than any other place in the book, a deep sense of his loneliness. It’s at this moment we fully feel the death not of Wallace the writer (extraordinary), whose loss we already feel or else we wouldn’t be reading this biography, but of Wallace the human being (ordinary). The book has achieved its rhetorical goal, not through any calculated and – in the most literal sense – superficial means of cover artwork and title, but by allowing Wallace the room to speak. To become himself.
And it’s therefore not surprising that in this moment, when we are closest to the felt impact of Wallace’s death, he seems at his most alive.
This is a great book review. Very good overview of the ideas and themes running throughout DFW’s work–maybe even his aesthetic vision, of sorts.
I know from other interviews that DFW had a certain sensitivity toward dogs that had been badly abused by their previous owners. I have always been interested (no doubt for very personal reasons)in people who display a deep care and fondness for stray or abused animals. I wonder how this care both mirrored and influenced DFW’s own private life, view of the world, and writing. DFW seemed to walk seamlessly between two worlds: the strict, mathematical logic of Wittgenstein, on one side, with the sensitivity and creativity of Wallance Stevens, Moravia, and F. O’Connor on the other (not that Wittgenstein and math aren’t creative in their own way).
How do animals fit into this? Not sure, but it seems that DFW couldn’t turn off this sensitivity, couldn’t rationalize it, couldn’t get beyond the “humaneness” that he felt for the strangers around him. There’s certainly a quietness in animals…sad that a person like that is gone.
What I like most is about the Wallace that comes across in this book is the idea of the “self” as something you work at. That the goal of life is to be human and whole and decent — and that this is not something that just happens, but is the entire purpose of adulthood. It is, in fact, what makes you an adult. Putting away childish, self-involved things.
I think his love for animals (and I believe the dog on the cover is an abused animal) ties in to his spirit of giving. He was also a very solitary person, so it might just be that pets were a perfect way for him to have companionship without being around people. He didn’t get married until fairly late and it wasn’t enough to stop him from committing suicide.
In sum, I think that Lipsky’s book does a great service to Wallace by allowing him to speak from the grave, in a way. But as I stressed in my review, this doesn’t mean it wasn’t filtered and organized to create a certain image. I have no idea if anything was left out of the transcripts, but even if it wasn’t, there still the cover and the introduction and Lipsky’s notes: all of these try to stress the idea of his humanity over his strangeness/estrangedness. Both are present, of course.
I was going to put off reading the book for a while, but after re-reading this review, I think I might have to squeeze it in this summer.
Well, because it’s a long conversation it’s not a difficult read. In fact, though I ended up purchasing the book, I read the first 100 pages in a Barnes and Noble Cafe one afternoon. For someone who is as slow and careful (I hope) a reader as I am, this is quite a feat.
In addition, because it’s a conversation it has no real starting or stopping place. You can open it at any point and quite easily follow it. This makes it good bathroom reading, or in more polite society, a coffee table book. I don’t say this to disparage it; it also makes for good, old-fashioned bedtime reading.
If you don’t end up reading this one, there will be a more traditional Wallace bio coming out next year. It’s by DT Max, who wrote a sensational piece about Wallace for The New Yorker. And there’s also The Pale King to look forward to, if you’d rather read the man than read about him.