Five years ago, I reviewed David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. It’s an account, published just a year or so after Wallace’s death, of Lipsky’s days-long Rolling Stone interview with Wallace at the end of his Infinite Jest reading tour. Here’s the nut of the review:
Unfortunately, it's a bad book, a mass of Lipsky's notes and personal recollections that he never successfully structured into something useful. You can't let a tape recorder run around Wallace for dozens of hours without capturing oodles of genius—but as a whole, it's an annoying account of a well-read journalist who really wanted to make Wallace like him. Lipsky is overly impressed with his own candor; he admits that he feels jealous when Wallace refers to him as "some guy" to a friend on the phone. (You almost expect him to find some dull-witted meaning in the fact that they're both named David.) One day, an absolutely brilliant biography of Wallace will be written, and Yourself will probably be a primary source in the bibliography. But as a tribute to a writer of such great magnitude, it's an utter failure—a messy, slapped-together work of idolatry.
I haven’t reread the book in the intervening years, but the thought of it still gets my pulse up a bit. Lipsky is guilty of the worst magazine-writer sins in Yourself. His voice is self-referential, overly clever, and endlessly amused with itself. He seems to believe that admitting his envy somehow absolves him of it, when really he’s just boring the audience with an unnecessary airing of his personal flaws. Rather than getting out of the way of his subject, he wanders into the shot at every opportunity, trying to force himself into your attention.
The central conceit of the book is this: Lipsky is frustrated that he’s not as good a writer as Wallace. Instead of using the interview to highlight and examine Wallace’s genius, Lipsky seems to want to reveal him as an overly calculating manipulator, or at the very least to figure out why Wallace is the success and Lipsky is the marginal figure. Envy is never attractive, and Lipsky doesn’t even try to disguise his covetousness in Yourself. In fact, he wallows in it.
When I first heard that James Ponsoldt was making a movie version of Yourself under the title The End of the Tour, I rolled my eyes mightily. I admit to making at least two presumptions about the film: First, Lipsky would presumably bask in the affirming glow of Hollywood; and second, the rock-star lionization of Wallace would reach a new fever pitch. While Wallace was undeniably a singular talent — the clarity and precision of his voice was unparalleled in modern literature — the truth is that nobody benefits from that kind of media sainthood. The casting of Jason Segel as Wallace didn’t seem to help, and an early photo of Segel in Wallace drag didn’t ease any discomfort about the film.
Let me admit right here, a little more than an hour after leaving a screening of The End of the Tour at the Egyptian, that all my presumptions about the film were absolutely wrong.
The genius of Tour is that it is adapted from a clear-eyed reading of Yourself, which is to say that it plainly makes Lipsky the villain of the piece. Lipsky is played here by Jesse Eisenberg as an even slimier version of Eisenberg’s usual slimy characters. He sneakily takes notes on the contents of Wallace’s medicine cabinet. He tries to drag Wallace down to his level repeatedly. He lusts after Wallace’s fame and talent, and when Wallace tries to tell him that literary fame might not be everything Lipsky believes it to be, he thinks that Wallace is trying to mislead him for some reason. Eisenberg knows full well the kind of person he’s playing, peppering his most nakedly envious lines with a clenched little giggle — hehh hehh hehhhh — that suggests some deep internal damage.
And Segel has studied up on Wallace. He capably imitates Wallace’s unassuming midwestern delivery, and he brings real life to the weaponized intellect lurking just underneath the surface of all that politesse. (A superficial aside: this may be the first time in recorded history in which the real-life novelist is actually more attractive than the Hollywood actor employed to portray him.) This isn’t hagiography; Segel’s Wallace even overtly refuses at one point to wear the same old shroud that hacks and neophytes try to force on mythologized writers, that cliched shotgun marriage of addiction and creativity. His demons aren’t anything as glamorous as a tragic alcoholism; he simply carries inside him at all times a swimming-pool-sized sadness. It’s all he can do to hold it in at any given moment.
Ponsoldt’s direction is so skilled that you may not even notice it. He’s taken what amounts to a two-hour conversation with absolutely no physical action and he’s made it visually interesting the whole way through, without falling back on any gimmicks like animation or overly antic camera movements. The drama is entirely in the words and the faces of the actors, and Ponsoldt delivers that drama flawlessly. Wallace is often viewed from afar, frequently behind a pane of glass or obscured by some object in the foreground, to indicate Lipsky’s aloof distance from his subject. Though we spend a good portion of the movie staring directly into Wallace’s face, Ponsoldt continually reminds us that we’re never really going to get close to him.
Lipsky and Wallace recognize pieces of themselves in each other, so of course they get on each others’ nerves. Wallace is a control freak who admits he would only be happy if he could rewrite every single quote in the piece that Lipsky is about to write. Lipsky keeps trying to reveal Wallace’s demeanor as a fraud, or at least as a carefully constructed artifice, and Wallace rebuffs him at every attempt. Some of the frequent themes in Wallace’s work — the quest for authenticity in a superficial world, his rejection of irony —are reflected in these interactions.
But we keep reminding ourselves as Wallace rails against the seduction of images on screens and the allure of shiny surfaces that this “Wallace” is really an actor saying words from a screenplay adapted from a book that Wallace would have hated, recorded by a camera and projected on a screen in a movie theater. (Wallace’s estate has disavowed itself from this film entirely.) Do all these added levels somehow transform the sentiment into something bad, or less meaningful? No. Wallace’s words are still there, slicing upward through all the obfuscation and translation and interpretation, and they are still clear and true and good.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant