Review: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

From the Village Voice

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself
by David Lipsky

Review by Joe Veix

As I read through David Lipsky’s new book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, his as-told-to story of the late author David Foster Wallace, I was reminded of Geoff Dyer lamenting about reading DH Lawrence’s collected letters in Out of Sheer Rage:

“As time goes by we drift away from the great texts, the finished works on which an author’s reputation is built, towards the journals, diaries, letters, manuscripts, jottings,” he wrote, “because we want to get nearer to the man or woman who wrote these books, to his or her being. We crave an increasingly intimate relationship with the author, unmediated, in so far as possible, by the contrivances of art. A curious reversal takes place. The finished works serve as a prologue to the jottings; the published book becomes a stage to be passed through — a draft — en route to the definitive pleasure of the notes, the fleeting impressions, the sketches, in which it had its origin.”

The spiel from the publisher about Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is interesting enough: In 1996, Lipsky got to ride around with Wallace as he finished up his book tour for Infinite Jest. The book is a transcript from those five days, pretty much verbatim, with a few descriptive interjections that could be either culled from Lipsky’s notes from the trip or added in just before publication. In between the conversing, there are bracketed descriptions of Wallace’s bedroom posters, the vitamins in his medicine cabinet, his clothes, his fluffy toilet seat cover, and so on. It’s uncomfortably detailed, and I felt enormously guilty for not only reading about these contrivances of art, but also for caring about them. On the other hand, Wallace fully expected the interview to be published in some form of profile in Rolling Stone, to be devoured by a large audience, and it’s likely that a good portion of his responses in this book were calculated and planned to construct a very specific, well-rounded and earnest image, i.e., like how he left Cosmo mags on his coffee table, and then vilifies that same sort of irony in a long quote almost one hundred of pages later.

“I’m talking about the number of people that–I’m not just talking about drug addicts dying in the street. I’m talking about the number of privledged, highly intelligent, motivated career-track people that I know, from my high school or college, who are, if you look into their eyes, empty and miserable. You know?” He said, “And who don’t believe in politics, and don’t believe in religion. And believe that civic movements or political activism are either a farce or some way to get power for the people who are in control of it. Or who just…who don’t believe in anything. Who know fantastic reasons not to believe in stuff, and are terrific ironists and pokers of holes. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just, it doesn’t seem to me that there’s just a whole lot else.” In terms of getting nearer to Wallace, you can pretty much smell his minty chewing tobacco and count his facial blemishes.

It’s easy to disparage the whole exhuming of and poking at his corpse, that it’s in poor taste, voyeuristic, and money grubbing. This book was a buried interview, and one of the few reasons it’s being published now is because it’ll make wheelbarrows full of money for Broadway, the publisher of the book. (See a brief discussion via Armchair/Shotgun here)

But, at the very least, the book is interesting and valuable because a) it’s essentially a snapshot of Wallace just after he wrote his opus, b) it’s an analysis of someone trying to be comfortable/honest with themselves after achieving their lifelong dream at a reasonably young age, when so many other people never come close and c) a good portion is devoted to Infinite Jest. More on point c: It’s edifying to read about the process of writing one of the best books of the past twenty years.

But even more interesting is being able to observe Wallace hijack whatever arguments Lipsky tries to drive at — like in the few very uncomfortable sections where Lipsky tries to get Wallace to admit to enjoying being famous and successful — and (sometimes surreptitiously) turn the entire interview into a discussion about the themes in Infinite Jest. In fact, much of their discussion later in the book parallels the Maranthe/Steeply dialogues from Jest.

But let’s return to Dyer, as he takes joy in reading Lawrence’s letters, one by one:

“…until I realised with a shock that I was in danger of finishing all of Lawrence’s letters. I read one after another and the more I read the less there were to read and although I knew part of the reason for reading the letters of Lawrence was to put off the moment when I had to write about him I also realised that by reading the letters like this, by failing to moderate my consumption of the letters, I was caught up in the gathering momentum of his death. I was running out of letters to read just as Lawrence was running out of life. The nearer I got to the end of the book the shorter and more insignificant the letters became, little gasps of anger where before there had been long, thousand-word rants, and so the pace of decline accelerated. Even insignificant communications — ‘Blair has been kind as an angel to me. Here is £10 for housekeeping’ — became something to cherish against the coming end.”

He concludes, “And then, abruptly, there were no more letters. It was the end: oblivion.”

Here are a few parts of the book I marked off, b/c they were inspiring/funny/trivial:

Popular entertainment:

“I guess entertainment would describe a continuum–I guess what I’m talkin’ about is entertainment versus art, where the main job of entertainment is to separate you from your cash somehow.”

“The first Die Hard? I think it’s a great film…But also very formulaic, and rather cynically reusing a lot of formulas.”

“I think one of the reasons that I feel empty after watching a lot of TV, and one of the things that makes TV seductive, is that it gives the illusion of relationships with people. It’s a way to have people in the room talking and being entertaining, but it doesn’t require anything of me. I mean, I can see them, they can’t see me. And, and, they’re there for me, and I can, I can receive from the TV, I can receive entertainment and stimulation. Without having to give anything back but the most tangential kind of attention. And that is very seductive.”

“The thing about Pauline Kael: she’s not read as much as she used to be…And Pauline Kael has this great thesis about, what’s terribly pernicious about a lot of movies, is that they make the bad guys wholly unlike you. They turn them into cartoons. That you can feel superior to. Instead of making you realize that there’s part of the villain in all of us.”

On the Tree Scene in Jurassic Park: “But it also makes sense, in a whole lot of ways. It has to do with the exhaustion of, ‘They’ve been thorugh so much,’ you know? And more of this–so there’s this exhausted, ‘Oh, this!’ That lets you get a little bit of a laught, that charges up your battery for the next time the next branch cracks. And then it ends with that marvelous. ‘Well, we’re back in the car.’ It allows you to laugh–like Spielberg knows exactly how much adrenaline to inject into your bloodstream, and when to let it ebb and when to… But the danger is, what that is, really, is manipulation. I mean, he’s a master manipulator.”

“I hadn’t even heard of Nirvana until after that man died.” and: “I think it’s absolutely incredible. But unbelievably painful. I mean if you, you know, all the stuff that I was groping in a sorta clumsy way to say about our generation? Cobain found, Cobain found incredibly powerful upsetting ways to say the same thing.” [Also, listened to Nirvana while writing Jest]

The internet:

“Because this idea that the internet’s gonna become incredibly democratic? I mean, if you’ve spent any time on the web, you know that it’s not gonna be, because that’s completely overwhelming. There are four trillionbits coming at you, 99 percent of them are shit, and its too much work to do triage to decide.

So it’s very clearly, very soon there’s gonna be an economic niche opening up for gatekeepers. You know? Or, what do you call them, Wells, or various nexes. Not just of interest but of quality. And then things get real interesting. And we will beg for those things to be there. Because otherwise we’re gonna spend 95 percent of our time body-surfing through shit that every joker in his basement–who’s not a pro…It’s gonna be–you’re gonna get to watch all of human history played out again real quickly.”

Infinite Jest:

“I was afraid people would think it was sloppy, poorly–that it would seem like a mess. Instead of an intentional, very careful mess.”

“Oh, I had a number of — there’s a great photo of Fritz Lang directing Metropolis…Where he’s standing there, and there are about a thousand shaven-headed men in kind of rows and phalanxes, and he’s standing there with a megaphone? It wouldn’t have been…Michael said it was too busy and too like conceptual, it required too much brain work on the part of the audience.” Because you were making a metaphor on the cover? “No, I just thought it was cool–”

“I mean the movie’s [Infinite Jest/The Entertainment] not just a MacGuffin, it’s kind of metaphorical device… it’s kind of showing you what the end of this continuum might be.”

“And then, uh, you know, I’d gotten Jeeves, and by the last part, I had a whole bunch of handwritten drafts, I had a whole bunch of typed drafts. And then when I finally sat down and typed the whole thing, I had Jeeves. And Jeeves had his own room in the next room. And the entire time would be spent with Jeeves up on his paws on this dog gate barkin’ at me. And I would either have headphones on, or I bought these earplugs, you know, those foam earplugs? And then finally a friend here gave me–because even that wouldn’t block it out–a friend gave me, you know, what airline workers use? Those earmuffs? That I would put on over the earplugs. It’s really weird to type when you can’t hear the sound of the keyboard, that anchors you in some weird way. So it got very dreamy.”

“He [Michael Pietsch, editor of Jest] knew it was gonna be pretty long. But I mean I would talk to him every couple of months. And I was really kind of shining him on. I wasn’t tellin’ him how long it was, but I remember thinking I could fool him by–I printed it out in nine-point font, single-spaced…But he called back, and this is the only time Michael’s ever really gotten mad at me.”

“And I just remember, like $400 phone bills. Calling Michael like all the time. And at home. Gettin’ to know his wife from talking to his wife when he was on the train going home. It was cool. I mean, it’s the only time, I’ve never thought I could work well with anybody else…this thing with Michael was, I really felt like, not only grateful to him, but like I was bein’ smart. Like there were certain things that were hard, that were unnecessarilly hard. Or that were real cold, cerebral shit. And Michael being real smart about, ‘All right, maybe you don’t cut this scene, but you take five pages off this, and its 30 percent easier to read. And save yourself 10 percent reader alienation, which you need thirty pages later for this part.’”

“Little, Brown was really good. Because I had told Michael, I’d had bad experiences with them before, like copy-editing it like a freshman essay. And I told him that if this happens, it’s gonna be a total mess. So they set me up with their head copyeditor. And gave me his number. And he and I would call back and forth about stuff. And they also–when it came time for the galleys, they hired another outside copyeditor. And gave me his number. And he and I edited the galleys like together and made sure that important shit cross-checked. Because there were enormous numbers of details to keep straight. But anyway, my understanding is that’s nonstandard. Not only hiring extra people but giving you access.”

Humor:

Two drafts of this book were typed with one finger: “But a really fast finger.”

NPR Guy: “We’re gonna record digitally. I hope that’s OK.” Dave: “So only yes and no answers?”

Politics/Philosophy (generally):

“But I don’t think I’m all that different. I’ll bet you’ve got three or four things, you know, that you’re like that with. And one of the things I noticed in the halfway house is the difference between me and like a tenty-year-old prostitute who is dying of AIDS, who’d been doing heroin since she was eleven, is, is a matter of accidents. Choices of substances. Activities to get addicted to. And having other resources, you know? I mean, I really love books and I really love writing, and a lot of these folks never got to find anything else they loved.”

“I think the whole thing is an enormous game of LIttle Red Riding Hood, and you’re trying to find what’s just right. And you, you know — what is it?– you can’t find the middle till you hit both walls? You know? The thing that really scares me about this country — and again, I’d want you to stress, I’m a private citizen, I am not a pundit. Is I think we’re really setting ourselves up for repression and fascism. I think our hunger, our hunger to have somebody else tell us what to do–or for some sort of certainty, or something to steer by–is getting so bad, um, that I think it’s, there’s even a, Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, I mean, makes a similar argument economically. But I think, you know, in Pat Buchanan, in Rush Limbaugh, there are rumbles on the Western horizon, you know. And that’s going to be, that the next few decades are going to be really scary. Particularly if things get economically shaky, and people for instance–people who’ve never been hungry before, might be hungry or might be cold.”

“But this seems to me to be a sadder, more hungry generation. And the thing that I get scared of is, when we’re in power, when nobody–no older– that no people older than us with memories of the Drepression, or memories of war, that had significant sacrifices. And there’s gonna be no check on our, um, appetties. And also our hunger to give stuff away. And I’m aware — I’m again, I’m speaking as a private citizen, I do not know any other generation.”

“My guess is that what it will be is, it’s going to be the function of some people who are heroes. Who evince a real type of passion thats going to look very banal and very retrograde and very…You know, for instance, people who will get on television, and earnestly say, ‘It’s extraordinarily important, that we, the most undertaxed nation on earth, be willing to pay higher taxes, so that we don’t allow the lower strata of our society to starve to death and freeze to death.’ That’s vitally important that we do that. Not for them, but for us.”

“Is that the great lie of the cruise is that enough pleasure and enough pampering will quiet this discontented part of you. When in fact, all it does is up the requirement.”

“Well for me, as an American male, the face I’d put on the terror is the dawning realization that nothing’s enough, you know? that no pleasure is enough, that no achievement is enough. That there’s a kind of queer dissatisfaction or emptiness at the core of the self that is unassuageable by outside stuff. And my guess is that that’s been what’s going on, ever since people were hitting each other over the head with clubs. Though describable in a number of different words and cultural argots. And that our particular challenge is that there’s never been more and better stuff comin’ from the outside, that seems temporarily to sort of fill the hole or drown out the hole.”

Painfully sad:

“‘Cause I’ve gotta–you know, I’ve got what I hope is like forty more years of work ahead of me.”

–Joe Veix is a writer living in Brooklyn and a contributor to Shells. You can follow him on Twitter here

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