The Burning Building

The End of the Tour  A film by James Ponsoldt

I’ve always felt two ways about David Foster Wallace.  Like Jonathan Lethem—whom I’ve been reading lately—he’s a major writer from a generation younger than mine.  A few years ago I met a young writer who was wildly enthusiastic about Wallace, so I read a couple of his books and found him a wonderful writer, with a broad consciousness, an amazing ability to get down on the page all that he saw in a particular moment.  I also found his values remarkable, centered on living a worthwhile life.  He inhabited our contemporary world of trivial values, but wasn’t trivial himself.

I didn’t move on to Infinite Jest.  I admired Wallace in short doses, but didn’t think I could take his intensity at that length.

Then there was the fact of his suicide, which happened a couple of years after I’d read him.  In a certain way I wasn’t entirely surprised.  Wallace in his work seemed to make a huge effort to be conscious, to notice every detail of things and get them all down on paper.  You could drive yourself crazy that way.

But what struck me was the contrast between that act and his values.  I didn’t understand how a man who had seen so deeply into life, who had in many ways seen the true beauty of life, could then kill himself.  It made no sense, in the way that suicide never makes sense outside the world of depression and pain that brings it about.

I wouldn’t have been drawn to a movie about a book tour that Wallace did for Infinite Jest, or the book from which it was made, though it has a wonderful title (‘Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself’).  Talk about your weird ideas for a movie.  So I read A.O. Scott’s whole review—I rarely read reviews of movies I want to see—and it ended with the line, “There will always be films about writers and writing, and this one is just about as good as it gets.”  I had to see it.

I’m glad I did.  I would never have thought such a movie would work, but it works beautifully.  I don’t know that this is the “real” David Foster Wallace.  But The End of the Tour made me more affectionate toward the man than ever.

He’s such a nerd.  He has that bandana on his head, over his impossibly long and bedraggled hair, and talks all the time about sweating, and looks like a guy who sweats a lot, and lives in a real guy’s house, a pigsty.  He smokes cigarettes, and eats terrible food; he seems to have no idea how to take care of himself.  He needs a woman!  To say the very least.  He’s aware of that need, also acutely aware of the problems that he presents to any woman who would live with him.  It’s because of those problems that he needs a woman.

Both Wallace (Jason Segel) and the writer who comes to visit him, David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) seem very young.  In real life they were 30 and 34, had both just published novels—Lipsky was a staff writer for Rolling Stone as well—but they remind me of me and my college roommate when we were sophomores, both desperately self-conscious, aching to be writers, living badly, drinking strong evil-tasting coffee, smoking cigarettes.  Lipsky walks around with the hunched shoulders my roommate had.  But these men had published books, and Wallace had published what is widely considered a great book.  They haven’t quite caught up to what they’ve done, Lipsky in particular.  It may be that their ambitions are so large that they still feel they haven’t done anything.  It’s the Nobel Prize or nothing.

Wallace famously took swipes at an older generation of writers for their swaggering macho blustery ways; he mentioned Norman Mailer in particular, and referred to Updike as a penis with a thesaurus.  But at least, one might say, those guys got laid; they didn’t sit around, as we see these guys do, eating junk food by the truckload, smoking cigarettes, sharing a pop tart for breakfast (?).  Norman Mailer was a man (he fought in World War II, by the way), but these guys live like little kids.  Wallace speaks of his addiction to television.  Couldn’t he be addicted to something more dignified?  Can you imagine Norman Mailer addicted to television and junk food?

Yet Wallace is endearing.  He’s as endearing as his two big slobbery dogs.  Lipsky apparently thought Wallace was flattering him to get a good piece, but some of what Wallace did was sheer human kindness, letting Lipsky stay in his (dreadful) guest room instead of going to the Days Inn.  (In Wallace’s place I would have let him go, and in Lipsky’s I would have gone.)  He struggles with loneliness, though he knows he must live alone to be a writer; he struggles with his fears of women, though later in the film we meet one of his former girlfriends, and she’s beautiful; he struggles with nervousness at giving readings and interviews.  He struggles with the whole thing of being a celebrity, and worries about how that might affect his work.  He seems to know how much talent he has, and wants to nurture it in the best way.

There was one real guy moment in the movie, when Lipsky asked Wallace’s old girlfriend for her e-mail so he might interview her, and Wallace thought he was hitting on her.  He was deeply disturbed by that, to the point that he wouldn’t speak to Lipsky for the rest of the evening.  I for the life of me don’t understand that.  I was married to my first wife for fifteen years, and if somebody wants to date her, or get her e-mail, go for it.  Enjoy.  What’s the problem?

There’s a moment early in the movie when Wallace speaks about someone throwing himself out of a burning building.  The reference went by so fast that I almost missed it, and of course it eerily prefigured the events of September 11th.  The implication of what he said was that, even though throwing yourself from the building will bring certain death, the pain of staying in the building, of enduring the burning, is worse.  That sounded like the words of someone who has some idea of the pain of being inside that burning building.  After he committed suicide, his father revealed that Wallace had been on an anti-depressant for years, but that he had gone off it recently because of complications from the medication.  He stayed inside the burning building as long as he could, but finally it was too much.  I’m convinced that those of us who have never suffered from chronic depression have no idea what the pain is like.  I never blame someone, or look down on them, for taking their life.  I just feel for them.  I wonder at the incredible pain they must have been feeling.

Since seeing the movie I have read, once again, Wallace’s commencement speech to the Kenyon class of 2005.  That is a brief distillation of the deep understanding he had about life and humanity.  It made a difference in my life to read that speech.  The speech, and this movie, have convinced me that I need to read Infinite Jest, however long and intense it might be.  It’s said to be a book about seeking happiness in America.  That’s as big a subject as Moby Dick.