David Foster Wallace: Becoming Himself

Losing my colleague David Wallace was difficult to accept. For months after his death, I’d see him out of the corner of my eye, sitting at the coffee place, standing in line at the movie theater, despite knowing that he couldn’t, wouldn’t ever be there. The loss I felt was partially personal, the sudden absence of someone I’d worked closely with and cared about a great deal, and partially professional; I’ve written about and taught his work for some years, and despite my knowledge that The Pale King is forthcoming, the silence where David’s voice used to be remains painful.

All of which goes to explain part of the uncanniness in reading David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself. After the prefatory postlogue, in which Lipsky explains how he came to take this road trip with David, why the profile he was working on never came to be, and how David’s death led him to return to the transcripts of their time together, he more or less dials himself out of the text, allowing David’s voice to take center stage.

But — and there’s no way to say this other than straight out — the voice here is not that of the David I knew. Early on in the interview, of course, the difference is that he knows he’s on stage; in moments like his banter about getting laid during the book tour, what we get is David performing, rather than David talking. David with all his defenses up, David doing a certain kind of PR dance. But even later in his time with Lipsky, once the performative aspect subsides, the voice on the page is still that of a different person from the one I knew.

I met David when he was 40 and had lived with his fame and its fallout for several years, and so had internalized his self-protective mechanisms. The David who is on the road six years earlier is still audibly grappling with the self-consciousness that this fame produced in him, uncertain of what it will mean for his work, whether the work will ever be able to live up to the expectations that Infinite Jest would create. “It’s a very fine line,” he tells Lipsky. “I don’t mind appearing in Rolling Stone, but I don’t want to appear in Rolling Stone as somebody who wants to be in Rolling Stone.” That line, at 34, was not just fine but potentially a tripwire.

Perhaps most heartbreaking in reading these transcripts are the moments at which we now know him to be holding back the truth, a truth that couldn’t then be part of his public persona. Lipsky interjects, late in the text:

[Wouldn’t it be great to fall in through this transcript, back to that house, and tell him to live differently, explain to him how it was all going to go? It’s suddenly odd that this isn’t possible.]

Not “odd,” I’d say, but devastating, recognizing with hindsight that, for instance, the antidepressants to which he could not admit in 1996 were one of the things that were keeping him alive, that their removal eleven years later would prove to be the beginning of the end.

One might wish for more of David thinking about writing here, and less of David thinking about his success, but then, that wasn’t what Rolling Stone would have been seeking, and so those weren’t the questions that Lipsky asked. In the end, what’s remarkable about Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself is the degree to which it makes clear how little I knew — how little any of us could know — about the self that he became, apart from the astonishing writer with whom I had the privilege of working: how much, as if this weren’t already clear, of the writer’s self must of necessity remain hidden in places to which no one else, not even the best of interviewers, can have access.