The End of the Tour: A Look at the Rapid-Pace Brains of Two Literary Greats
by Julie Buntin
David Lipsky’s interview with David Foster Wallace, the basis of the book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself and the inspiration for The End of the Tour, spanned five days. Because I’ve had the pleasure — and frustration — of sinking into a very long, very intense conversation with Lipsky, I felt, while watching the film, a hyperbolic kinship with Wallace. Poor guy, I kept thinking. He must be really tired.
In the film, sort of as in life, David and David (as portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel) drive around eating Twizzlers, talking about TV addiction and Alanis Morrisette and greatness and Infinite Jest. Out of the seams and silences of that conversation, riveting in its own merit and loaded with Wallace-esque brilliance, another dialogue elbows its way into the atmosphere between interviewer and subject, just-starting writer and more famous writer. David Lipsky, in probing David Wallace’s life, makes it clear that his motive isn’t only to write a definitive profile — it’s to absorb, via conversational osmosis, a kind of blueprint for becoming Wallace. Wallace — sweaty, painfully intelligent, his tragic death waiting on the film’s horizon — at first evades Lipsky’s prodding, then descends into a teenaged sulk, and then, after Lipsky’s worn him down, tries, vainly, to explain the bullshitty misguidedness of the desire for literary fame.
I took a class with Lipsky while I was an MFA candidate at NYU. Like most of his students, I loved him — even though it was halfway through the semester before he stopped confusing me with the other brunette Julie in the class. He wore a nicotine patch and smoked during every break. Most days he ate a yogurt or a banana as we all filed into our seats. Midway through a lecture he’d interrupt himself, point at someone, and ask them to tell the room what he’d been eating earlier — a pop quiz in paying writerly attention to one’s surroundings. It felt like a blessing to be chosen. Once, when Lipsky was teaching through a cold, I watched, stunned and a little nervous, as he drank an entire half gallon of orange juice in just over two hours. His brain isn’t just fast; it’s lightning, charged by some rare and electric sludge of verbal adrenaline and nicotine. He’s notably handsome, as Wallace points out in the movie, his good looks undermined by a frenetic twitchiness that Eisenberg captures well. I once heard two drunken classmates speculating over whether, in a romantic situation, Lipsky would be too busy thinking of literary comparisons to enjoy the moment.
The first time I saw the trailer for The End of the Tour, I cringed. I experienced a version of the queasy feeling I get when I hear my own voice recorded, except on Lipsky’s behalf — this was his life, his story, except, well, not. It was amazing and horrible to see him both reduced and exalted on the big screen. On a more basic level, I felt something like irritation at having to share my teacher and his relationship with DFW with all the weirdos who’d want to watch this movie. Segel and his bandanna, his affected speech — just because they made him look like Wallace didn’t mean he could pull it off. These movie producers had taken DFW, one of the book-world’s most sacred myths, and trimmed off the indigestible parts, transforming this story, these men, into a commodity for the masses. And that Eisenberg, with his spastic fingers, his freakishly zeroed-in gaze, was supposed to be David Lipsky, my David Lipsky — it just bothered me. I would never see it. And if I did, I knew I’d hate it. The End of the Tour was made by film people for culturally hip twenty-somethings more interested in Wallace as a legend and a product/martyr of the internet age than Wallace as a writer. In other words: phony.
Here’s where I say what you knew was coming: That I liked the movie. Really, really liked it. That it moved me. That at one point, I got honest-to-goodness chills. That David Foster Wallace’s voice, even siphoned through Jason Segel, is and will always be worth listening to. Is there a hackneyed attempt to force plot onto a story that’s about conversation, that most beautifully plotless of things? Yes. A few times. You can feel Eisenberg chafing against it. Halfway through there’s a scene in a hotel room where Eisenberg yells into the phone at his Rolling Stone editor that he won’t push DFW to clarify the rumors of his heroin use, goddamnit, because that isn’t the point! And it really isn’t the point — in general, the movie seems to understand that. Near the end, I cried a little, as Eisenberg/Lipsky races through Wallace’s house, listing visual details into his tape recorder, so he’ll remember them later. There are a handful of derpy moments — an argument between Davids in a kitchen over a girl, some stupid jokes about the culture of the midwest, a few very on-the-nose visual reminders of the difference between each man’s place in the literary world. (Lipsky sleeps in Wallace’s guest room — stacked floor-to-ceiling with copies of Infinite Jest.) But it turns out that it was a movie exactly right for me, and probably for most people, readers, wannabe writers, or not — straightforward, all-too-relatable, a film about people (Davids!), trying to figure out who they are and what they will become, how to be, and how to be together.
The real-life Lipsky and I shared what I’d guess was the longest phone conversation I’ve had in my adult life. It started a little after seven pm and ended at close to two in the morning. At 12:18am, my phone died, cutting off Lipsky mid-sentence. I connected my phone to the wall and sprinted to the bathroom, where I peed, dizzy with relief, as I’d needed to for hours. Back in my room, on my laptop, a new email:
I think your phone battery went out.
As soon as my phone came to life, I called him back, and we killed another hour or so, talking about Jane Eyre, about John Fowles, about Franzen and Lorrie Moore, Willa Cather and Nabokov and Martin Amis’s sentences and young writers with book deals and where I was from and why I write and why he does, Lipsky quoting Bellow verbatim, Updike, Alice Munro, a sound on his end of the line that made me imagine him pacing the room. As Eisenberg/Lipsky says at The End of the Tour: “It was the best conversation I ever had.” Lipsky is the only teacher who forced me to really and truly answer him, who asked a question and then followed it up with a question that cut into the first one a little deeper, until you simultaneously wanted to yell at him to knock it off but also to explain yourself, get it exactly right, give him a response that proved you were worth the searing attention of his intelligence.
I’m fairly certain Lipsky doesn’t remember that call.
In theory, the call’s purpose was to discuss the presentation I was giving in class the following week on Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man. But actually, part of what I think Lipsky wanted was to have a good, long, conversation, one of those talks that lift you out of your regular life and into another mode of being, the way a really good book can. Lipsky’s calls were famous in my MFA program — we compared their durations after the fact, swapping stories of each other’s trials and successes like survivors of some great and noble war. Our six hour conversation was on the long side, but not the longest. My classmates and I judged each other based on such statistics. Like most good teachers, Lipsky inspired in us all a desire to achieve the position of favorite; like most good teachers, he made every one of us believe we’d be his pick.
Wallace, as a subject, is endlessly fascinating. But what I’d like to point out is that the conversation at the core of The End of the Tour — in which we’re given access to a version of Wallace that feels more intimate, real, than he does in almost anything else, even Wallace’s own personal writing — is only possible because Lipsky is the person asking the questions. Late in the film’s second half, Wallace complains that he can’t keep up with Lipsky. Eisenberg/Lipsky brushes it off, assuming it’s just Wallace doing his routine self-effacing box-step, but the audience knows that Wallace is telling the truth. Lipsky is a hell of writer; but he’s a hell of a talker too. Listening to the two of them spar in The End of the Tour is a reminder that conversation — our original, ephemeral method for banishing loneliness — can be art.