Literary Voyeurism (Part 2)

Quote from David Foster Wallace - image source: Tinsel & Tine

Quote from David Foster Wallace – image source: Tinsel & Tine

Continuing my thoughts from Part 1, where I left off after just starting to discuss David Lipsky’s long interview with David Foster Wallace (in Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself):

It was both fascinating and sad to read this book. The interactions between Lipsky and Wallace provide a window into Wallace’s life at the point when he was processing the fame and attention that came from the publication of Infinite Jest. On the one hand, his conversations with Lipsky reveal his sense of humor, which appears to be a major defense against his anxieties about becoming famous and all that this status entails for a writer. On the other, with the benefit of hindsight, one can glimpse stigmata of the depression that ultimately killed Wallace, especially in his dark, obsessive ruminations about maintaining his identity and sense of self in the face of being packaged and sold by the publishing industry.

Although there is a sense of rivalry between Wallace and Lipsky, the simpatico between them wins out in the end. One is famous, the other less well-known, but otherwise they are more alike than different. Although much has been written about Lipsky’s role as a journalist (and the ethical implications of that role, as raised by Janet Malcolm in The Journalist and the Murderer) in his in-person interactions with Wallace, the book does not give this question the weight that its film adaptation does.

Although Lipsky as author controls the discourse of his book, he doesn’t avoid the issue. He documents Wallace’s discomfort with the roles they are playing as interviewer and interviewee and his attempts to respond to Wallace’s concern, despite the unease and awkwardness that this issue introduces into their initial conversations. Despite themselves (or rather, with a little help from Wallace, who wants to get inside Lipsky’s head as much as Lipsky desires to unearth the “real” Wallace), they clearly start to like each other (which runs counter to — and generally undermines — the agenda of the journalist vis-a-vis his or her subject).

In the end, the book is more than an extended interview. It’s a record of the beginning of a friendship. “The brotherhood of the lung” (Wallace’s reference to the fact that both men need a cigarette to start the day) becomes a brotherhood of writers, but in the full context of the writer’s life (rather than just the more delimited arena of the writer’s writing persona). As such, it reveals much more of the humanity (“warts and all,” so the cliche goes) of Wallace as a human being than a standard, one-shot interview would have disclosed. Despite his role as interviewer, Lipsky ends up revealing more of himself than he had intended. That’s why the literary voyeur in me enjoyed his book so much . . . and makes me even sadder that DFW is gone.