Book Quote:

“What I mean is that a lot of stuff that I thought were weaknesses of mine turned out to be strengths. And one of them is that I am not, I’m not a particularly exceptional person. I think I’m a really good reader, and I’ve got a good ear. And I’m willing to work really really hard. But I’m more or less a regular person. – David Foster Wallace”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (JUL 20, 2011)

There is that question we asked one another in college: Who in history, if you could meet and talk to whomever you wished, would you select? Depending on orientation and background the answers are all over the place: Jesus is a regular; Buddha, and other spiritual luminaries frequently show up. Second tier options, Nietzsche, Thoreau (personal favorite), St. Francis. No surprises there. Aside from a small collection of history’s heavyweights, answers are typically–and sophomorically–idiosyncratic. (More recently, at a dinner party that included a bunch young adults, one answer was, oddly, Jeff Buckley.) I wouldn’t easily toss aside posterity’s world-making worthies, but if I were so inclined, I’d turn to the great creative artists. Shakespeare certainly would be a contender. Homer too. Rimbaud would be fun over a couple of beers. Joyce was a good singer, I understand. I’m sure he’d light up a room. Reading Lipsky’s book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, reads like a contemporary answer to the “who would you choose” hypothesis. Wallace is gone now, but what if you could just spend a few days with him, even a few hours? What was the man like, really? By his work, he will be remembered. But what of the man?

In March 1996 David Lipsky was assigned to interview David Foster Wallace by Rolling Stone Magazine. Wallace was coming off a book tour, promoting his ground-breaking–and best-selling– tome, Infinite Jest. Wallace, uncharacteristically, agrees to the interview. It will span several days, with Lipsky riding along with Wallace to book readings, NPR interviews, coffee-shop breaks, pit-stops and dog walks. Lipsky writes of Wallace in the introduction, “David had a caffeine social gift: He was charmingly, vividly, overwhelmingly awake–he acted on other people like a slug of coffee–so they’re the five most sleepless days I ever spent with anyone.” The book reads accordingly. Wallace is a brilliant raconteur, breathlessly intelligent, informed, thoughtful and entertaining in that way we once thought we’d be, after we got out of college.

The premise is simple: Ride around with Wallace for five days, tape recorder running and ask him questions. This is the raw stuff of Lipsky’s journalism, though it a properly massaged transcription. For example, on smoking pot: “I stopped smoking pot–I think I stopped smoking pot right about the time I got out of grad school. You know, it wasn’t any kind of big decision. I just, it wasn’t shutting the system down anymore. It was just making the system, it was just making the system more unpleasant to be part of. My own system.” On watching T.V.: “I also, there’s the–like the thing that’s killed it recently for me, is the channel-surfing thing. Is because, I always have this terrible fear that there’s something even better on, somewhere else. And so I will spend all this time kind of skating up and down the channel system. And not be able to get all that immersed in any one thing.” The book is raw in that stream-of-consciousness way.

The project was shelved and Lipsky never wrote the article. Now, fast-forward a dozen years to the height of the David Foster Wallace posthumous creative industrial complex and someone thinks: Hey, what about those Lipsky’s tapes with Wallace? Surely there is a buck or two to be made there! That is the cynical dark-side opinion one might suspiciously hold of this endeavor. That is, here lies yet another exploitive American money-making scheme, cashing out on a brilliant dead writer’s extemporaneous ramblings. But there are two sides to this coin. The good news, setting aside this reader’s apprehension to slink through the graveyard, is that the rambling is brilliant, insightful, funny and, most of all, human. Magnificently human, that is, if one might be capable of being human on the scale of the magnificent. And as if the writer’s works themselves where not sufficient evidence, we now have Lipsky’s record. Let there be little doubt, David Foster Wallace had the capacity to be magnificently human. That is, I think, at the core of what draws so many legions of readers. His brilliance was tempered through the filter of his humanity. Here in Lipsky’s ride-along, we enjoy the genius–and the man.

For example, here Wallace, sipping on a Diet Pepsi, lays out his simple belief on art: “I have this–here’s this thing where it’s going to sound sappy to you. I have this unbelievably like a five-year-old’s belief that art is just absolutely magic….And that good art can do things that nothing else in the solar system can do. And that the good stuff will survive, and get read, and that in the great winnowing process, the shit will sink and the good stuff will rise.”

Or cultural survival: “At some point, at some point I think, this generation’s gonna reach a level of pain, or a level of exhaustion with the standard, you know….There’s the drug therapy, there’s the sex therapy, there’s the success therapy. You know, if I could just achieve X by age X, then something magically…Y’know? That we’re gonna find out, as all generations do, that it’s not like that.”

There is a terribly sad and poignant scene Lipsky shares in the afterword. Wallace’s condition has deteriorated. His depression medication has lost its punch and he is reeling. He calls his parents and they come to visit. The story, as a family member shared it with Lipsky, is that “one afternoon before they left, David was very upset. His mother sat on the floor beside him. ‘I just rubbed his arm. He said he was glad I was his mom. I told him it was an honor.’” It sounds blithely naive, but reading this book gave me a feeling of being honored as well, a sense that the man had carved out a bit of time for me. By the end of the book my cynicism had evaporated and I was grateful for this record and the insights it contains.

On a practical note, Becoming Yourself is a good David Foster Wallace reader companion. The copy I read was loaned to me by a friend who has never read his fiction, though she aspires to. Her copy was underlined and dog-eared. It will serve her well once she dives into the works. She will have a foundation of understanding the currents that carry his narrative. Conversely, I’ve read his fiction and coming to the book after that experience, I found it illuminating. It underscored what I found in the readings and nicely dove-tailed into the universes he had so carefully constructed. For the stand-alone experience, that is, the reader who has not read Wallace and has no intention of doing so, the book provides a worthwhile and insightful peek into the world of a modern creative genius.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 45 readers
PUBLISHER: Broadway; 1 edition (April 13, 2010)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on David Lipsky
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:



July 20, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Non-fiction

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