The David Foster Wallace Industrial Complex that’s sprung up in the seven years since his suicide has birthed an unlikely new film out this month. Called The End of the Tour, it’s based on writer David Lipsky’s memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. It stars Jason Segel as the late author and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky, who was sent by Rolling Stone to profile Wallace in 1996 as the late novelist promoted Infinite Jest. Part bromantic road movie and part heady Dinner With Andre-style talkathon, The End of the Tour has earned stellar reviews (including from our own J.R. Jones) and some hand-wringing because its subject had such a tortuous relationship with fame. Surely Wallace would have cringe at the idea of Wallace the movie character, right? “I don’t want to turn this into a romantic, lurid, tormented-artist thing,” he tells Lipsky at one point during their five-day trip.
His self-conscious desire not to become such a character might be one reason why he lived the prime of his life in central Illinois, as detailed in Craig Fehrman’s August 2012 Reader feature “A portrait of David Foster Wallace as a midwestern author.” Fehrman’s piece examines how the Land of Lincoln shaped Wallace’s work and provides a mild rebuke to D.T. Max’s biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.
As Fehrman notes, Wallace became the most influential writer of his generation while living in the midwest, where he was also raised. He returned to Illinois in 1993 to take a teaching job at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal while working on the final draft of Infinite Jest. Once that extraordinary tome of postmodern fiction hit, a deluge of media interest followed and reporters such as Lipsky flew into Chicago, then drove two hours down I-55 to interview him.
That such a dizzying talent like Wallace chose to reside in the land of corn and shopping malls provoked snobbish speculation from writers who wondered, “Why Bloomington and not New York City?” Max did an insufficient job at answering that question, at least according to Fehrman, who said Max “chooses to alternate between dismissing and sentimentalizing the midwest—two gestures that, in the end, amount to the same thing.”
In Max’s defense, however, there’s evidence that Wallace himself both sentimentalized and condescended to his home region. Fehrman relates an anecdote in which Wallace wrote an author in 1999 to say, “You’re special, but so’s the guy across the table who’s raising two kids sober and rebuilding a ’73 Mustang. It’s a magical thing with 4,000,000,000 forms. It kind of takes your breath away.”
Yet the Wallace that praises the magic of the Ford Mustang is the same one who, in an essay for Harper’s a few years prior, said, “I haven’t been back to Illinois in a long time, and can’t say I’ve missed it,” and described his experiences at the Illinois State Fair like a war correspondent might describe the horrors of trench warfare. He sounds every bit the East Coast effete when languishing in descriptions of gross pig smells and obese, big-haired fairgoers while suggesting carnival rides are for barbarians.
In “9/11, the View from the Midwest,” an article he wrote for Rolling Stone, Wallace talks about being in the house of Mrs. Thompson—”one of the world’s cooler seventy-four-year-olds”—during 9/11. He seems to yearn for his subjects’ innocence instead of his own cynicism, but he simultaneously seems to feel alienated from them. What he finds terrible is “knowing, deep in my heart, that whatever America the men in those planes hated so much was far more my America . . . than it was these ladies.'”
Wallace, in other words, had a complex relationship with the midwest, but that’s truly with nearly everything in his life—relationships with women, his public face vs. his private self, self-regard and self-loathing, you name it. He could sometimes seem like an iceberg, most of his true self largely submerged and unseen. And that’s part of what attracts so many writers to pontificate about him.
DFW committed suicide during the dawn of the social-media era, just in time to keep his cloak of mystery largely intact. Today many of us act as publicists of our own lives, transmogrifying our everyday experiences and stray thoughts into tiny polished nuggets of consumable media designed to be interesting but not too provocative. We like our public figures transgressive, but when they cross the ever-shrinking boundaries of acceptable thought and speech, they’re crucified on the social Internet.
Just ask Wallace’s long-time friend and fellow novelist Jonathan Franzen, whose off-putting but well-meaning remarks about adopting an orphan from Iraq in an interview last week prompted torch lighting and pitchfork raising from the eternally offended online mob. Wallace’s many eccentricities and problematic thoughts, untweeted and never Instagrammed, remain relatively tucked away, which is perhaps why he’s become an icon, a saint, a Magic Eye puzzle of a character since his death—a vessel that launched a thousand essays and more pages worth of think pieces than could be contained between the covers of Infinite Jest. Just like this one.
Correction note: This post was amended to reflect when Wallace lived in central Illinois.