The End of the Tour is the story of two novelists, the first who has become very famous very quickly, and the second whose greatest renown will derive from writing about the first. Over the course of a 1996 book tour they bond to whatever extent that two people sharing like sensibilities and aspirations to such different and unequal ends can, especially when the more celebrated is subject to the other’s interpretation and assessment; the brief “friendship” between Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace and David Lipsky, interviewing Wallace for Rolling Stone, is built of empathy, paranoia, and agendas sycophantic and competitive. The movie stacks the deck slightly. Although Wallace was the most acclaimed American novelist of the 1990s and a literary phenomenon, he wasn’t a household name like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, whereas Lipsky was hardly unrecognized, his work having appeared in anthologies and on end-of-the-year lists (the Wallace feature would win a National Magazine Award and become a well-received book). But Wallace was certainly a blinding nova in the heat of which other novelists wilted, while the star was trying not to go blind from his own incandescence or crazy from the prospect of light’s inevitable lapse into dark.
Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies and directed by Sundance nominee James Ponsoldt, The End of the Tour is a terrific film, among the year’s best with its two-man tarantella of wall-to-wall talk—and I watched it through my fingers as though it were Mad Max. To any novelist in the audience, the film’s cavalcade of ego, doubt, insecurity, neurosis, narcissism, pettiness, false modesty, one-upmanship, intellectual arrogance, philosophical exhibitionism, semiconscious treachery, and seething-beneath-the-surface resentment may be more familiar than he or she can stand—feelings that would leave the stricken auteur of these last two overlong sentences, for instance, wondering whether to include them here at all, since they’re really about…me! Me, me, me, me, me, which is to say not only the me who’s been on a book tour but the me who, several years before my first published novel, profiled another novelist who was in the process of becoming well known. After the piece was published, I ran into the writer’s wife at a party and asked what she thought, whereupon she coolly appraised the wanna-be before her and answered, “Well, it’s more about you, isn’t it?” Given the nature of being a novelist, Lipsky’s encounter with and write-up of Wallace was bound to be as much about Lipsky; if every creative feat is driven by the artist’s conviction that what he has to say justifies interrupting everyone else’s markedly less significant life in order that they hear it, few endeavors are as psychologically claustrophobic as writing a novel. The novelist is possessed by a constant inner muttering that would be certifiable behavior but for its mediation by pen or laptop. The same private space in his head where stories reveal their secrets is also the rabbit hole to madness.
The result is that the novelist ceaselessly struggles not to have an adversarial relationship with his own creativity. Whoever said failure makes an artist better wasn’t an artist, but a corollary is true, which is that too much success too soon will mess you up, and in Wallace’s case this was another demon joining an already-growing legion. As portrayed by Jason Segel (in an Olympian leap from previous comedic work), the Wallace of The End of the Tour is so self-conscious that he can’t be sure anymore what the true self is that he’s conscious of, in the same way that if you look at an object long enough, eventually it resembles something else entirely. At that point somebody as brilliant and reflective as Wallace, prone to depression and self-destruction, questions reality and his place in it. Sometimes he wants the celebrity that he knows is ephemeral, sometimes he distrusts it, sometimes he’s only pretending he distrusts it. Wallace’s fame can’t even get him laid because, like every writer, he’s too busy overthinking himself into paralysis, wondering whether the mystery seductress likes him or likes “David Foster Wallace” and whether she can make the distinction any better than he can.
Shepherded to and from bookstores, hanging out at the mall together and going to movies and raiding convenience stores for junk food in The End of the Tour, Wallace and Lipsky still peer at each other from opposite sides of a divide that can’t be bridged, let alone removed. A journalistic interview is an artificial situation to begin with—the two men would never meet again—but more profound is the chasm of hopes between them, Wallace insisting he wants to be rid of his success, Lipsky desperately wanting (as most novelists would) a sliver of the success Wallace has. When an over-the-top New York review of Infinite Jest posits at the movie’s beginning that everyone else writing fiction might as well just give up, it also implicitly suggests—whether the reviewer knows it or cares—that Wallace might as well give up, too. A superb counterpart to Segel, Jesse Eisenberg is Lipsky, in a role whose torment is quieter and more repressed, his most revelatory moment coming early on when he makes the mistake of following the truly terrible advice that no writer’s girlfriend should make the mistake of giving: to stop begrudging Wallace as a rival and read him instead. Around what we imagine is page 400-and-something, we hear a stunned Lipsky murmur from behind the thousand-page magnum opus in his hands: “Shit.”
Every thought and word that a novelist thinks or writes is part of that castle constructed from sands on the beach of Me, including the turret or rampart or moat he may have thought or written on behalf of someone or something else. Every sentence reveals the Me even as it may also reveal the Him or Her or It. I never met Wallace, but by all accounts it was indicative of a generosity he extended to anyone but himself when he sent a postcard with kind words about a novel (more me!) or showed up at a reading lurking in the shadows without introducing himself (me, but him, too); an otherwise gentle soul in a lifetime of pain, he committed his angriest act when he hanged himself on his patio in September 2008, a suicide particularly hostile to whichever loved one would be unfortunate enough to find him. When I began teaching fiction workshops 15 years ago, every young writer wanted to be Wallace in the same way that half a century before every young writer wanted to be Fitzgerald or Kerouac, every submission an ecstatic flurry of Infinite Jest’s notorious endnotes. Homages to Wallace’s revolutionary form, these submissions usually missed the point of his greater ecstasy, which was the cosmos broken down into words and thoughts, each constituting a tiny cosmos unto itself; in Wallace’s fiction every shard of existence is a thing of awful wonder. It was a wonder that couldn’t sustain an awful existence racked by whatever racked his, and which he escaped only by abdicating the magnum opus of Me for the endnote of oblivion.