April 2, 2010

Book Review: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself By David Lipsky

In March 1996, David Lipsky was on assignment for Rolling Stone, accompanying David Foster Wallace for the end of his promotional tour for Infinite Jest. The assignment fell through -- Lipsky never submitted anything to the magazine -- and the interview tapes went into storage.

After Wallace committed suicide in September 2008, Lipsky was asked to write a eulogy of sorts for RS: "The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace".

Shortly after it was reported that D.T. Max, who published an article in The New Yorker about Wallace and his unfinished novel The Pale King (due April 2011), had signed a contract to write a biography of DFW (also 2011?), Lipsky also signed a book deal. Last September, I posted: "I'm not sure what form his book will take, but I'd be thrilled with an introduction and a complete transcription of the interviews."

It turns out that I am pretty much getting my wish*! Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace will be published on April 13. It is roughly 350 pages and is mostly Wallace's own words.

* When I noted this at The Howling Fantods, site owner Nick Maniatis replied "it's better than that. There's a neat introductory piece, and David Lipsky's thoughts and observations appear throughout the text without disrupting the conversations."

From the book copy at Amazon*:
They lose to each other at chess. They get iced-in at an airport. They dash to Chicago to catch a make-up flight. They endure a terrible reader's escort in Minneapolis. Wallace does a reading, a signing, an NPR appearance. Wallace gives in and imbibes titanic amounts of hotel television ... They fly back to Illinois, drive home, walk Wallace's dogs. Amid these everyday events, Wallace tells Lipsky remarkable things — everything he can about his life, how he feels, what he thinks, what terrifies and fascinates and confounds him — in the writing voice Lipsky had come to love. ... Then Lipsky heads to the airport, and Wallace goes to a dance at a Baptist church.
* Amazon has that "search inside" function for this book. Oh no. There goes the next five hours.

Some reviews: Maria Bustillos (The Awl) calls it "intoxicatingly intimate", Marie Mundaca (Hipster Book Club) says it's "ambling, fun, and a little intense ... [like being] in the back seat driving with [your] smartest friends", and Andrew Shaffer (Pop Matters) says it's "as close to an autobiography as we'll ever get". Zac Farber thinks it's "occasionally mesmerizing" and will likely appeal more to "academics, the literati, and hard-core Wallace disciples" than casual readers.

Lipsky has taken the time to do three lengthy interviews via email. Two of them are at Mark Athitakis's American Fiction and The Howling Fantods. But the whopper is with the wallace-l list serve group. List overseer Matt Bucher collected questions and sent them to Lipsky. He posted the Q&A at his site today: "Rarely do we get to see such an extended portrait of a writer during the moment their masterwork enters the public arena."

I'll snip my question and Lipsky's answer (he goes into this kind of depth (or more) for every question):
Allan Wood: Is there any indication that DFW knew or hoped or imagined that IJ would be the important novel it has become? We've read [Little, Brown editor Michael] Pietsch saying that after he read some of the manuscript, he wanted to publish IJ more than he wanted to breathe. Did Wallace give any indication that he felt he had really nailed it?

David Lipsky: That's funny, Allan. I really smiled when I read this, because I asked the exact same question, in two parts, in more or less the exact words that you did.
Lipsky: "Michael Pietsch's presentation. He went to his sales force, at their conference, and said, 'This is why we publish books.'"

David: "I wasn't there. I know he really liked it. And I know he really read it hard, because he helped me — I mean, that book is partly him. A lot of the cuts are where he convinced me of the cuts. But also, editors and agents jack up their level of effusiveness when they talk with you, to such an extent that it becomes very difficult to read the precise shade of their enthusiasm. What's being presented for you and what they really feel."
And then at little later I asked your second part — exactly the way you did.
Lipsky: "But when did someone come to you and say, 'David, you really nailed it'?"

David: "It's very odd, because Michael would say really nice stuff to me, and he'd say it in the context of having critical suggestions. So I could write it all off as you know, Well he, this is the sugar that's making the medicine go down.

"And Charis [Charis Conn, his first Harper's editor] liked it, but Charis likes everything I do. There was some stuff — because Mark Costello is really good friends with Nan Graham, who knows more about the publishing industry than anybody. She was DeLillo's editor, which as far as I'm concerned does it for me. So I can remember — when they did this postcard thing, and they wanted to do signed bound galleys and sent me boxes full of paper — my not knowing what to make of it. And calling Mark and having Mark find out, I presume from Nan, that this meant that they were going to support the book, and that they were into the book or whatever. Which given that the book is a thousand pages made me think that they thought it was a pretty good book."
I think David hoped it'd be a great book. Mark Costello told me David announced to him all at once in college, "I want to write books people will read 100 years from now." David said he worked harder on this book than any other. But he was immensely prickly with himself — he graded himself on a very steep curve — so he didn't take the early reviews seriously. He said, "The book takes at least two months to read well. If two years from now, I've got people who like have read the thing three times, who come up and say, 'This thing's really fucking good,' then I'll swell up ... like, if I have a bunch of conversations, like with this guy Silverblatt [Michael Silverblatt, host of NPR's Bookworm], or with Vince Passaro, or with like David Gates, somebody who clearly read the book closely. And a bunch of people are saying it's good, then I'm probably gonna start feeling wholeheartedly good about the book. As it is, there's a kind of creeping feeling of a kind of misunderstanding."

He also said a great thing about how you start to write a really good book. "I think I have a really low pain threshold. I think the 'I'll show people,' or 'People are really gonna like this' - thinking that way has hurt me so bad. That when I'm thinking that way, I'm not writing. That that's this thinking in me that's gotta reach this kind of fever pitch, and then break. In order for me to even start — not to get in the groove, but to get started ... And I would still hear the, 'This is the best thing ever written,' and 'This is the worst thing ever written.' But it's sort of like, you know how in movies there will be a conversation, and then that conversation gets quieter, and a different conversation fades in. I don't know, there's some technical word for it. Just, the volume gets turned down. ... I mean, this is absolutely the best I could do between like 1992 and 1995. And I think though that if everybody'd hated it, I wouldn't be thrilled, but I don't think I'd be devastated either. It's about that it got, it became alive for me."

14 comments:

Zenslinger said...

Your DFW enthusiasm is infectious. But I guess it doesn't make any sense for me to read about IJ without having gotten through IJ. Although I am determined to do so at some point.

L-girl said...

Well, I've never read IJ and never will, but I read and enjoyed this post.

Zen, have you read Supposedly Fun Thing?

Zenslinger said...

I read the post -- "read about IJ" referred to buying the book.

I haven't read the collection, but did read "Shipping Out".

redsock said...

I've never read IJ and never will

:<(

redsock said...

But I guess it doesn't make any sense for me to read about IJ without having gotten through IJ.

This book has very little to do with IJ. There is, from everything I have seen and read, very little about the nuts and bolts of the novel in AOC. (I did a search inside at Amazon for various characters and almost all of them came up 0.) Lipsky was sent to do a feature on Wallace, so the conversation was on Wallace's life, his writing in general, and, since they were joined at the hip for 5 days, his thoughts on everything that came to mind along the way.

9casey said...

Zenslinger said...
Your DFW enthusiasm




Is that what you call it.....:)

Jere said...

I was thinking this might be a good intro to the dude. I've been interested in this stuff through your writing about it, yet I feel like I couldn't read his entire books if I tried. So I'm thinking this book would be a good taste of what the guy was like and might make me attempt to open IJ. Am I onto something?

L-girl said...

I haven't read the collection, but did read "Shipping Out".

Which one is that? Is that a shorter version of the title story?

I've never read IJ and never will

:<(


Count all the books I love that you will never read. After you reach 100, stop frowning.

Your DFW enthusiasm

Is that what you call it.....:)


I guess that's a polite word for obsession. But if everyone on JoS doesn't already know Allan is obsessed with the things he loves (Sox, IJ, Exile, etc.), they are not very astute readers!

L-girl said...

Zen, FWIW, Supposedly Fun Thing - the collection - is some of the best non-fiction I've ever read (and I read tons). This from a non-DFW-obsessive.

redsock said...

Jere: I'd only get this book if you read the long Q&As and are totally fascinated.

Click 'n' read Ticket to the Fair or Shipping Out. Looks like they are still free to read. Or go to the library and get "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again", which has expanded versions of those + more great stuff.

I think you'd also appreciate the title piece from Consider The Lobster.

Or you could get your intro to him, like I did (albeit 14 years later!), though this US Open piece.

redsock said...

Shipping Out is what Harper's published on the cruise. Long, but not as long as what it is ASFT.

L-girl said...

I'm sure the Harper's piece is great, but I would not miss one word of ASFT. Ditto State Fair.

For fuck's sake, we will never read new words by this man again. So terrible.

A Conformer said...

I'm around page 800 in IJ, and I'm already feeling the vacuum I'm heading towards on page 981 (or 1079, depending on how you look at it...).
I'm sure that at some point I would love to read this book, even though "behind the scenes" stuff usually doesn't interest me. Of course, by the sounds of it it's not really a behind the scenes kinda book, and I reckon any time spent reading DFW's thoughts will be well spent. Especially since he has a tendency to show so many different characters and so many different world views at the same time, that reading his own thoughts in a more distilled way would (as in ASFT) would be great. Obviously it's not gonna be one monolithic thought as the "true" one, 'cause that's just not DFW (which is part of the reason he's so good), but it would be something.
Wait, is this JoS or IW?

redsock said...

JoIJ?

Looks like IW melted. I'm at 470 or so. Enjoy 809 onward ... feel free to post something over there or email me.