The Dave Show

It is a truism that some books are long in the making. Think Joyce, think Proust. Think, for that matter, any of your cherished modernist masters. Contemporary biographies, however, often solicited with deadlines and marketing campaigns attached, tend not to grow so slowly. If they do,  as in the case of David Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, readers can assume an extraordinary backstory. And, indeed, the story behind Lipsky's account of the late  David Foster Wallace is both interesting and illuminating. It provides an insightful angle onto the media phenomenon that Wallace, after his untimely death, has become. And it raises doubts about the book's quality as a piece of literature; doubts that ultimately can be dispelled via a comparison with Wallace's own work. So here it is, first of all - the backstory, in chronological order.

In 1996, a young journalist named David Lipsky met US author David Foster Wallace on the last leg of his book tour for Infinite Jest, the thousand-page tome that was to define Wallace on the literary scene. The two men spent five days together, across the country, in airports, diners, and, most of all, in the enforced intimacy of a Pontiac paid for by Jann Wenner, the Rolling Stone editor who had sent Lipsky on this assignment. Nothing lends itself to conversation more than long days on the road. And all along the way, from Bloomington to Chicago, Lipsky's tape recorder was spinning in the vicinity of the writer's caffeinated commentaries on everything and more.

Shortly after returning from the road trip with Wallace, Lipsky sat down to condense hours of talk into a linear narrative. But the subject eluded him. His admiration for Wallace overpowered any attempts at the kind of professional distance needed for analysis. The man seemed to have followed Lipsky to his desk, hovering over his shoulders, probing and, ultimately, blocking his mind. Thus the words didn't flow. 1  And Rolling Stone lost interest. Lipsky was sent to Seattle to write about heroin addicts and for more than ten years the Wallace transcripts languished in a drawer.

In 2008, Wallace killed himself and everything changed. Suddenly, any word ever written about the man seemed to miss something important and Lipsky was grateful that he had abandoned his earlier essay. However, by the Morrison-Lennon-Cobain-equation, premature death turns a star into a martyr. Wallace's words now seemed like a testament, something definitive, something people would listen to more than ever. Also, something people would shell out money for more than ever. If he hadn't already, Wallace now truly became a brand - the sound of his initials, DFW, deliciously reminiscent of the day- and nightside of genius. And, like sex, goosebumps sell. A veritable Wallace industry broke loose and it is hard to imagine any publisher with rights to the man's work not having dollar signs in his eyes.

Hence Little, Brown's 2009 decision to publish This Is Water - Wallace's famed commencement speech at Kenyon College, which had circulated on the internet for years, but was pulled after the publishing house purchased the rights. The speech is fabulous, an accessible introduction not only to the man's thought but also to the challenges of adulthood. Its presentation in book form, however, displays all the characteristics of what Wallace, with a trademark honesty informed by nothing less than true philosophia, would probably have called a rip-off. Indeed, the editorial choice to turn a twenty-minute speech into a book by devoting an entire page to each sentence, no matter how short or dangling that sentence may be, is shamelessly devoid of any attempts to veil its baseline commercial interests.

It was in this cultural environment, then, fifteen years after his encounter with Wallace, that Lipsky's biography finally arrived - somewhat surprisingly, bearing in mind the journalist's initial reluctance to approach his subject in writing. So is his book on Wallace, like This Is Water, nothing but an instance of cashing in on a private tragedy, similar to the rushed appearance of a deceased rock star's most minuscule performances in bootlegged form? The timing of Lipsky's publication would suggest so. Moreover, like a bootleg, his biography appears to be largely unedited. In fact, though happily advertised as contributing to that genre, the label "biography" is a bit of a red herring. Rather than a full-bodied biography, readers of AOCYEUBY get the skeleton, the transcripts, the raw material underlying what could have been a longer prose piece - a book-length version of Lipsky's 2009 award-winning Rolling Stone essay that, after news of Wallace's suicide spread, became the first to shed light on the tragedy of the writer's last year.

Instead of such a coherent narrative, AOCYEUBY gives us three hundred pages of highly entertaining, often wise chatter, "a record of what David was like, when he was thirty-four and all his cards had turned over good" (xxiv). We get true-to-each-spoken-word coverage of what might be called The Dave Show, carefully transcribed onto the page. We meet "Illinois Dave," scraping an "Antarctica" off his 1985 Nissan Sentra (302) - the Midwesterner who says "wraters" (3) instead of "writers" and "wudn't" (57) instead of "wouldn't." We meet Dave, the teacher, both graceful and engaging, who possesses what Lipsky terms "the Astaire quality of good teaching" (8). We meet Dave, the movie buff, who refers to When Harry Met Sally and prime time TV in talking about storytelling. We read Wallace's words, copied down to the last letter; witness his encounters with escorts, waitresses, clerks; even visit the items populating his house: the dog stuff, the padded toilet seat, the postcard of St. Ignatius' Prayer in his bathroom. In the end, we cannot help feeling that all of this looks a little self-indulgent on the printed page.

Is Lipsky's "biography," then, merely candy for the addicted, starved of Wallace's words?  Why, a skeptic might ask, should I watch this fifteen year-old episode of The Dave Show? What keeps me from zapping away from conversations that, though insightful at times, often seem to be banal, the true sign of bad art? Happily, there is an answer. It is the impression of a Dave Wallace like the one appearing on "The Charlie Rose Show" in 1997, a bandana-sporting philosopher cringing under the awareness of being on TV, that should keep us from zapping away, fan and skeptic alike. This hyper-conscious persona, also to be found in AOCYEUBY, reminds us of Wallace's obsessions and opens up a route of reflection that dispels first impressions of self-indulgence or triteness.

On the road with Lipsky, this Wallace constantly returns to the configuration of context and the rules implicit in it. The tape recorder, the impending piece for Rolling Stone, the pseudo-intimacy of his encounter with the journalist - all these features, Wallace knows, create a situation quite unlike the kind of innocent gathering needed for real communication. "This is very smart," he remarks to Lipsky in a passage that is representative of many others in this book: "You say something that gets a rise out of me, and I begin talking, and it's good because I like you, so I'm talking to you. But the tape recorder's on . . ." (187).

And indeed, AOCYEUBY shows Lipsky, the reporter, asking, and Wallace, the writer, answering. Not one to let the implications of such a set-up go unnoticed, Wallace remarks more than once to the journalist that he would "love to do [...] a profile of one of you guys who's doin' a profile on me [...] to get some of the control back" (17). Alas, any list of the man's publications proves that remark to have been without consequence. We don't know how Wallace would have tackled the task of a counter-profile. What we do know, however, is that this book, the account of a moment when two really smart people met, reads, in Lipsky's words, like "one of the deluxe internal surveys [Wallace] specialized in - the unedited camera, the feed before the director in the van starts making cuts and choices" (xi).


DFW's Voice, Lipsky's Choice

It is not difficult to imagine Lipsky back at his desk, listening to the conversations again, a week after David's death, thinking, with the distinctive experience of having Wallace's voice invade his own: this is, like, the best DFW novel David Foster Wallace never wrote. Indeed, the semblance between Lipsky's non-fictional "biography" and Wallace's own fictional work is striking. To be sure, there are no foot- or endnotes in Lipsky's book. The author does not merely copy Wallace's distinctive style and AYOCEUBY is not another book by DFW - even though some of the oral mini-essays Wallace delivered on the road, ranging from country-pop as a form of existential longing to Hobbes' Leviathan as prefiguring the role of internet gatekeepers, showcase the writer's mind in overdrive as much as his published writing does. It is, rather, in its spirit that Lipsky's book most resembles Wallace's writing. Lipsky, we might say, does to the form of the biography what Wallace did to the form of the novel.

With the onset of postmodernism, Wallace famously reflected in 1993, the novel "became conscious of itself in a way it never has been." This paradigm shift, "fiction's fall from biblical grace" as Wallace, tongue-in-cheek, called it, always loomed large over his oeuvre (McCaffery 134). Characteristically, Wallace sought to enact such stifling reflexivity in his own texts, if only to overcome it. In endnotes, for one thing, he found a congenial tool for his task. Endnotes allowed him to comment freely without interrupting a reader's immersion; they highlighted a narrative as artificial, thus fulfilling the norms of postmodernism; yet they did not, as some metafiction had inevitably done, prevent a naïve, and compassionate, reading experience.

What Wallace's stylistic pyrotechnics meant to explode, then, was not the lucid dream on the canvas of the mind. This his literary forebears, the postmodernists, had done - countering  hypocrisy with satire, fiction with meta-fiction, faux sentimentality with sincerity. Over time, though, and under the pretense of consistency, their disruptive honesty had turned into its opposite. A second generation of postmodern writers co-opted strategies initially aimed at novelistic truth and deployed them for rhetorical gain, seeking to be liked for their intelligence, for their supposed display of sincerity, and, above all, for letting the reader in on the truth behind the mimetic illusion that literature could be a window onto reality. Contemporary writers like Bret Easton Ellis and Mark Leyner, Wallace argued in 1993, were guilty of what, with a bow to essayist Lewis Hyde, he called "sincerity with a motive" ("E Unibus" 63) - the same attitude an alert Wallace saw at work in his interviewer Lipsky's attempts at courting him on the road three years later: "But the tape recorder's on . . ." (187).

Self-conscious irony permeated the culture and it was time, Wallace saw, to find ways out of the predicaments of postmodernism. Reading Tolstoy, he learned of the age-old concept of empathy, defined by the Russian novelist as a "capacity of man to receive another man's expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself" (121). 2  This was, Wallace knew, Schopenhauer's basis of morality, "the primary and original phenomenon of ethics" (Schopenhauer 144). And, like the pessimistic German philosopher, Wallace believed art to provide the litmus test of whether such an exchange of feelings could take place. But while Schopenhauer, a product of nineteenth-century Germany, had felt justified in claiming that empathy "resides in human nature itself and, for this very reason, endures in all circumstances and appears in all countries at all times" (149), Wallace faced twentieth-century media-saturated America. His characters, lost in loops of reflection, had alienated themselves from the "natural foundation of morals" (Schopenhauer 129). Consequently, these characters, such as tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza in Infinite Jest or one of the many hideous men in his similarly titled collection of stories, struggle with empathy. In fact, the intimate aura of his fiction arose from the fact that, in this respect, Wallace's characters resembled his readers. And they certainly resembled their author - a descendant of postmodernism who was the first to realize that, given our penchant for irony, it takes enormous will power to arrive at the kind of empathy necessary to overcome cynicism.

Wittgenstein on MTV

In the preface to Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a book Wallace referred to as having "sort of rung [his] cherries" as an undergrad, Ludwig Wittgenstein pronounced the propositions of his slender book to have essentially solved the problems of philosophy. Qualifying this characteristically arrogant claim, Wittgenstein declared that "the value of this work secondly consists in the fact that it shows how little has been done when these problems have been solved" (29). It was the second, unwritten part of his book, Wittgenstein implied, that really mattered - the ethical part, dealing with life as lived, an existential affair, more a case of choices and attitudes than one of logical proofs and arguments.

The same could be said of Wallace's work. Indeed, like the Tractatus, any work of literature can always only be one half of the whole of existence. The other half, though, slips away from the grasp of words. Wallace, the mystic, knows this, too. At times, chatting with Lipsky, he sounds like Wittgenstein addressing an audience brought up on MTV and Seinfeld: "Like if I could articulate it, then there wouldn't be any need to make up stories about it, you know?" (40).

If it was impossible, however, to articulate ethical propositions in a straightforward manner, Wallace reasoned, he could still try to approach them indirectly. Indeed, Wallace's solution to the problem of addressing Wittgenstein's ineffable was dialectical. His texts, above all Infinite Jest, contained their own criticism, calling into question their own assumptions about metaphysical certainties. They spiraled upwards in ever-rising doubt, causing vertigo in readers who tried to sort out which attitude was superior: Hal Incandenza's ennui or his brother Mario's sentimental antics? Sociologist Geoffrey Day's sarcasm or ex-addict Don Gately's infantilization? With no authorial commentary to guide them, Wallace's readers were deflected back into their own value judgments. This was, by and large, the way that Socrates had unsettled his Athenian compatriots two thousand years before. Refusing to positively propound philosophical propositions, the Greek philosopher had merely hinted at metaphysics by way of questioning. Likewise, in his fiction, Wallace eschewed overt arguments in favor of empathy. In twentieth-century America, he knew, such an approach would fall prey to the incessant workings of the irony machine. Thus, Wallace protected empathy by making it the unavailable center of his writing - an ethical attitude his narrators only descry in other, less self-conscious characters; something that exists on the fringes of their solipsistic worlds the same way that, in Wittgenstein, the ethical life could only be approached by guesswork within the cold universe of logic.

A kind of Kierkegaardian indirect communication, Wallace's fiction allowed a reader to experience the collapse of her own interpretive predispositions in order to clear the way for an ethical way of life. By definition, the mysterious act of empathy lay outside the realm of words. Its power and necessity, though, was highlighted from within. For those stuck inside postmodern anhedonia, this way out required hard work. In fact, the emotional labor Wallace's best fiction required was not unlike, was indeed exemplified by, the spiritual journey of Infinite Jest's AA members - the whole book a talking cure whose ultimate challenge, an acceptance of the hackneyed slogans of Alcoholics Anonymous, proved too hard a test for some readers to pass. What, almost paradoxically, offset this quest towards spiritual soundness was Wallace's warm wit and funniness - qualities that also shine in Lipsky's book. Moreover, with a verbatim accuracy made possible by the advances of electronic media, Lipsky's "biography" tests his readers' endurance somewhat like Wallace's maximalist fiction. Every detail, in Lipsky as in Wallace, is captured on the page and, in the absence of authorial guidance, it is the reader's task to make meaning of this excess of information.

The Commentary Track

The form this book eventually took may truly be said to have been chosen with concern to the presumed post-mortem will of its subject. In fact, Lipsky is explicit about this. In the introduction, wryly announced as "the Commentary track - which nobody goes in for until they've loved the DVD" (ix) he describes his approach as "the one way of writing about him I don't think David would have hated" (x).

The DVD metaphor is apt, albeit applied to the wrong section of the book. There is, indeed, a commentary track that runs through AOCYEUBY. It is not, however, the introduction. Commentary tracks run parallel to the feature film's soundtrack. Like footnotes, they allow for a double focus that simultaneously creates affective distance and proximity to the main feature. In keeping with postmodern conventions, they lift the veil and reveal the magicians behind the screen. Yet they also allow a viewer to alternately focus on creator and creation, like a theater aficionado who glimpses ropes and pulleys above the stage and then, willingly suspending disbelief, turns his attention back to Lear raging at Cordelia - or, for that matter, like a reader of Infinite Jest flipping back and forth between the endnotes and the main textual body, detecting incongruities and making ironies happen.

AOCYEUBY makes a similar focus possible by a peculiar doubling of its author across time and space. The book showcases two different Lipskys: one version of the man in 1996, on the road with Wallace, and an older Lipsky in 2008, sitting at home, listening to the recordings made a decade before. Sometimes this older Lipsky mutters something [intrusions that, in the text, are set in brackets] and, like a commentary track on The Dave Show, you hear his remarks against the backdrop of Wallace's soft Midwestern speech: less bubbly, less ebullient, but also warm and observant. Lipsky 2008 is, above all, a good reader of character. His mind is anything but dulled by the tragic events of the preceding weeks. To the contrary, it is acute and, like any engaged reader's, empathetic. He is like you, humbled by the reality of loss, and trying to figure this man out - to intuit the big something that seemed to be missing from all previous writing on David Foster Wallace.

It is this empathy, both Lipsky's and his reader's, that drives the book. In a way, the author invites us to write the conventional biography he eschewed. Listen to this guy, he seems to say. See if you can figure him out. And, indeed, through the power of reading, the imaginative work exerted on each new page moves Dave Wallace out of obscurity and more sharply into focus. This slow and meticulous movement towards another mind is mirrored in the 1996 transcripts - in fact, faith in empathy not only underlies the form of Lipsky's "biography," it also determines the writers' relationship on the road.

Thus the attentive reader of AOCYEUBY bears witness to how, over the course of five days, these two writers come to a "no-bullshit" kind of intimacy, partly pushed by Lipsky's desire for honest material, partly enabled by Wallace's drive towards the heart of things. "The conversation is the best one I've ever had" (xxxii), Lipsky 2008 reflects, and there is a clear correlation between hours spent talking and a build-up of affection and understanding between the men. They become friends through mutual soul-searching, initially driven by the desire for control, later dominated by a care not unlike the selfless interest a reader has for characters he holds dear. Thus, their encounter demonstrates what genuine empathy can lead to: a connection devoted to sharing, in some ways like the feeling of friendship between reader and writer that Wallace's best work made possible.

That Lipsky and Wallace lose touch after their encounter, indeed never see each other again, underlines the elusive beauty of such moments. Moreover, the paranoia that descends upon both men from the get-go indicates the difficulty of connecting. Empathy, pace Schopenhauer, is hard work - at least for those of us who, as Wallace wrote for Rolling Stone in 1999, "are educated and have read a lot and have watched TV critically." In a culture bombarded by mock sincerity designed to trick consumers into more consumption, those who see through the manipulative workings of the media industry have become wary of any attempts at gaining trust. Consequently, in the wake of Wallace's musings about "sincerity with a motive," Lipsky relegates such honesty to the status of pick-up lines - a lesson learned, to be sure, from Wallace himself, whose character Orin Incandenza employs ironic anti-pick-up lines as a real form of seduction.

Over time, though, Lipsky overcomes this paranoia, balancing intellectual awareness with emotional maturity, and his success hints at the kind of work needed for real communication. When Lipsky is done, however - the last sentence from the road trip transcribed, the last remark on the commentary track muttered - his reader's work has just begun. In a way, for Lipsky's formal choices to succeed, he requires the reader to first have and then move beyond impressions of self-indulgence. And just as a good novel holds the key to its own intentions, teaching the reader how to read it, Lipsky's book contains a discussion of its own formal strategies.

"Avant-garde stuff," Wallace tells the journalist at one point, "seduces the reader into making extraordinary efforts he wouldn't normally make" (71). From this vantage point, Lipsky's indirect approach to writing about David Foster Wallace was a good, indeed, a wise choice, his reluctance to make encompassing statements not a cop-out. True, his masterful Rolling Stone essay on Wallace's last days had dealt with the man more directly. But the essay's focus had been more limited, a behind-the-scenes look at the strange face of suicide, described in contours only.

In AOCYEUBY, Lipsky seems to have some ideas about Wallace, too. But he does not feel the need to convince anyone of these ideas' accuracy. Rather, presenting commentary and source material side-by-side, he invites the reader into the game of meaning-making. His book puts reader and biographer on a level playing field, with neither interpreter at an advantage. This is a kind of life-writing that shies away from monolithic notions of truth: a writing spawned by Wallace's own reflections on the power structures inherent in any kind of biography. Lipsky's profile opens up the door for countless other profiles - as many, in fact, as there are readers of AOCYEUBY. Thus, in a final act of admiration and gratitude to his subject, Lipsky can, indeed, be said to have granted Wallace's wish to "get some of the control back" (17), insofar as neither the author nor subject of his book gets the definitive last word.

Rather, the last word belongs to each individual reader, who is asked to empathize and construct meaning accordingly - which is tantamount to saying that there is no such thing as a last word. Lipsky's approach to life-writing, then, doesn't just reflect the state of the art in critical theories of reading, which by and large locate meaning in the actions of an interpreter. 3  It also highlights the role of empathy in any such act of reading, inviting a conclusion that reaches far beyond this book and, for that reason, rescues it from charges of irrelevancy or cashing-in. Empathy, Lipsky's formal choices make clear, is the goal of all serious reading, fiction and non-fiction alike. Safe to say, that is a conclusion David Foster Wallace, who once hoped for a new generation of literary rebels to "treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction" ("E Unibus" 81), would have liked.


Tim Personn is a Ph.D. student in English and CSPT (Cultural, Social and Political Thought) at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.




Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. Waukegan, IL: Fontana, 1977.

Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in this Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1980.

Lipsky, David. "The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace." Rolling Stone 1064 (October 30, 2008).

-----. Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. New York: Broadway Books, 2010.

McCaffery, Larry. "An Interview with David Foster Wallace." Review of Contemporary Fiction 13.2. (1993): 127-50.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. On the Basis of Morality. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998.

Tolstoy, Leo. What is Art and Essays on Art. London: Oxford UP, 1932.

Wallace, David Foster. "E Unibus Pluram." A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. Boston: Little, Brown, 1997: 21-83.

-----. "David Foster Wallace's '100-word Statement' on the 'millennium'" Rolling Stone 830/831 (Dec. 30, 1999 - January 6, 2000).

-----. This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. Boston: Little, Brown, 2008.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus logico-philosophicus. London: Harcourt, 1922.

  1. #1 In a curiously placed "afterword," essentially a prelude to AOCYEUBY, Lipsky is remarkably honest about this spell of writer's block: "I never, thank God, had to write the piece. I tried to write it, and kept imagining David reading it, and seeing through it, through me, and spotting some questionable stuff on the X-ray" (xxxi).[]
  2. #2 Wallace's annotated copy of Tolstoy's essay, archived at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin, provides ample evidence for his engagement with the Russian novelist's argument.[]
  3. #3 In the wake of the New Critics' attempt to diminish the importance of interpretive acts for the existence of linguistic meaning, poststructuralism and reader-response criticism essentially agreed that meaning cannot exist independently of some act of interpretation. For the poststructuralist camp, cf. Barthes: "The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost" (189). For reader-response criticism, cf. Fish: "Linguistic facts [...] do have meaning, but the explanation for that meaning is not the capacity of syntax to express it but the ability of a reader to confer it" (8).[]