Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The saddest book of the year

In March 1996, writer David Lipsky spent five days with author David Foster Wallace, for a piece in Rolling Stone. He stayed overnight in Wallace's house, rode in the car with him, played chess against him and traveled to book readings. In September 2008, Wallace committed suicide in his California home. He was 46. A year and a half later, Lipsky wrote a book called Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. The book is basically a transcription of the days Lipsky spent with Wallace fourteen years ago. Reading their discussions sheds light on the type of demons that drove Wallace to take his life. They talk about depression and suicide and the future of reading and a thousand other topics, all recorded by Lipsky's ever-present tape recorder. But the book also highlights the mundane: Lipsky and Wallace play with the author's dogs. They eat gigantic meals at Denny's.

All of it gives an insight into who Wallace was at that moment. At the start of his afterword, Lipsky writes, "Suicide is such a powerful end, it reaches back and scrambles the beginning. It has an event gravity: Eventually, every memory and impression gets tugged in its direction." Later, he adds, "That's the other thing this book would like to be: a record of what David was like, when he was thirty-four and all his cards had turned over good, every one of his ships had sailed back into harbor."

He succeeds.

By the end, I wished I had been in the backseat of the car, just listening to the two writers banter and debate. The book ends with Lipsky leaving Illinois while Wallace heads to a church dance. It's a heartbreaking book because you know how the story ultimately ends, even if that ending came 12 years later.

Wallace's most famous work is Infinite Jest, the thousand-page novel published in 1996 that made him a writing superstar. I never completed the book; it's a tough read, though several of my friends who have finished it loved it. So I'll give it another shot. Lipsky followed Wallace around as he went on tour for Infinite Jest and dealt with the newfound fame (one of the more amusing episodes centers around a nice - but passive-aggressive - reading escort who accompanies Wallace to his event in Minneapolis).

Wallace might have been best known for his fiction, but his nonfiction works are also classics. His essays and features on John McCain, Roger Federer, cruise ships, state fairs, and David Lynch remain the definitive pieces on those subjects. His nonfiction is more accessible to readers, so anyone intimidated by the size and scope of Infinite Jest might want to start with his essays.

The story Lipsky researched for Rolling Stone back in 1996 never ran; he got called away for another story. But the tapes of his days with Wallace remained, just waiting to be published. And reading those conversations now, fourteen years later and nearly two years after Wallace died, brings the writer to life. And that makes it even harder to accept how he died.

Some links:

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