Book Review: David Foster Wallace Biography

Because posthumous publication of unfinished works and correspondence can both offend purist literary sensibilities and satisfy our desire to get everything to be had from our Nabokovs and Hemingways, the vexing questions of how to handle the legacies of great dead writers never go away. The recently deceased, though, require additional sensitivity. When it comes to David Foster Wallace—the outrageously gifted novelist, short-story writer, and reporter who committed suicide in 2008—we're still in the "handle with exquisite care" phase. That much becomes clear when a journalist (and sometime fiction writer) as talented as David Lipsky effectively delivers a biography of Wallace that is a notebook dump—one executed not out of laziness but out of respect. In Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace—most of which is a gently filtered transcript of a five-day bull session between the two writers as they hit various stops on Wallace's 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest—Lipsky simply lets his tapes roll onto the page. We read at several points that Wallace worries a great deal about how he'll come off in the planned magazine piece that Lipsky is supposed to write, though since the Rolling Stone article never came to fruition, what we have here is Wallace's voice, unedited, new to us.

Wallace's fans will have to be judicious in coming years about the volumes that will promise one more encounter with that indelible voice, although Lipsky's book more than passes the test of being in good taste. Conversely, for readers unfamiliar with the sometimes intimidating Wallace oeuvre, Lipsky has provided a conversational entry point into the writer's thought process. It's odd to think that a book about Wallace could serve both the newbies and the hard-cores, but here it is. In the opening pages Lipsky gives us an introduction, preface, and afterword to frame the narrative of his encounter with Wallace, and places them all before the main text itself. (He even encourages skipping ahead and returning to his musings later, as a "commentary" track akin to the bonus features on a DVD.) This poor-mouths the quality of Lipsky's original analysis a bit—he won a National Magazine Award last year for his reporting in the immediate aftermath of Wallace's death—but the effect is appropriately respectful. And you get the feeling that Wallace himself might have given Lipsky an award for being a conversationalist, too. Amid the slog of clichéd book-tour questions from fans—"How do you get your ideas?"—Lipsky prods Wallace to open up on his obsessions, his fears, and his addictions. (The one thing he doesn't get is a straight answer on Wallace's history with antidepressants.)

What is missing in their five-day talk is some of the high literary nerdery that devoted Wallace readers will want. During his trip, Lipsky never takes up his subject on the big conversation about meta-fiction author John Barth that Wallace seems eager to have. The two talk a lot about a manner of literary fame that was already in decline during the late '90s, and that has only contracted in the years since. (Forget the shuttering of Tower Records. Anyone remember when there used to be such a thing as Tower Books?) And, per furtive instructions from his editors in New York, Lipsky presses Wallace on rumors of drug abuse somewhat repetitively. But even in the sections where the conversation becomes a mite redundant, we do have the pleasure of reading two sharp writers who can spar good-naturedly with one another. (And yes, Wallace even drops a My Dinner With Andre reference at one point.) When a project like Lipsky's is conceived in such good faith, it's better for us to have this discursive kind of completeness, rather than the phantom of what could have been given us. We have enough of that kind of lamenting to do when it comes to Wallace himself.