My review of...
Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace
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I recently spent about fifteen hours tightly packed between two men’s warm shoulders, that is, in the middle seat of cross-country flights. Flying is an odd experience: the plane’s too-small frame holds us in place with strange neighbors. We can’t escape each other’s presence, but aside from the quick polite smile following knee-bumps, we tend to pretend that we don’t notice each other.
It was in these circumstanced that I joined David Foster Wallace and David Lipsky on their five-day journey from Bloomington-Normal to Chicago to Minneapolis and back again. The year is 1996; Wallace is riding a disorienting wave of celebrity following the success of his novel Infinite Jest, and Lipsky is a Rolling Stone journalist assigned to cover the last leg of his book tour. At 34 and 30 respectively, the two men are close in age as well as in career ambitions—both are aspiring novelists who wrestle with how to navigate the literary scene, manage their egos and insecurities, and define success for themselves. Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is a largely unedited transcript of their conversations in rental cars, taxis, and—of course—planes.
Lipsky describes the book’s tone best in his introduction: “It has the feeling of a highway conversation. Late at night, the only car in the world, on icy morning roads, yelling at other drivers. It has the rhythms of the road: grouchiness, indefensible meals, and the sudden, front-seat connections—reciting high points from movies, the right song and a good view sending the radio into soundtrack, a statement that gives you the bright, runway lift of knowing that another person has experienced life the way you do—that are the stuff you go on trips for.” (x-xi)
My in-flight circumstances were thus perfect. As I read their back-and-forth, the anonymous elbows negotiating the armrests on either side of me took on their voices (Lipsky to my left, Wallace to my right). The three of us were on this journey together.
If that sounds a bit off, let me point out that Lipsky himself would probably understand how I felt about their pseudo-presence: “Books are a social substitute; you read people who, at one level, you’d like to hang out with.” (xx) And it’s Wallace who concludes that the purpose of books is to combat loneliness, a theme that recurs throughout Although of Course: books are a conversation between writer and reader; reading allows us to know that we’re not alone, to recognize our own experiences in others’ descriptions. Is it so crazy to say these two men were keeping me company through these pages?
As an aspiring young writer, I felt particularly drawn into their discussions of authors, editors, and publishers, but they talk about much more than the literary world, delving into everything from Wallace’s pet dogs to the spread at Denny’s to the seriousness of substance abuse and depression. There’s something here for everyone, and whatever the topic, their dialogue is engaging, intelligent, and earthy.
The next time you’re about to embark on a solo trip (or wish you were), take Lipsky and Wallace along for the ride. This book is so readable you’ll forget the feel of the paperback in your hands and sense that they’re your travel companions, pressing their shoulders into yours and debating life’s intricacies in real time.