When David Lipsky meets David Foster Wallace, it's 1996, Infinite Jest has just been released, and Wallace is the most famous literary writer in America. The author is also using a Barney the Purple Dinosaur towel as a bedroom curtain in his Illinois home. On the wall is a poster of Alanis Morissette. "If by some paradox," he tells Lipsky, a novelist who's there to profile him for Rolling Stone, "this whole fuss could get me some kind of even just like a five-minute cup of tea with her, that would be more than reward enough." Later, Wallace will confess to being drawn to "squeaky orgasmic quality" in Morissette's voice, part of a catalogue of musical idiosyncrasies that also turns out to include Huey Lewis, INXS, Nirvana, and Enya. The latter two, we learn, provided the soundtrack while the author worked on Jest.
Lipsky's Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, "a biography in five days" harvested from the tapes of a never-published article, is full of these kind of everyman details about a writer who often seemed larger than life. Wallace chews tobacco. The women's magazine Cosmopolitan, he tells Lipsky, is "fundamentally soothing to the nervous system." Wallace likes to make a distinction between what he calls "good self-consciousness" and " toxic, paralyzing, raped-by-psychic-Bedouins self-consciousness." At various moments during their time together, Lipsky seems to bring on the latter but—as a fellow burgeoning writer and a guy about Wallace's age—just as often helps assuage it. "I'm thirty years old," writes Lipsky, setting the scene: "he's thirty-four. We both have long hair." Rolling Stone sent the right guy: he gets Wallace to talk, often late into the night.
Becoming Yourself is the first of two heavily anticipated Wallace biographies to hit shelves (the other, by the New Yorker's D. T. Max, is due next year) in the wake of Wallace's 2008 suicide. In his
decision to focus on the man, rather than his complicated work, Lipsky
is following, to some degree, the pattern established by Little, Brown, which last year published Wallace's 2005 Kenyon College commencement address as a kind of gnomic—e.g., one lonely, zen-like sentence per page—self-help title. In life, Wallace, one of the most difficult American authors of last half century, struggled desperately to be understood—to feel "unlonely." In death, a new version of Wallace is emerging: an unfailingly polite Midwesterner with what Lipsky calls "a caffeine social gift," predisposed to the type of folksy wisdom inevitably destined for a high school yearbook. It's an odd fit for a guy who, while he was alive, shared far more writing DNA with Thomas Pynchon than he did with Deepak Chopra.
But the two Wallaces are not mutually exclusive. As Lipsky writes, the author's singular achievement, especially in his non-fiction, was capturing "everybody's brain voice"; Wallace's writing sounds the way we think, or at least the way we like to think we think. The goal of fiction, Wallace tells Lipsky, involves "leapin' over that wall of self, and portraying inner experience." Part of becoming a better person has to do with learning how "to treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend." Throughout the book, astonishingly profound things are said in airport parking lots and rental-car cockpits. We may never have a better record of what it sounded like to hear Wallace talk. And talk. And talk.
But there is an absence in Becoming Yourself—even as Wallace emerges as a human being, his fiction, and the impossibly virtuosic, pyrotechnic stuff he did on the page, stay dispiritingly on the shelf. We are left with the vicissitudes of a long, 14-year-old interview, which is charming when they go to the Mall of America and discuss John Woo's Broken Arrow, and less so when Wallace gets halfway through explaining the mechanics of a story like "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," only to be gently lead by a veteran magazine writer down another, more Jann Wenner–friendly path. That's too bad. Because for a guy like David Foster Wallace, the only meaningful reality was "being in a room with a piece of paper." We care most about Wallace because of what he wrote. "That's what's real," he tells Lipsky. "The rest of this is just conversation around it."
Zach Baron is a senior associate editor at the Village Voice.