David Foster Wallace’s Closed Circuit
By Anna ShechtmanJuly 25, 2015
IN A 1959 ISSUE of The Nation, George Steiner coined the “Salinger Industry:” a booming conglomerate of authors, journalists, and academics, who devoted pages of America’s elite magazines, book reviews, and monographs to the laconic author and his writing (which, at the time, comprised little more than 500 pages). Steiner’s essay broke the crest on a tidal wave of Salinger-backlash. Once a phony-slaying apostle for the disillusioned masses, then a saint in the American literary canon, Salinger became an icon of the overrated — a mark of the hopelessly middlebrow. Joan Didion deemed Franny and Zooey pseudo-intellectual self-help: “Positive Thinking for the upper middle classes […] Double Your Energy and Live Without Fatigue for Sarah Lawrence girls.” Mary McCarthy called Salinger’s work a “closed circuit,” connecting insiders who feel like outsiders in a self-lubricating loop of adulation and dismay. But Steiner’s essay was not just a critique of Salinger, opening season on the author’s closed circuit, it was a critique of the Salinger Industry itself: “American literary criticism has become a vast machine in constant need of new raw material […] There has never been, and cannot be, enough good literature produced at any given moment to supply a critical industry so massive and serious.” The midcentury humanities surge — and the glut of academic journals, fellowships, and publishing contracts it produced — transformed Steiner’s field from a meritocracy of the mind, as he saw it, into a corporation of criticism.
With the Salinger Industry now years in decline, the vast lit crit machine — more diffuse and multimedial, if not less insatiable — has found new raw material in David Foster Wallace. Since Wallace’s suicide in 2008, 12 monographs, one film adaptation, and countless articles in academic and mainstream outlets have laid the foundation for the burgeoning Wallace Industry. Indeed, Wallace’s writing, like that of Salinger before him, has had extra-literary effects. More than canonized, he has been initialized. For a certain cohort of mostly white, mostly male readers, D.F.W. outranks even P.T.A. (Paul Thomas Anderson) and B.E.E. (Bret Easton Ellis) as the author whose work spawned a worldview.
Wallace’s personal and literary style courted such a following. A self-described “incredibly shy, egotistical exhibitionist,” he took on the public wrongs of his literary forefathers, countering the sexism of the “Great Male Narcissists” (Updike, Mailer, Roth) with a self-deprecating carnality, and parrying the shallowness of the Great Male Postmodernists (Pynchon, DeLillo, Barth) with an irony-laced “New Sincerity.” Moreover, Infinite Jest and the unfinished The Pale King are inscrutable yet instructional, with famous footnotes, serving at once as yellow-brick roads and red herrings, working to make the reader work. Wallace asked for his reader’s participation, and much of the time — as reprints and dorm room bookshelves would have us believe — he got it.
Unlike Salinger’s closed circuit between reader and writer, though, Wallace’s formally unwieldy texts (and his premature death) seem to leave their (and his) legacy open. They are meant to be read like the worm fossils painstakingly described in the opening pages of The Pale King, whose “tiny vacant lines in rows and inset curls […] do not close because head never quite touches tail.” But the Wallace Industry, whose latest product is the “biographical drama” The End of the Tour, has closed Wallace’s seemingly open circuit between writer and reader, making the author’s life and work appear more legible and linear than he ever would. And, perhaps more importantly, it has closed the circuit between the Wallace Industry and the industries that made Wallace: academia, journalism, and now independent film.
Directed by James Ponsoldt, The End of the Tour is tightly based on David Lipsky’s 2010 bestseller Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. Lipsky’s book is mainly a transcription of audiotapes he made while interviewing Wallace at the end of his 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest. He was reporting for Rolling Stone at the time. The film poses as a cinematic translation of the tapes’ transcripts with Jason Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky. While these performances are tremendously convincing, neither role can be called a stretch: Segel plays a flat-footed bromantic lead, while Eisenberg plays an over-zealous nebbish. Readers of Lipsky’s book will know that The End of the Tour was as predestined (or even as “meta”) as its casting. In the book’s foreword, Lipsky compares his press junket interviews with Wallace to a “road trip movie,” and his book to a DVD, in which his additions serve as a Director’s Cut “commentary track.” Fans of Wallace and of The End of the Tour deserve such a meta-production. Isn’t it ironic.
And yet the currency on which the Wallace Industry and its latest product run is not irony but sincerity. The New Sincerity. This is the term — so applied by Wallace Industry expert Adam Kelly — that has come to define Wallace criticism. Based on Wallace’s 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram,” in which Wallace famously called for “single-entendre principles” in fiction, the New Sincerity is a literary Return to Order, sublating midcentury humanism and postmodern playfulness in a dialectic of American Realness. It’s a brand of sincerity that allowed Wallace, despite the Althusser and Derrida at his fingertips, to repeatedly claim that “fiction’s about what it means to be a fucking human being.” Wallace’s call for literary sincerity is said to have been heard by writers like Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Jeffrey Eugenides, whose texts flirt with literalism (and sometimes Realism), while prodding the heartstrings of the college-educated and under-fulfilled.
The independent film industry, now largely defined by the rise of mumblecore in 2002, has also heard a version of Wallace’s call, promoting a naturalistic, slice-of-life aesthetic that privileges candor over narrative creativity and affect over action. While not a self-described mumblecore director, Ponsoldt’s fidelity to a mumblecore aesthetic is betrayed by his first wide-release film, 2013’s The Spectacular Now. Moreover, the promotional materials for The End of the Tour insist that the film is not a David Foster Wallace “biopic” but something like a “slice-of-bio-pic” in the mumblecore vein.
Indeed, almost all of the dialogue from the film stems from Lipsky’s interview transcriptions — his shared slice of Wallace’s life. But by adhering to the minimalistic Realism of a mumblecore production, Ponsoldt dispenses with the formal innovations of Lipsky’s book. Lipsky presents the reader with both a foreword and afterword before his tapes’ transcriptions, recommending that readers skip right to the content of the interviews before learning the context of their creation. The film, however, is a frame tale, bookending Lipsky’s road trip interviews between shots of Lipsky learning of Wallace’s suicide 12 years later. In this sense, Lipsky’s written afterword comes cinematically afterward, foreclosing the multiple modes of reading that his book, and Wallace’s own fiction, promoted.
What the book and movie share, however, is the conceit of sincere human connection, using the very technology that seems to impede it. This is the trait of the New Sincerity that draws Wallace, Lipsky, and indie cinema trends into agreement. Upon hearing the news of Wallace’s death at the start of The End of the Tour, for example, Lipsky proceeds to find and play the audiotapes from his Wallace interviews, which he had tucked away in his closet. A close-up on the analog recorder — and the sound of Wallace’s voice from the dead — facilitates a digital dissolve to 12 years prior, when Lipsky first heard about Infinite Jest from a rave book review in New York Magazine. The role of Lipsky’s tape recorder — its presence at his dinners with Wallace; its absence in Wallace’s creative writing class, where Lipsky is allowed to take notes but not record — dramatizes the precarious possibility of interpersonal bonds in the face of techno-mediation. One thinks of Infinite Jest, in which independent cinema and new media are used as comic but lethal narrative and social devices. Indeed, the book’s title references not only Hamlet, the taproot of humanistic interiority, but also an experimental film made by one of the book’s many characters. It is a film so entertaining to its viewers that they lose all interest in anything else and eventually die, dependent on independent cinema.
The affective potency of filmic mediation — and relationships sustained or dissolved through media technology — is also the shaky platform upon which much of independent cinema rests. This is perhaps why many mumblecore films feature an aspiring writer, filmmaker, or actor in their narratives. They are characters, as Wallace would say of himself, trying to “capture what the world feels like to us [… when] life seems to strobe on and off […] and to barrage [you] with input.” Indeed, from John Cassavetes to mumblecore’s so-called “slack-avetes,” the indie endeavor is to catch not only a slice of life, but a slice of real life under the camera’s lens.
The inevitable problem with the slice-of-life aesthetic, though, is its faith in the universalizing power of synecdoche. Many mumblecore films and their ilk have been accused of mumbling their way through the discomforts of race, class, and gender inequity, substituting sincerity for subtlety — and the shades of difference that a slice-of-life excludes from its universe. This was McCarthy’s critique of Salinger and his mythos: he was received as the voice of American youth, but the cultural reverberations caused by his prose were not tremors of Truth so much as the feedback produced by a white male echo chamber of readers and reviewers. Similar critiques have found their way into the Wallace Industry with Mark McGurl leading the charge. For McGurl, Wallace is an icon of what he calls the “Program Era.” A child of academics, a student and teacher in creative writing programs, Wallace was an author whose work insisted upon the humanistic virtue of the Institution, so long as you were fluent in its language — so long as you were in a position to be thoroughly and sincerely mediated by its technological apparatus. In this vein, Salinger’s “phony-slayers,” mumblecore’s “slackers,” and Wallace’s “weenie-Americans” can be seen as one and the same. They share the white male privilege of demurral, hesitation, and noncommitment. They share the institutionally guaranteed authority of the mumble — an authority parading as authenticity.
The End of the Tour makes passing reference to Wallace’s homogenous readership while Lipsky and Wallace are standing on the mezzanine of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. They have just seen Broken Arrow, starring John Travolta, which was Wallace’s choice. He wanted to see one “with things that blow up.” Looking down into the mall’s indoor amusement park, the “most talked-about writer in the country” concedes that he knows his book’s audience: “What I’ve noticed at readings, is that the people who seem most enthusiastic and moved by it are young men. Which I guess I can understand — I think it’s a fairly male book, and I think it’s a fairly nerdy book.” And yet Wallace’s mission, like that of the mall around him, is to represent America — and to “treasure [his] regular-guyness,” as Wallace tells Lipsky, despite his exceptionalism. This sincere form of self-delusion, we are meant to believe, is what allows Wallace to live and thrive in the industries that made him.
But The End of the Tour transforms Wallace’s affect of sincerity into an affectation of contemporary independent cinema. Slight, mumbley, sliced and repackaged from Wallace’s press circuit, it closes the circuit between Wallace, the Wallace Industry, and the industry of indie film. As Wallace would write in a note attached to The Pale King: “David Wallace disappears — becomes creature of the system.”
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