Monday, August 10, 2015

Supposedly Fun Things

David Foster Wallace never meant much to me. When his opus INFINITE JEST was critically acclaimed as the Great New Thing, curiosity led me to read the first fifty or so pages, chip on my shoulder, skeptical eyes. While it was clear that DFW had talent and a gift for unexpected sentences, his approach left me cold. It felt too academic, too writerly. (I did enjoy some of his reportage, particularly his piece on David Lynch.) I expected more pow from this reported genius.

After seeing THE END OF THE TOUR, my assessment of DFW softened. Part of this is age (I'm not as combative as I was 20 years ago), but mostly I was moved by Wallace's inner-struggle, at least as it was depicted in the film. Jason Segel does an excellent job conveying what it must have been like to go from literary obscurity to fawning profiles in Time magazine.

DFW appeared to be painfully shy, tormented by self-doubt, haunted by depression. His intellect provided little balm. He sought whatever peace he could find through attempts at normalcy, being an average guy aware of his limitations.

Fame, to the degree that American writers are famous anymore, did Wallace in. He was too perceptive to ignore the trappings. In this, he reminds me a bit of Jack Kerouac, who faced the fame machine when its blades were newly-sharpened. Instead of hanging himself, Kerouac drowned his liver in booze. (The distance between Kerouac's fame and his desire to live was captured in BIG SUR, perhaps the best of the Beat movies.) Not many people can handle being legends, not in this culture, anyway.

While he had early bouts with the bottle, DFW preferred fast food, candy, soda, cigarettes, and whatever TV he could watch. Segel's Wallace embraces this with adolescent joy, much like his love of reading books on rainy days. Again, seeking comfort through normalcy, however illusory. American commercial culture offers numerous, limited comforts; Pop Tarts and action films provide only so much relief.

DFW groupies probably hate THE END OF THE TOUR, which, I suppose, is understandable. But I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and if nothing else, it's nice to hear intelligent people converse. It also inspired me to re-engage INFINITE JEST. We'll see how far I make it this time.