[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 6 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Soul Food.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
In the years following his suicide in 2008, David Foster Wallace has rightly ascended the ranks to become one of the most celebrated writers of our time. Creative writing professors love him, even if their first-year students need some time to warm up to him. Hipsters, too, profess a liking for Wallace, even if it’s just to impress company by displaying Infinite Jest high and mighty on the bookshelf. Point being, David Foster Wallace is a household name on the lips of many, a name which has practically become synonymous with postmodern 21st-century literature.
But as with all of history’s greatest enigmas and legends (not to mention with alarming frequency the long list of depressed writers whose lives ended much too soon), Wallace’s fame has likely been made all the more applicable in recent years because he left us so early. To call him a thoughtful, pragmatic soul would be a vast understatement; run across any of the awkward, meandering interviews he gave on YouTube and you’ll realize to label him some potent combination of paranoid and genius is nearer the mark. How could someone so full of reserved hopefulness, so full of eloquence, so full of hunger—how could even that person not glean enough satisfaction from this life?
Adapting the Tour
David Foster Wallace has had only one of his works adapted to film, the John Krasinski-directed Brief Interviews with Hideous Men released in 2009. Outside of that, it’s no doubt Wallace’s works have been somewhat blacklisted as being unfilmable by studios. Like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo before him (the latter of whom Wallace himself considered to be one of the United States’ greatest living writers), Wallace’s works are exhaustive, narratively complex epics which defy easy characterization and so are often listed under the frighteningly vague catch-all of postmodernism.Fast food may be considered low culture, but it’s the common ground of friendship for David Foster Wallace and David Lipsky in The End of the Tour.
So while it may be a good while before we see Infinite Jest or his unfinished-at-the-time-of-death The Pale King on the big screen, there has at least been one decent film made about the author. James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour is a retelling of Wallace’s fabled tour across the United States in support of Infinite Jest. Based on the book Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky, The End of the Tour’s lack of awards-season attention leads me to believe parent studio A24 placed the brunt of their marketing efforts into films like the Academy Award-nominated (and admittedly really great) Ex Machina instead.
But I digress. The End of the Tour follows David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) as a new Rolling Stone hire who is assigned to cover the rising popularity of David Foster Wallace (played with unexpected brilliance by Jason Segel). The two soon form a sort of kinship as they travel across the country together discussing life and the meaning of Wallace’s newfound fame. We witness as Lipsky and Wallace warm up to each other, despite being writers from different ends of the creative spectrum, that there’s a wonderful tension that exists from these two being at once brothers-in-arms while maintaining very different critical definitions of the world.
However, one thing in particular is the unlikely catalyst for the budding relationship between the two writers, and it’s something which we’re led to believe partly defines the genius of David Foster Wallace: a penchant for junk food.
Seductive, Commercial Entertainment
There’s a scene in The End of the Tour in which the Davids make their way back home after spending some time in a local diner, leaving an aftermath of pizza crusts and smoldering cigarettes in their wake. The gloomy winter streets of Wallace’s Illinois neighborhood are lit up with a scene that’s familiar to the overwhelming majority of us. Taco Bell. Burger King. Long John Silver’s, KFC, McDonald’s. The neon glow of the myriad advertisements for fast food lining the street is literally used as a type of framing device within the shot; it’s within these walls where we live and move and have our being.
It was here where I realized that a greasy dietary lifestyle is not often depicted in cinema (the obligatory stoner comedy aside). There’s a reason James Bond always frequents the swanky cocktail bars of Monaco and Venice after all and not the grimy walls of a White Castle. Fast food joints are by their very nature a “low culture” establishment; they’re not classy, they’re not cool, and nobody ever seems to want to admit to having eaten at them. Fast food is one of the most obvious representations of a mass consumption society, and yet they’re a bedrock of U.S. life.
Ponsoldt’s film is certainly unflinching in its portrayal of Wallace’s guilty pleasures (the duo make one last stop at a gas station on the way home to load up on snack food), but it shows a grounded, sympathetic realism about the author and his hangups. As Wallace and Lipsky throw back candy and other convenience store spoils, there’s a rhetorical exchange of ideas that I believe highlights one of the great ironies of modern culture:
Wallace: “If we ate like this all the time, what would be wrong with that?”
Lipsky: “It’s like seductive, commercial entertainment.”
Wallace: “But what saves us is that most entertainment’s not very good.”
Perhaps this is why I enjoyed the film so much and found myself gravitating to this particular version of David Foster Wallace. I too tend to have unhealthy cravings for fast food, for so-called commercial entertainments. I know it’s bad for me, but it’s often I just don’t care. I at least take great comfort in knowing I’m not alone in this. This is the universal condition of humanity: to go for another french fry, another can of soda, another reality television show when the salad, the eight ounce glass of water, and the plays of Shakespeare are just as nearly accessible.
Glutton for Gluttony
If we want to give the issue a spiritual spin, it’s certainly no secret that many Christians, particularly those of Westernized countries, have done a heady job exercising their God-given freedoms when it pertains to what they consume. Though it was Peter who, in the tenth chapter of Acts, had the vision of unclean animals on a vast sheet being let down by the corners from heaven, and who God subsequently told to “rise, kill and eat,” there is little hesitation within the realm of the U.S. Christian subculture to wholeheartedly embrace this passage as our own—but for wholly different reasons.
I’ve certainly heard folks proclaim the refrain of “rise, kill and eat” in its multiple forms with as much gusto and reverence as I’ve heard variations of the the phrase “for God so loved the world.” Oftentimes the former is proclaimed as if it were a domestic duty, our way of taking it upon ourselves to finish the task begun by Adam to subdue and maintain the world.
But to take this passage literally is of course to miss the point of the scripture. And although it’s inevitably interpreted in a few different ways, many approach this passage not with the context of clean versus unclean, nor of what is permissible versus what is beneficial, but of how much is too much? This thought process is the symptom of a culture obsessed with quantity. We live as if every sort of food is inherently good because it comes from the Lord. We take it as proof that freedom in Christ means freedom to put any amount of whatever we desire into our bodies and that to do so is a living out of God’s will. The cheeseburger by default becomes the bread of life; the jelly donut a form of sacrament.
A quick Google search will reveal the number of instances the topic of gluttony is mentioned, either metaphorically or literally, in the Bible. (Hint: It shows up a lot.) This should at least clue us in to the fact that Scripture considers what we put into our bodies pretty seriously. Historically, the ancient Romans were notorious for their hearty imbibing of food and alcohol. (Even if the purpose of their mythologized “vomitoriums” are a popular misconception.) Such was the culture that surrounded the likes of Peter, Paul, and the rest of the early church, a group of people determined not to get caught up in the self-abusive mentalities of the era.
And while today we’re admittedly a long way from the tales of hedonism often attributed to the Romans, it’s difficult to deny the ingrained ideal of over-consumption that exists in most affluent societies, of which the United States is the epitome. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, over a third of U.S. adults (78.6 million) are now considered obese, a number that continues to grow.
We may think that our attachment to food is merely a cultural hobby or even a harmless, albeit seductive form of entertainment. But at what point do we begin to recognize it as something else, as something which even the conflicted mind of David Foster Wallace was in the end able to admit is just not very good?
High and Low
For David Foster Wallace, in so many ways apart from this world yet leaving such a lasting mark while in it, there always seemed to be an acknowledgment of his own earthly standards, of his limits and failings, of his portrayed image. In the end we’re left with the lingering impression that, if The End of the Tour may be proved correct, junk food only worked to further solidify the archetype of the impossibly brilliant intellect who harbors a few, snagging guilty pleasures. (Don’t we all have those?) The eternal struggle between “high culture” and “low culture” wages on, and David Foster Wallace may have been its pinnacle, his feet planted firmly on both sides of the cultural divide.
“To read David Foster Wallace was to feel your eyelids pulled opened,” says David Lipsky about his late friend in The End of the Tour. “Some writers specialized in the away-from-home experience. They’ve safaried, eaten across Italy, covered a war. Wallace offered his alive self cutting through our sleepy aquariums—our standard TV, stores, political campaigns.”
I’ll go ahead and add “hunger pangs” to the list. Wallace embraced and often embodied our basest desires for pleasure (junk food, television) while simultaneously being able to think with detached eloquence about such things—a vital ability that seems to be waning in today’s culture not a decade removed from his death. And even if he didn’t always act on what he knew, he held a constant awareness of what he at least should be eating, consuming, creating. That’s enough to put him on even ground with many a glutton and godly person alike.
The adage says “to know and not do is to not know.” This may prove true for some, but for David Foster Wallace and others like him, perhaps simply to know is half the battle.
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