David Foster Wallace and the Chamber of Secrets
In its own way, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris is a rebuke to the concept of the biopic. In that film, three Russian scientists orbit high above the alien ocean of a strange new planet, having what is possibly the most Russian conversation they could be having under the circumstances. They discuss human nature: what drives us toward exploration? One scientist scoffs at the idea that humans seek new frontiers in order to expand their dominion and gain knowledge of the mysterious and exotic. Really, we visit new lands in the hopes that what we find there will somehow illuminate our own inscrutable selves. “We don’t need other worlds,” the scientist insists. “We need a mirror.” His unspoken implication is that this mirror will always be just beyond our grasp. If “the final frontier” is actually the compressed universe within each human being—a near-infinite expanse full of brilliant light, hungering black holes, and constellational neuroses—then humanity will never devise a mirror big enough for the job.
This is bad news for biopics, most of which are predicated on the promise of not only traversing that infinite expanse but also doing so in only a couple of hours. It might also have been an unwelcome thought for the writer David Foster Wallace, who (as American literature’s patron saint of endlessly recursive self-analysis) devoted much of his work to mapping out the fractal-like complexities of the human heart. To be ultimately unknowable not only to other people but even to yourself was a subject of abiding fascination and trepidation in Wallace’s writing. He would have fit right in with the astronauts aboard Tarkovsky’s philosophically fraught space station.
We may not be privy to what is actually inside Wallace’s locked box, good or bad; but thanks to the storytelling in The End of the Tour, we can empathically imagine it.Wallace is the subject of James Ponsoldt’s new film The End of the Tour, though whether it can properly be classified as a biopic is debatable. Biopics these days are notorious for serving up simplistic hagiographies of famous geniuses, and you’d be hard pressed to come up with a phrase more likely to make Wallace break into a cold sweat than “simplistic hagiography of famous genius David Foster Wallace.” Ponsoldt seems to understand this about him; The End of the Tour keeps Wallace at a slight remove, never presuming to know too much about his inner life. The small miracle of the film is that it manages to maintain this distance while still walking viewers up to the edge of an epiphany about the famous writer at its center.
Fame always rested uneasily on Wallace’s brow. By some accounts he hungered for it, but he was also smart enough to know what that unseemly appetite said about him. The End of the Tour is set just after his 1996 novel Infinite Jest launched him to literary stardom, when he was suddenly faced with the reality of what he had only speculated about. Celebrity’s warping effect on personal perspective and interpersonal relationships moved from the realm of theory to that of fact.
Wallace was nearing the end of the book tour for Infinite Jest when he met one of his many admirers in the form of journalist David Lipsky. Lipsky, who wrote the book on which The End of the Tour is based, traveled to Wallace’s Illinois home on an assignment from Rolling Stone to write a profile of America’s latest hot novelist. In the film, Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) wants to get to the bottom of David Foster Wallace, Literary Virtuoso; the Rolling Stone profile is mostly a pretext for him to get a glimpse of whatever secret place houses Wallace’s genius. He’s not the only one jonesing for a peek, either—he’s writing the profile because lots of other people want the same thing.
Wallace, for his part, is both flattered and made uncomfortable by the attention. Mostly the latter. As played by Jason Segel, Wallace has a guarded look that never quite leaves his eyes, even when he’s just shooting the breeze with Lipsky. Their chummy banter has a performative quality to it: Lipsky is trying to look smart in order to get a good article and impress Wallace, while Wallace is struggling to strike a balance between the various roles that his success requires him to play. Does he play up the aw-shucks persona of the Midwestern writer who struck literary gold? Does he play the part of the sagacious, highly quotable student of human nature and American culture? Does he make it clear that his newfound prestige doesn’t meaningfully change the way he sees the world—or would that be an obvious ploy, the most pretentious behavior of all? Should he be absolutely open with Lipsky, or should he be protecting himself from Lipsky’s eagerness to find out what makes him tick?
Should he just be himself? What would that mean? Who is the “real” David Foster Wallace?
James Ponsoldt’s great innovation is to depict Wallace’s bind entirely through the eyes of Lipsky, the audience surrogate. Rather than presuming, as biopics so often do, to put the viewer inside the head of a genius, The End of the Tour keeps us at a slight remove from him. Along with Lipsky, we watch, observe, and maybe even get annoyed by Wallace’s cagey angst. But we never find out the ultimate secret, the whatever-it-is that truly makes him special. We get only the barest of hints. The inner chamber remains closed to us.
Strangely, this ambiguity ends up being a far better tribute to Wallace than a more conventional approach would have been. Wallace struggled with a similar conundrum in his essay “Up, Simba,” in which he profiled John McCain during the senator’s 2000 bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Unable to decide whether McCain’s unvarnished public persona was sincere or calculated, he eventually declared it an impossible question:
In your mind, [McCain’s POW prison cell] becomes sort of a special dressing room with a star on the door, the private place behind the stage where one imagines “the real John McCain” lives. And but now the paradox here is that this box that makes McCain “real” is, by definition, locked. Impenetrable. Nobody gets in or out.
This paradox—that the nature of celebrity tantalizes us with the prospect of knowing and understanding the famous person even as it erects barriers against such connection—is what drives our appetite for biographical films that purport to let us inside another person’s box. We want to know these people, to enjoy an intimacy with them that we have not earned. Too many biopics offer us this illusion, diminishing their subjects in the process.
The End of the Tour avoids this pitfall. It provides no easy, Screenwriting 101 resolution at the end. The film begins with Lipsky learning of Wallace’s tragic 2008 suicide, and it ends with him still wondering why it happened. The uplift of the ending comes only from him imagining Wallace in a moment of joy. And once again we’re right there with our surrogate, Lipsky, filled with compassion and affection for Wallace even as he remains enigmatic, an unanswered riddle.
Perhaps compassion and affection—understood more properly under the name “love”—are enough. The human longing to know others fully and be fully known by them is a force behind many aspects of human existence, from romantic desire to the Christian desire for God, but in an imperfect world this kind of perfect understanding is all too rare, if not impossible. Love can fill that gap in understanding. We may not be privy to what is actually inside Wallace’s locked box, good or bad; but thanks to the storytelling in The End of the Tour, we can empathically imagine it. Imagine what it would be like for someone with Wallace’s anxieties to find himself psychologically hemmed in by his own success, to have all his interpersonal interactions colored by his celebrity. Imagine him spending years of his life in a sort of bizarro panopticon: a chamber in which he can be seen by the whole world but from which he can see only his own fame reflected back at him. Imagine that.
Do these suppositions correspond accurately to the true contents of Wallace’s mind? It may not matter, and in any case we can’t really know either way. James Ponsoldt has chosen instead to tell us a story; and stories, as Wallace himself reminds us in his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” allow us to “leap over the walls of self and locale and show us unseen or -dreamed-of people.” We can love David Foster Wallace even without knowing him.