Smarter than You Think

Bob Mahoney
David Foster Wallace, Syracuse, New York, 1995

“What I would love to do is a profile of one of you guys who’s doin’ a profile of me,” David Foster Wallace told the journalist David Lipsky in 1996 during a series of conversations now collected as Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. “It would be a way,” Wallace continued, “for me to get some of the control back”:

You can’t tell outright lies that I’ll then deny to the fact checker. But…you’re gonna be able to shape this essentially how you want. And that to me is extremely disturbing…. I want to be able to try and shape and manage the impression of me that’s coming across.

As Lipsky tells us in his introduction, he loved Wallace’s idea of profiling the profilers:

It would have been one of the deluxe internal surveys he specialized in—the unedited camera, the feed before the director in the van starts making cuts and choices…. That’s what this book would like to be. It’s the one way of writing about him I don’t think David would have hated.

Given that 310 pages of Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself are devoted to transcripts of conversations with Wallace, Lipsky’s suggestion that he is “writing about” Wallace seems somewhat overstated. What writing Lipsky does do is annotative. Consider an interesting section where Wallace and Lipsky are discussing fictional modes. Lipsky expresses a preference for realism; Wallace, for avant-guardism: “experimental and avant-garde stuff can capture and talk about the way the world feels on our nerve endings,” Wallace says, “in a way that conventional realistic stuff can’t.” Lipsky suggests that “Tolstoy’s books come closer to the way life feels than anybody, and those books couldn’t be more conventional.” Wallace holds that “life now is completely different than the way it was then. Does your life approach anything like a linear narrative?” As Wallace continues, note that the bracketed comments are Lipsky’s, after the fact:

Life seems to strobe on and off for me, and to barrage me with input. And that so much of my job is to impose some sort of order, or make some sort of sense of it. In a way that—maybe I’m very naive—I imagine Leo getting up in the morning, pulling on his homemade boots, going out to chat with the serfs whom he’s freed [Making clear he knows something about the texture and subject], you know. Sitting down in his silent room, overlooking some very well-tended gardens, pulling out his quill and…in deep tranquility, recollecting emotion.

And I don’t know about you. I just—stuff that’s like that, I enjoy reading, but it doesn’t feel true at all. I read it as a relief from what’s true. I read it as a relief from the fact that, I received five hundred…

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