I should of course begin by admitting that I approached the very existence of this book with an irritation that some might intuit, or even insist, was born of resentment. "Really, David Lipsky?" I thought when I read the announcement of the publishing deal that would result in this book, said announcement, I thought, coming a little too opportunistically soon after David Foster Wallace's September 2008 suicide. "Do you really need to be doing this?" Lipsky was/is a star journalist whose fortunes have hardly begun to even peak, and among his achievements was/is one of the better post-mortem features to about Wallace and the circumstances leading up to his death, but again, my feeling was, does this need to happen, and does it need to happen so quickly?
My feelings were strong enough that I resolved, in that thoroughly reasonable and even-handed way of mine, that I would never even go near the book once it came out. Still, I leafed through a copy at a bookstore, and was simultaneously gratified and also kind of smugly confirmed in my prejudices (at least for the moment) to see that the majority of the book was in Wallace's voice; the thing seemed to be a very long transcription of the conversations Lipsky and Wallace had over five days on the last leg of the promotional tour for Wallace's novel Infinite Jest, for a Rolling Stone piece that, not unusually given Jann Wenner's caprices, never ran in that publication. But Tom Bissell, a great writer and a friend, who had also been a friend of Dave's and was thoroughly shatttered by Dave's death, told me on a visit to New York that he had picked up Lipsky's book at the airport and that, yeah, his own provisional misgivings aside, he was glad it existed, because Lipsky was in fact writing it from a good place, and because it did indeed capture Dave's conversational voice. Anothe recommendation from another friend sealed things, and I picked up the book for real.
And was almost instantaneously peeved: "I'd been assigned to write about David, I was sitting at a party, when a friend plopped down next to me on the sofa. 'Poor David Foster Wallace,' she said. 'It's not his fault, this kind of attention, it's weird, it can be hard to synthesize unless you're very strong. Meanwhile, all these relationships are being screwed up by David Foster Wallace.' She flicked her face to people at the compass points of the room. 'All these men—because they secretly want to be David Foster Wallace—they flip out whenever he's in the paper. All the girls are like 'David Foster Wallace, he's really cool.' So the guys are like 'I hate David Foster Wallace. Every anxious writer I know is obsessed with him, because he did what they wanted to do.'" I shudder again as I input those words, and think again, good Christ, I am so glad that Lipsky and I only have a relative few friends in common, first off, and secondly, it was precisely never to have to even deal with the possibility of interacting with such horrible assholes that Dave made it a point to stay away from New York City as much as possible as the years went on. And yet. And yet that anecdote is a perfectly telling tidbit about an atmosphere that was very real at that early point in 1996. I was certainly, crushingly aware of it in the summer of that year when I was told that I was gonna be put in charge of shepherding Dave's piece on David Lynch home.
"Your problem is, you wanna be Lipsky. You wanna be the dude in the car with Dave." So said a friend when I was confessing my misgivings about the book to him. The answer to that accusation is two-fold: "Yeah, duh," and "But it's more complicated than that." (And never even mind the question of whether I wanna be the dude getting paid to share my memories of Dave in a car or on the phone or at Caesar's Palace or whatnot, the answer to which would be, "Well yes, but...") And still, the first part of the answer supercedes the second. Once the book settles in and records the nicotine-and-diners-fueled trek Lipsky embarks on with Dave, it's Dave's voice that dominates, and Lipsky captures it beautifully. Dave's painful, conscientious self-consciousness, his quicksilver powers of concentration and verbal distillation, his mordant wit; it's all there. And throughout Lipsky casts himself as a somewhat callow Boswell, and he can be, again, relatively annoying in this role, but as my friend pointed out, he's meant to be. To which I replied, well, that's fine up to a point, but why so much? Particularly in the talk about movies. Dave at one point calls Die Hard "a great film," and Lipsky eagerly agrees, chiming in, "Brilliant, right? Sharp script, smarter than most art movies," indulging in a particular manifestation of the Philistinism Of The Intelligent that's endemic to, you may find, more than a few Rolling Stone writers. In any event, please. Wallace must have reckoned similarly, because he says back, "But also very formulaic, and rather cynically reusing a lot of formulas." Correct again! It could be that Lipsky is actually looking for this kind of argument from the engaged reader, but I have to say I wasn't thrilled to get his thirty-year-old's perspective on the late letters of Nabokov, either. So what are you going to do.
The fact is the book is replete with gems, and with Wallace-esque quirks that play well generally but will play even better for those who knew him, even a little. Like the part where he and Lipsky are discussing Seven, and Dave objects to all the stuff with "Blythe Danner" at the end. Of course it's not Blythe Danner, it's Gwyneth Paltrow, who is Blythe Danner's daughter. That kind of mistake is peculiarly Dave's, in that, even when he got something wrong, which was rare, he was partially, interestingly right. The Premiere magazine version of the essay "David Lynch Keeps His Head" was published with a rather similar error; in a reference to Hitchcock's Psycho, Dave refers to the "ablutions" therein of "Vivien Leigh." Usually when an error such as that got published, it would have been an occasion of mortification for me; but in this case, given that pretty much nobody noticed it except for one friend of mine, who pointed it out to me, I had to laugh. Given all of the people, myself and Dave included, who had pored over that piece over and over and over again and never caught it, it was as if that error was meant to live. Nonetheless, it was corrected for the essay's inclusion in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.
There's also a wonderful bit in which Dave's discussing writerly craft, and he tells Lipsky, "One of the things about being a writer is you're able to give the impression—both in lines and between the lines—that you know an enormous amount. That you know and have lived intimately all this stuff. Because you want it to have that kind of effect on the nerve endings. And it's like—it's something that I'm fairly good at. Is I think I can seem, I think I can seem like I know a whole lot about stuff that in fact pretty much everything that I know is right there." This wasn't quite what Dave was talking about, but I was reminded anyway of being in the big ballroom at Caesars for the AVN Awards in '98 and sitting at out table and looking at some of the hanging banners on the upper parts of the walls advertising upcoming events. One was for what I presumed would be some kind of Cirque-du-Soleil-type thingie that was called "Kontakte." Whipping out my own particular brand of callowness, I pointed out the sign to Dave and said, "I didn't know Caesars' was so big on Stockhausen." "What do you mean," he asked, and I was like, you know, Stockhausen, Karleinz Stockhausen, modernist German composer, very severe, you named one of Incandenza's filmmaking contemporaries after him in Infinite Jest; "Kontakte" is a famous piano piece of his. "Oh," Dave said, "I really had little or no idea of who Stockhausen was/is when I put that in," seeming in fact to not really recall putting it in at all; "I just liked the name." But liking the name and intuitively knowing how to use it so that it might work as an allusion that you're not necessarily aware your making but which does, in fact, turn out to be somewhat apt; there, then, is a trick of genius.
My very favorite thing in the whole book is all of three lines worth of text, in which Lipsky recounts a breakfast with Dave in Dave's Illinois home, on the last day the two spend together. Here Lipsky's method is to put non-Dave-talking stuff in brackets, so the passage begins, "[On NPR, George Burns dead today.]" And then, Dave's comment: "I wonder what George Burns died of: Maybe someone just dispatched him with a club, figuring that was the only way."
After laughing my ass off for several minutes at that line, as I always do, I think, yes, yes, there's Dave right there, the guy I was so privileged to know even if slightly, the guy who could toss off a great line like that so perfectly, so unostentatiously. And it brings me back to breakfast in Las Vegas with Dave and Evan Wright, then at Hustler, aspiring to Premiere and other places, eventually the great Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair writer and author of Generation Kill, and for the nonce one of Dave's guides in Porn World (I being the other), and Nathaniel Welch, who was doing the photos for the Premiere piece and was coincidentally enough a good friend of Evan's; they had driven out from L.A. together. And we're talking about various modes of nicotine delivery, as guys will, and Evan observes that menthol cigarettes really tear up the lungs, and without missing a beat, and in that soft dry voice of his, Dave responded, "As opposed to non-menthol cigarettes, which leave your lungs as clean and pink as a baby's," and cracking up the table. Yes.
But let me quibble again just a little bit, with respect to Dave's relationship to fame and Lipsky's perception of/relationship to Dave's relationship to fame. A bit of this, I think, and I hope I'm not being unfair here, can be gleaned before reading a single word of the book. The cover photo of Dave and one of his dogs is pretty clearly a photo of a good-looking guy who is not particularly into being photographed; either that or he could be working at creating the impression of being a guy who doesn't like being photographed. The author photo of Lipsky on the back inner flap of the book is very clearly of a fellow who's comfortable being photographed; who's not only comfortable with being photographed, but who may be fairly aware of how well his cheekbones can "pop" in a photograph. I'm not trying to be unkind here. But I think that Lipsky's own perspective on fame colors his perspective on Dave's perspective in ways that, to my mind, create inaccurate conclusions. To wit, in an aside after Dave makes a mild complaint about doing stuff (e.g., publicity) he "doesn't want" to do, Lipsky observes: "[Again: Trying to show how much he doesn't like publicity. Except if he isn't a genius, there's no good reason to read the novel. You don't open a one-thousand-page book because you've heard the author's a nice guy. You read it—once you pop the thing open at all—because you understand that the author is brilliant. He's grabbed the wrong lesson: The people who seem to adore the press the way, say, Pooh loves a honey jar, look foolish; but the people who seem to hate it also risk foolishness too, because the reader knows how good press must feel, like having the prettiest girl in school drop you a smile. Like having the whole country rub against your toes and twist between your ankles.]"
And I think here Lipsky, speaking here as his more fully-formed, present day self, is truly and honestly and finally wrong—not just about Dave, but in a general way, about the desirability of fame in our circumstances. (Which is one reason why I end up wrestling with the unpleasant suspicion that some of his interpolations during his transcribed discussions with Dave are not necessarily there to convey Lipsky's own thirty-year-old, trying-to-impress-a-genius callowness.) Now it's true that in our society as it is currently constructed a deep ambivalence or even antipathy towards publicity does tend to make one look a trifle eccentric. It's not that Dave was anti-happiness, or anti-pleasure. But he was deeply suspicious of the happiness-and-pleasure delivery mechanisms that are, you'll excuse the phrase, part and parcel of Western culture in late capitalism. He could not accept the smile from the prettiest girl in school, such as it was, at face value. His question would not be, "why is she smiling?" because yes, at some level Dave knew very well how special he was and what kind of talent he had. The question would be, rather, "What does that smile want?" Both in general, and from him. And I think Dave thought—and I agree—that the minute you stop asking that question and just start reveling in praise, not so much like Pooh licking the honey jar but a pig rolling in shit, you are existentially and possibly intellectually doomed. In the years after Infinite Jest blew up, Dave, in my experience, actually became even more suspicious and wary of the machine, as we'll call it for now. And of the people who approached him, and the reasons they did. One reason I think Dave hit it off with Evan so well was because Evan really had little if no idea who Dave was at the time. They got along as two smart guys would almost naturally get along, as opposed to one smart guy who wanted, on some level, to impress a genius. (Evan recounts some of of the details of his friendship with Dave in the introduction to his latest collection of pieces, Hella Nation, an account I have some issues with, factually—let's just say we recollect certain events pertaining to his relationship to Premiere very, very differently—but am always moved by in the end.) I recall how painful it was, on occasion, trying to convince him to meet certain friends of mine who were also writers and were also fans of his—"I really don't know what the point would be," was the final word on it from his end—so I don't think, finally, that what Lipsky's implicitly trying to call Dave out on was anything like a pose. I don't believe Dave was actively against happiness, or pleasure, but he did believe in thoroughly inspecting that damn horse's mouth. Always. And like any good philosopher, was always interested in just what it was that the word "happiness" meant, any damn way. The final point being that Dave genuinely did not think the way that a lot of us do. Get over it.
But finally, I'd have to say that this book is absolutely essential reading for those who loved Wallace's work, and for those who loved him. And I could see it making an excellent gateway into the work for those who are still sceptical. For that, Lipsky deserves big time gratitude.