The Saints we Make: David Foster Wallace on the Big Screen

Film, david foster wallace

Theologian Benjamin Myers argues that modern western culture, like our cultural forbearers, remains rooted in sainthood. Instead of wearing habits and living in monasteries, our saints walk on red carpets. Our celebrity culture is a culture of imitation, the “stars”—their affectations, tastes, and lives—are all up for emulation. St. Francis and Teresa of Avila have been replaced by George Clooney and Beyoncé.

Contemporary literature’s closest approximation to a celebrity, David Foster Wallace, has received a biopic treatment in The End of the Tour, directed by James Ponsoldt. Based on reporter David Lipsky’s five-day interview on the final leg of a book tour, the film is set in 1996, when Wallace’s Infinite Jest had just been published to critical acclaim.[1]

A 1,079-page feast on addiction, loneliness, tennis, and the omnipresent machinery of capitalism, many have compared Infinite Jest with Moby-Dick and Ulysses. Wallace recognized how identity and consumption within American culture are near synonyms; marketing homogenizes our hopes and desires, giving them the same predictable pathway for expression. Ultimately, easy and automated pleasure tyrannizes us, leads to atomized lives and modern forms of loneliness. The question is always, how do you retain your sanity, your humanity? How do you connect, really connect, as Wallace described it, in the “day-to-day trenches” of life?

Wallace believed that fiction plays a role—working as both disruptor and empathy generator for the reader. Good art, he says, “…locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.”[2] He hoped that through its humor, self-awareness, intelligence, and difficulty his writing might mean something, might provide a few hand-crossed pumps of CPR on our culture’s heart.

As a writer, Wallace’s legacy is contested and fraught. This is not only due to the content and difficulty of his fiction, but also because he took his own life in 2008. And the movie is just as fraught, as Wallace’s trust and friends spoke out against the film before it was released. As a lover of Wallace’s writing, I went in skeptical and untrusting. There seemed too many dangers; the possibilities of failure were too great. It could have easily become a warped homage or nothing but a vehicle for Wallace’s ideas. Yet, like with his fiction, I was disarmed, slowly converted.

Sticking close to the interview transcripts, smart conversation between Wallace (portrayed by Jason Segel) and Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) is the movie’s simple and mundane plotline. Along the book tour, they talk in cars, the Mall of America, outside McDonald’s, and on the cold, grey plains of Illinois. The bridge between their two selves is rickety, temporary. Eisenberg plays Lipsky as a journalist full of admiration and envious ambition, there with his always-on recorder and hoping for a confession. Segel conveys caution, anxiety, and simmering intelligence, showing how Wallace loved and hated the fact he is being profiled. And while Wallace’s suicide doesn’t define Segel’s acting, it is the ghost that haunts this film.

The film ends with Lipsky reading to a bookstore crowd, cutting to a scene of Wallace dancing in church. Diffuse light comes through the windows, Brian Eno’s “Big Ship” plays, and Wallace bounces, dancing poorly, moving in slow motion and surrounded by a boogying Midwestern crowd. He looks joyful, at home, at peace.

This imagined vision is one the author would have been sure to hate. Does this scene edit a life and a death, stifling and sentimentalizing a pain that is not ours? Or is it a moment of loneliness undone, a holy lack of control, maybe even redemption?

Biopics fail in simple ways. They are plagued by inaccuracies; actors fail to convincingly embody their subject; the complexity or feel of the context is lost. Yet Ponsoldt’s film doesn’t fail, because its concerns are different. While The End of the Tour is about Wallace, it is more interested in what we have done with him. It is about writer as celebrity, commodity, and saint. In the final dance in the church, Ponsoldt is both director and iconographer, picturing Wallace as a moving icon, surrounded by light.

Between his bandana and spit cup, Wallace doesn’t look like a saint, but we have made him one. To use his own words, Wallace is now “both flesh and not,” as he has been crafted into the image(s) of our own making. He is the “celebrity writer dude,” the saint of intelligent anxiety, the one who is always recursively aware of himself and the dangerous addictions and lonely isolations of modern life. Reading him has become like sitting at the feet of a spiritual guide, the attention and effort of reading a hard book like Infinite Jest leads to an odd holy intimacy, each page becomes a bit of spiritual practice.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams argues that saints aren’t necessarily more whole or perfect, but they are more “awake,” and even when unbalanced or broken, holiness can seep in through the cracks. Treating Wallace like a saint is misguided, but in his writing, readers find “difficult gifts,” faith, even grace.[3] In his words and fractures, readers have found wholeness. These gifts don’t have to be the work of a saint for them to be holy.

 

[1] David Lipsky, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace. New York: Broadway Books, 2010.
[2] Larry McCaffery, “An Interview with David Foster Wallace,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 13.2 (1993): 127-150.
[3] Zadie Smith, “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace,” in Changing My Mind Occasional Essays, 255-297. New York: Penguin Press, 2010.

 

Adam Joyce is a Duke Divinity graduate who lives and works in Chicago. He is also the Editor in Chief of The Curator.

 

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1 Comment

  • Kate Rae Davis says:

    Would you say more about Wallace-as-saint being misguided? I imagine that those who were sainted throughout history had similar faults; that Wallace simply had the misfortune of living in a time when a person’s demons are more easily recorded. Perhaps the historical church was willing to overlook a person’s demons in favor of their works — and perhaps we could give Wallace the same grace.

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