the end of the tour

This is less a movie review and more a personal reflection of grief over the death of David Foster Wallace.

Nearly 40 years old and I’ve never once grieved over someone I didn’t know. This seems perfectly reasonable. What right does one have to mourn a stranger? The assumption of a connection seems almost profane, especially for a life that ended so suddenly and violently.

And yet there I was, not three minutes into the opening of THE END OF THE TOUR, tears flowing.

I met David Foster Wallace figuratively through laughter and intellectual astonishment. It was 1998 and A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN had somehow entered my world and smacked me directly across the face. I read the title essay over and over again – to myself and to my girlfriend – and eventually stuck it to the man by photocopying 10 copies at my paralegal-corporate-law-firm-first-job-out-of-school office, quickly mailing those 10 copies to my closest friends and families (courtesy of said law firm). Wallace’s account of time spent on a luxury cruise was so incredibly funny, it literally brought me pain. It was so dazzling in its descriptions of the people he observed, and the intricate inner-workings of the ship and its crew.

My enthusiasm soon spilled over to INFINITE JEST and my fate was sealed. It was everything I had always wanted in a novel – the humor, the depth of character, the rapid-fire dialogue, the incredible detail, the unreliable narrator – and best of all, it seemingly never ended. I bought a second copy and cut it up into 5 sections (4 + the end notes) for my commute.

I met David Foster Wallace literally, a year or so later, and just for a moment, at A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books (a San Francisco shop that fittingly is also gone). I was awestruck, of course – a nerdy (recently-graduated) English lit major face to face with his hero. I asked an inane question during the Q&A session (a process which I’ve come to learn he hated), I asked him to sign my copy of INFINITE JEST, and I thanked him for making such an immense impact on my life.

In the years to follow, I followed his work with near reverence. Nothing ever came close to INFINITE JEST, for me, but I read it all. I also came to learn of his ongoing battles with depression, and substance abuse. Perhaps naively, I never considered what seemed obvious to others.

When he took his life in 2008, I had no idea how to handle it – what to think, what to feel. I have been incredibly blessed in my life – the only lives of loved ones I’ve lost have been grandparents, who had lived for many happy years. I cried through the road trip transcript 2010’s ALTHOUGH OF COURSE YOU END UP BECOMING YOURSELF, and after letting it sit on my shelf for over two years, I eventually made my way through the 2012 biography EVERY LOVE IS A GHOST STORY.

I was ready for THE END OF THE TOUR (the movie adaptation of ALTHOUGH OF COURSE), I told myself. It was time to grieve. I made plans to see it with a friend. It was happening.

And then the movie started, and I let everything go. It was a kind of shock for me – to see him on the screen. I rationally knew, of course, that it was Jason Segel, but emotionally, I wanted it to be David Foster Wallace. I wanted so much to have this time with him, this final visual and auditory experience. And there he was. And so I began to cry, and I didn’t stop until I was halfway home.

THE END OF THE TOUR is incredibly true to its source material, ALTHOUGH OF COURSE. The dialogue is taken, in most parts, word for word. The creativity comes from the editing, the weaving of the conversations between Wallace and author David Lipsky, over a period of 5 days, as Wallace finishes touring for INFINITE JEST.

THE END OF THE TOUR is a claustrophobic affair, stringing along these conversations inside cramped, disheveled rooms and cars. Even when the two writers venture into the world outside, they end up inside, within the confines of the great Mall of America. Their one significant escape comes near the end of the movie, in a breathtaking expanse of pure and perfect snow, when Lipsky joins Wallace as he walks his dog outside his Illinois home. Danny Elfman’s glistening musical accompanient perfectly captures this frigid freedom of space, and its stark contrast to the preceding confines.

Danny Elfman and his 37th brilliant score. I don’t know what serendipity brought him into this project, but I will rejoice in it nonetheless. Minimal, beautiful. No more or less than what was needed for a movie with so small and sharp a focus. There is a gorgeous fragility to Elfman’s score, so fittingly and yet affectionately constructed around Wallace’s insecure movements through life.

The essays, short stories, the novels, the biography, and now this movie – they all come together to form a picture of a man who could never find consistent, secure footing. He tried so sincerely. His work, his art were his salvation and his ruin.

The movie ends with a purely joyful Wallace folk dancing in a hall with people from his community, part of his routine in his rural Illinois life. It is the perfect ending. In this movement, in this moment, he is so clearly comfortable in his own skin, free from the weight of self-consciousness and doubt that seems to drown him in almost every other waking breath. We don’t hear the music from the hall, but instead are treated to Brian Eno’s masterfully soaring “The Big Ship”. And this, this is perfect for me, and perhaps for others who aren’t quite ready to say goodbye to David Foster Wallace. I can suspend disbelief for as long as it takes for him to continue dancing in that moment, without pain, embracing only warmth and happiness.