Infinite Rivalry: Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace's Complicated Legacy
Purity and The End of the Tour point toward an imbalanced relationship between two of our generation's greatest male novelists.
In March of 1997, David Foster Wallace appeared on Charlie Rose to discuss his recently published collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. It was the writer's second time on the program in less than a year: He'd reluctantly agreed to be part of a fiction roundtable the previous May with the authors Jonathan Franzen and Mark Leyner. Franzen, a close friend to Wallace, had convinced him that appearing on TV was a necessary step in promoting his work. Wallace, in turn, expressed anxiety about "staying on my side of the screen." He believed "I'd fuck up future work if I didn't."
Now, alone with Charlie Rose, it was clear what he meant. Wallace spent a significant portion of his nationally televised interview obsessing over the very concept of being interviewed. The irony he grappled with — of espousing a worldview critical of television in front of millions of viewers — seemed inescapable, all-consuming.
It's uncomfortable to watch. At one point, Rose tries to pose a question about Wallace's use of endnotes. The author begins to answer, cringes, and frets aloud that he might sound pretentious. "Quit worrying about how you're going to look," Rose exclaims, "and just be!"
"I have got news for you," Wallace replies. "Coming on a television show stimulates your What am I going to look like? gland like no other experience."
Wallace, of course, is on screens all across the country at the moment. The End of the Tour, a film adaptation of the journalist David Lipsky's But Then of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, recounts three claustrophobic days Lipsky and Wallace spent together near the conclusion of 1996's Infinite Jest tour. Franzen, meanwhile, has just released Purity, a stirring fifth novel that sprawls across decades and continents, its characters' stories braiding intricately and unexpectedly.
Comparing these two works seven years after Wallace's death is a way of better understanding certain Very Big Questions about greatness, pain, and authorship. Watching Wallace, interpreted by others and hiccupping over his own discomforts, is a very different experience from reading through some of Franzen's sharpest work to date. Taken together, the film and novel present a striking (if imbalanced) portrait of two of our generation's most celebrated male writers, close friends in life, locked in an unending rivalry.
At its core, The End of the Tour is an attempt to understand the Wallace laid bare in the Charlie Rose interview — the one who armored his private torments with verbal dexterity. When Lipsky, played by Jesse Eisenberg, first sets out to meet the older author (Jason Segel), he sees him, as many of us do, only through a kaleidoscope of bombastic prose. Lipsky's just completed Infinite Jest and convinced his editors at Rolling Stone to let him travel to Illinois for a profile. Awed by Wallace's talent, he hopes to surf its ripples toward his own success.
But the man he finds is decidedly un-great: sloppy, anxious, obsessed with controlling the cadence of their interactions. Within five minutes of meeting, Wallace makes Lipsky promise to erase and re-record all botched quotes or errant thoughts he may let slip. Later, when they're out to eat, he tells Lipsky that he'd love writing a profile on the people sent to profile him: "I think I would like to shape the impression of me that's coming across," he says.
Much of End of the Tour plays out this way, with both writers wrestling for control of the very narrative they're creating. Wallace is the more forceful angler: He instructs Lipsky to use a quote "in a context where I don't sound like a total dweeb," and he's quick to correct a misperception about his bandana (it's more of a "foible" than a "weakness"). At a book signing midway through the film, he offers to put Wite-Out on a smiley face he drew in a fan's copy of Infinite Jest after she mistakes it for a computer.
We are meant to feel something for this Wallace — stubbly, protective, insecure — that we are unaccustomed to feeling while reading his fiction: pity. As a dissection of the author's persona, The End of the Tour is convincing. It shows us a vulnerable yet manipulative man, fumbling over his own whipcrack intelligence, then apologizing for the fumble. But this realism has a handicapping effect, too. There's something halting about an author extracted from his natural habitat, unable to summon the proper words. In fiction, characters play these roles for us: Their anxieties can be rendered with elegance; their agonies double as our agonies. In Wallace's work in particular, the act of choking over one's self-definition — manifest in Infinite Jest's Hal Incandenza, as well as "The Depressed Person," from the story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men — is done with flamboyant erudition. The End of the Tour gives us the exact opposite: the literary master as gasping fish.
This all matters because there's very little gasping in Purity. Franzen's characters, though starved for information about their own identities, are nonetheless impeccably etched. Pip Tyler, a debt-burdened 23-year-old, does not know her birthdate, her father, or her mother's real name. In searching, "She'd entered every conceivable combination of keywords into every commercial search engine and ended up with nothing but an acute appreciation of the limits of search engines." Thousands of miles away, Andreas Wolf, the charismatic German behind the Wikileaks-like "Sunshine Project," is similarly adrift. He has only a vague idea of who his father is, and he, like Pip, is a compulsive searcher:
[I]n every different search engine, he was no longer content to read the first page or two of results. He wondered what was on the next page, the one he hadn't read yet, and after he'd looked at the next page he found yet another page. Repeat, repeat.
While living in an anarchist squat in Oakland, Pip is lured to Bolivia with the promise of uncovering details about her past. As a research intern at the Sunlight Project, she's told, she'll have access to a playground of advanced databases capable of determining her mother's true identity. She becomes intimately enmeshed with Andreas, who tells her that it's possible to construct one's own sense of self by sharing secrets. With his encouragement, she builds the research chops necessary to pursue another internship, this time with a fictional investigative reporting outfit called The Denver Independent.
It's here that she meets Tom Aberant, a reporter whose "morbidly overdeveloped sense of duty" functions as Franzen's foil to Andreas's promiscuousness and secrecy. Where the former is hobbled by his incapacity to form meaningful connections, Tom is haunted by Anabel, an ex-wife with whom he shared a "joint singularity." For years, he'd thrown himself into "shaping my personality to fit with hers, sanding away the most prominent points of friction." Unlike Andreas, who as a young man committed murder on behalf of a woman he later disregarded, Tom is unflaggingly dedicated to a relationship he's only later able to see as dysfunctional. When Anabel suddenly vanishes, so too does the chunk of Tom's identity he broke off for her.
These characters are, of course, stand-ins for Franzen's own proclivities and weaknesses. Pip, like Franzen, is a vocal critic of nuclear weapons. Andreas, like Franzen, is viciously opposed to corporate systems (and a slave to his ever-tumescing "stiffy"). Tom is an accomplished writer struggling to balance his own agency with that of the people he loves. They may not be exact avatars for their creator's experience, but they don't need to be: Through them, Franzen can examine and refract every emotional compulsion that springs to mind. He can turn over questions about himself with fluency and freedom. He can love and fuck and kill and feel in his own terms, with all needles bouncing in the red.
This is certainly what many authors of fiction aspire to do. But at this moment, as the life of his longtime friend and rival is interpreted in theaters across America, Franzen gains an added significance: Not only is his work sharper and more vivid than it's ever been; compared with the Wallace we see now — the Wallace who, in making the choice to no longer define himself through his work, permitted others to define him — Franzen seems to have prevailed. That he won by a tragic forfeit scarcely matters.
In his 2011 essay "Farther Away," Franzen argues that "Our state of mind when we pick up a novel today — our knowledge that it's a work of the imagination; our willing suspension of disbelief in it — is in fact one half of the novel's essence." In the context of this advantage, it is not entirely fair to compare Purity and The End of the Tour. After all, one is a picture of an author, the other is an author's own carefully rendered picture.
It's also possible that one interpretation of Wallace's writing — one that Franzen has argued includes "narcissism, misogyny, compulsiveness, self-deception" — lends validity to The End of The Tour's portrait. Yes, Wallace may have spun his neuroses into brilliant, incendiary prose, but to ignore the dirt from which the rose grew is to do him an injustice. To ignore, in his death, a component of what Franzen called "suicide as career move" is to see a person half-developed. Franzen puts it better in "Farther Away":
In a sense the story of my friendship with him is simply that I loved a person who was mentally ill. The depressed person then killed himself, in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed. Betrayed not merely by the failure of our investment of love but by the way in which his suicide took the person away from us and made him into a very public legend.
In this sense, Wallace was, perversely, the victor. The very pain that drove him to suicide also doubled as the crown handed to him upon canonization. In a short story, he called this "suicide as a sort of present."
But is he also not paying a price for the betrayal? In The End of the Tour's final scene, we see Wallace dancing in a church, surrounded by worshippers who seem to have no idea who he is, why he's important. He looks at ease, relieved to simply be one among many, free of the whirring and treacherous brilliance that ultimately ended his life. He is most comfortable because, for a transcendent moment, no one seems to be watching. It is at once his biggest fear and his salvation.
It's a touching ending, a goofy one, and one Wallace would have undoubtedly taken issue with. It calls to mind a letter he wrote to Franzen decades ago, after a stint in rehab. He'd just begun teaching at Emerson College, and he was miserable about the state of his fiction. He was afraid — deeply, agonizingly afraid — that no one would read his writing. That they'd simply look past him.
"The last thin patina of rebelliousness has fallen off," Wallace wrote his friend, his rival, the man who outlived him. "I am frightfully and thoroughly conventional."