Monday, March 28, 2011

Throwing off the Casino Mindset: David Foster Wallace on Life, the Universe, and Everything

"Although of course you end up becoming yourself," David Foster Wallace tells David Lipsky on the promotional tour for Infinite Jest in 1996. They converse through the week about identity, self-actualization, when and why we eat certain meals, the relationships between writers at conferences, the effects of books reviews on writers' psyches, managing depression, the purpose of writing workshops, the dangers in stow for avant garde and experimental writers, and handling insomnia and book tour and the different brands of fame. (Btw, eggs in the morning--eggs are a nascent, transient form of life, just as we're gradually growing into our waking states--and meat in the evening--decomposing animal matter as we fade into unconsciousness.)

This/These is/are the subject(s) of Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a transcript of Lipsky's time interviewing DFW for a 1996 Rolling Stone essay. Straight transcriptions of Lipsky's tapes, complete with Lipsky's notations telling us what they're doing, as they do it. This is a biography as only DFW could write it--a prolonged and rambling and brilliant account of DFW's history, his beliefs, and his values.

And refreshingly, the DFW in the transcript reads like the coy and insightful DFW of his books.

I was struck by many of the things appearing in DFW's rambling answers to Lipsky's questions and comments, as well as the way DFW flipped the interviewing role, often transforming Lipsky into the subject, scrutinized in DFW's witty asides and one-liners. And we cannot, of course, ignore the cultural references abounding throughout their repartee.

Most interesting, though, was how DFW attacks the casino mindset (he says it really latches on to writers at conferences, parties, and the like) and claims that fixating on that competition between writers simply ruins art and the ability of insightful and dedicated young artists by damaging their self esteem and their ambition: "And I don't know if Rolling Stone readers are interested, it's just—most bright people, something happens in your late twenties, where you realize that this other, that how other people regard you does not have enough calories in it, to keep you from blowing your brains out. That you've got to find, make some other détente."

There's some great stuff in this book—and it's not hard to draw connections between the thoughts here and DFW's other stories and novels—but this idea, handling fame, reoccurs often. DFW argues throughout that his exchanges with Lipsky that fame can destroy, that pride can be equally fatal. The dialogue is often tragic, especially since we approach the transcript with knowledge of DFW's suicide.

But we also have to consider that DFW postulates here something he describes much more eloquently in This Is Water: some thoughts on leading a compassionate life. A compassionate life consists of more than considering what others feel, think, and believe; DFW tells us, as he speaks to Lipsky and masticates plugs of chewing tobacco, that we have to remember that we are human beings as well, and we should never let ourselves decline back into the darkest, most threatening times of our lives.


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