The David Foster Wallace Road Trip: Book Tour Sex, Quitting Drinking, and That Bandana

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We all know how it ends. In September 2008, David Foster Wallace hanged himself. But do we know how it begins? In 1996, shortly after the publication of Infinite Jest, the novel that would define his style and propel him into the literary pantheon, Wallace was interviewed by David Lipsky for Rolling Stone magazine. Over five days, the two Davids discussed everything from television addiction and book tour sex to philosophy and mental illness. That conversation is recorded in Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. A gift to all those who worship at the alter of DFW, this is a hauntingly beautiful portrait of Wallace as a young artist, a raw and honest account of a writer struggling with what it means to have all of his dearest dreams come true. Read on for more on the book and some of our favorite quotes.

On book tour sex: “I didn’t get laid on this tour. The thing about fame is interesting, although I would have liked to get laid on the tour and I did not….People come up, they kind of slither up during readings or whatever. But it seems like, what I want is not to have to take any action. I don’t want to have to say, ‘Would you like to come back to the hotel?’ I want them to say, ‘I am coming back to the hotel. Where is your hotel?’ None of ‘em do that….I just can’t stand to look like I’m actively trading on this sexually. Even though of course that’s—I would be happy to do that.”

On Blue Velvet: “I remember going to see Blue Velvet. . . . It absolutely made me shake. And I went back and saw it again the next day. And there was somethin’ about…it was my first hint that being a surrealist, or being a weird writer, didn’t exempt you from certain responsibilities. But it in fact upped them. . . . David Lynch, Blue Velvet coming out when it did, I think saved me from droppin’ out of school. And saved me maybe even from quittin’ as a writer. ‘Cause I’d always—if I could have made a movie, right at that time? That would have been it. I mean, I vibrated on every frequency.”

On the origin of the trademark bandana: “I started wearing bandannas in Tucson because it was a hundred degrees all the time. When it’s really hot, I would perspire so much that I would drip on the page. Actually, I started wearing it that year, and then it became a big help in Yaddo in ’87 because I would drip into the typewriter, and I was worried that I would get a shock. And then I discovered that I felt better with them on. And then I dated a woman who…said there were these various chakras, and one of the big ones was what she called the spout hole, at the very top of your cranium. And in a lot of cultures, it was considered better to keep your head covered. And then I began thinking about the phrase, Keeping your head together, you know? …. It’s a security blanket for me. . . . It makes me…feel kind of creepy that people view it as an affectation or trademark or something. It’s more just a foible, it’s the recognition of a weakness, which is that I’m just kind of worried my head’s going to explode.”

On drinking and quitting drinking: “I was sort of a joyless drinker. I mean, I think I just used it for anesthesia…. I think I had this idea of: you know, went to Yaddo a couple times. And I saw that there’s this whole image of the writer as somebody who lives hard and drinks hard. You know, is found in amusing postures in gutters and stuff…. And I think when you are a kid, you know, and you don’t have any kind of idea of how to be what you want to be, you fall for these sort of cultural models. And the big thing about it is, I don’t have the stomach or nervous system for it.”

On the dread of meeting people and the dread of being alone: “When you’re meeting a whole lot of new people and having to do things you’re in—I’m in a constant low-level state of anxiety. Which produces adrenaline, and kind of shuts down—there’s a difference between short-term, people-based anxiety. And sort of deep, existential, you know, fear, that you feel all the way down to your butthole. And that, I, that’s…that’s what I’ll have when I’m alone.”

On giving readings: “I like it once I forget myself. So that’s right now it’s terrible, and the first ten minutes will be one of those awful like I-can-feel-my-heartbeat, and everyone else can hear it. And then after a while I just forget it. One reason I don’t mind going long is that when it gets to twenty minutes, just as I’m starting to halfway enjoy it, um, it’s over.”

On disliking Q & A’s following readings: “[It’s] just stuff like ‘Where do you get your ideas?’…. I get them from a Time-Life subscription series, which costs $17.95 a month.”

On his fear of flying [while boarding a plane]: “I wasn’t all that good at physics in high school. And we’re gonna—basically our lives are about to depend on physics. What is it: the under exceeds the over, there’s lift?”

On being proud of the success of Infinite Jest: “I wanted to do something that is real experimental and very strange, but it’s also fun. And that was of course very scary. Because I thought maybe that couldn’t be done—or that it would come off as just a hellacious flop. But I’m sort of proud of it, because I think it was a kind of brave and right-headed thing to do.”

On aspirations for career longevity: “I’m really into the work now. I mean it’s really—and I feel good about this. Because you know, we want to be doing this for forty more years, you know?”

It’s tempting to read Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself looking for clues that explain Wallace’s death (and there is a lot here to mull: details of his previous suicide attempt and his time in a mental institution, his fear of shock therapy, and his recovery and optimism for a career that would span decades). But, although haunted by it, this is not a book about his death; it’s a book about his life. Lipsky has given us a true gem: Wallace in his own words, in a voice that remains vibrant, hopeful, and frank even after its speaker has been silenced. We all may know how it ends, but Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself takes us back to where it all began.