What Will Become of David Foster Wallace?
David Foster Wallace won't rest in peace if the publishing industry has anything to say about it. Publishers are preparing to release his unfinished novel, The Pale King, and even his undergraduate thesis on free will is going to be available in bookstores this fall. So it's understandable that David Lipsky's book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace has been on local best-seller lists for most of the spring. Yourself, an account of five days spent with Wallace at the end of his Infinite Jest book tour, is mostly made up of taped interviews for an article in Rolling Stone about Wallace's career, biography, and just about everything he'd encountered in the winter of 1996. (Hilariously, he was neck-deep in a puppy-dog crush on Alanis Morissette at the time.)
Unfortunately, it's a bad book, a mass of Lipsky's notes and personal recollections that he never successfully structured into something useful. You can't let a tape recorder run around Wallace for dozens of hours without capturing oodles of genius—but as a whole, it's an annoying account of a well-read journalist who really wanted to make Wallace like him. Lipsky is overly impressed with his own candor; he admits that he feels jealous when Wallace refers to him as "some guy" to a friend on the phone. (You almost expect him to find some dull-witted meaning in the fact that they're both named David.) One day, an absolutely brilliant biography of Wallace will be written, and Yourself will probably be a primary source in the bibliography. But as a tribute to a writer of such great magnitude, it's an utter failure—a messy, slapped-together work of idolatry.
If you love Wallace and you haven't yet read Stanley Elkin, you're doing yourself a serious disservice. In many ways, Elkin was the Wallace of the 1970s and '80s, a virtuoso of language who was awed by popular culture in a very earnest way. David C. Dougherty's Shouting Down the Silence, a new biography of Elkin, shows any wannabe Wallace biographers how to handle their subject: Dougherty doesn't just publish the brilliance, he also delves into the jealousies ("All things being equal, I'd rather be me than Stephen King," Elkin said in 1989. "But I wouldn't mind having a small percentage of King's sales. He wouldn't even miss them") and pettiness ("Black humor is a term invented by Time magazine," Elkin "snapped" on another occasion).
As everyone tries to make their fortune on a dead genius's body of work, it's heartening to take a step back and admire what has become of Elkin: After all the hubbub dies down, the work abides, and the patient biographers like Dougherty—not vultures like Lipsky—amplify the legend by explaining the human being who made it all happen.