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To put it simply, this summer’s movies were big. Big budgets, big names, big dinosaurs, big stories. Director James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour had none of these things, save for the medium-level starpower of Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel. The only “bigness” Tour has to speak of lies in the brainpower of its protagonist, writer David Foster Wallace, played with Oscar-worthy sensitivity by Segel.
The film follows David Foster Wallace and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Eisenberg) as they travel during the final stages of the former’s tour for his magnum opus, Infinite Jest (perhaps the only other “big” part of the film, this epicly massive novel by which I am still extremely intimidated). The movie, like most of Wallace’s actual work, is equal parts intelligent and hilarious. This, however, is not a review of The End of the Tour. There are plenty of those out there, some of them very good, far better than any I could provide. Rather, The Tour invites us into a more general appreciation of the man Segel portrays, one whom we should all take the time to study and admire.
Outside of the classroom, Wallace’s work lends itself to contemplative study. Every year, for the past few years, I have taken part in a small but uplifting tradition: reading David Foster Wallace’s work — or at least the chunks of it to which I have access. Before the onslaught of classes and their intermittently mind-numbing work, Wallace’s words can be quite helpful. More specifically, I highly recommend his wise words from the 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, published as This is Water in 2009. In the long, moving speech, Wallace touches on everything from arrogance to grocery-store banality. At the speech’s core lies the issue of controlling what you think about, pushing yourself to exist above a sort of “autopilot” setting that can lead to self-absorbed living. For us as college students, the speech holds great meaning; we live in an environment just begging for us to coast — moving from class to class, from one checkpoint to another — without thinking about the circumstances and struggles of those around us.
Even when he is not speaking or writing directly for an audience of college students, Wallace conveys messages and morals in fascinating and accessible ways. He writes and thinks not concisely, but profusely and thoroughly, going to great lengths to get points across and to examine details most would leave alone. In Both Flesh and Not, he writes with expertise and wit about a myriad of topics: Roger Federer, Terminator 2, sexuality, and complex literary trends, to name a few. Read as much Wallace as possible is my best advice, though be warned that The Pale King or Infinite Jest would probably consume a whole semester, or at least all of the time you can find to fit it in between classes.
The most appealing part of Wallace, I think, is just how normal he seemed. Despite his deep-running intelligence, ranging from literature to mathematics to philosophy, he was as confused and vulnerable as the rest of us. We do not often see self-conscious geniuses, but Wallace was exactly that. In an interviewwith Charlie Rose in the late ‘90s he simultaneously reveals both astounding cultural awareness and noticeable discomfort with fame and all that it entails. Later in that Rose interview, Wallace remarks, “Good artists…they’re entirely themselves.” Wallace never failed to be himself, and never seemed to stop doubting himself or his abilities. He was on track to become, or was already, the greatest writer of his generation, yet he always wanted more.
The tragedy of Wallace’s demise (he took his own life in 2008), or at least one of them, seems to be how impactful he could have been for our current world and younger generations. He possessed great insight into trends and their impacts on society (see the movie clip linked in the second paragraph), and his personal philosophy — as presented in This is Water and the like — relates precisely to the problems faced by those of us consumed by the daunting temptations of glowing screens and shrinking social interaction. He knew just how challenging it can be to actively think about meaningful things: to think about others before ourselves, about the value of situations or tasks before resigning oneself to complaint and frustration.
Maybe Wallace’s life and work should be even more important to those of us living under at least the beginnings of a Jesuit way of thinking. Georgetown’s Jesuit identity stresses consideration of others, nurturing of the self, and an accessible spirituality. Nominally, and hopefully sincerely, we all strive for these elusive things, and so too did Wallace. I think our generation may be just young enough to not fully appreciate the impact and influence Wallace had on his craft. Luckily, he left numerous works behind to help fill that gap in our lives.
So see The End of the Tour, by all means. But don’t stop there.