After the suicide of postmodern author and cultural icon David Foster Wallace in 2008, the question of how to remember got difficult. David Foster Wallace meant a lot of things to a lot of people – his work is achingly personal and emerges from a place of deep emotional intensity.
The death of Sylvia Plath, in 1963, had a similar effect: both Wallace and Plath were writers who wrote from experiences of serious pain. The people who loved their work felt a powerful and almost evangelical devotion towards it, and to the story of the writers’ lives – look at how Plath fans defaced her grave, appalled at the memorialisation of Hughes’ Plath, and not their’s. Remembering these writers is difficult because of exactly this; whose version of Plath, or Wallace, do you chose to remember?
The film The End of the Tour takes this problem to its conclusion. Released in 2015, The End of the Tour concerns a road-trip across the midwest made by Wallace and David Lipsky, a journalist tasked with profiling him as the tour promoting his soon-to-be magnum opus Infinite Jest comes to a close. Much of what’s difficult about The End of the Tour is that it’s a really good film; Jesse Eisenberg and David Segal, who play Lipsky and Wallace, are both talented and sensitive and the dialogue is fast and evocative.
But, as is basically true with any biopic, The End of the Tour depicts a version of Wallace miles from the man many remembered. “I found The End of the Tour risible”, wrote Glenn Kenny, a journalist in The Guardian, who knew Wallace: “I lay awake obsessing over the best phrase that could sum up Jason Segel’s performance as Wallace. I came up with ‘ghoulish selfaggrandisement’”. Kenny might take it a little far, but it can hardly be denied that coming up with an on-screen version of anyone historical, let alone a person like Wallace, is difficult.
And Segal comes close, particularly with his voice – some of Segal’s cadences echo “This is Water”, Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech, closely. It’s often been said that Wallace would have hated the idea of The End of the Tour – his agent Michael Pietsch wrote “David would have howled the idea for it out of the room had it been suggested while he was living”.
But following Wallace’s death, what duty, if any, do we have to memorialise Wallace in a way that he would have liked? And what is the value of literally accurate depictions of historical characters? The End of the Tour is a powerful and moving film, but, by all accounts, it gets Wallace wrong. Does that matter? Perhaps. But perhaps it doesn’t.