By 1996, upon the publication of the gargantuan novel Infinite Jest, its author David Foster Wallace was the envy of writers. Touted in exalted ways, praised as brilliant, his work produced an "anxiety of influence" for the literary. The Rolling Stone reporter, novelist David Lipsky, asked editor-in-chief Jann Wenner to assign him to accompany Wallace who was then teaching in Bloomington, Illinois on the last leg of the writer's book tour, to Minneapolis. In the convoluted way that life is so much more fascinating than fiction, that road trip is now the basis of a fiction feature, The End of the Tour, with a script by playwright Donald Margulies, who noted when he was offered the possibility of crafting this material for a stage play, that this really had a broader backdrop, the American heartland.
With comedian Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky, the film reveals Wallace's brilliance, insecurities, and the questions that may haunt a genius when tasked to perform the impossible: bridge the private difficulties of making art with the public demands of critical and commercial success. While The End of the Tour does not solve the enduring mystery of the writer's suicide, years later, it does leave you with a sense of loss, and running to rediscover his Infinite Jest.
At lunch this week at the Lotos Club, Brooke Gladstone moderated a panel: Jason Segel, David Lipsky, and Donald Margulies, discussing the many themes generated by The End of the Tour and its evolution as a film. A mix of writers and actors including Jonathan Altar, Susan Cheever, Peter Riegert, Celia Weston, among others, pondered the dilemma of great acclaim arousing a fear of fraud. Lipsky spoke about one moment of tension, when Wallace seems at odds with his interviewer over two women in Minneapolis, played wonderfully by Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner in the film. Wallace's discomfort with women was evident, the scene distilling the movie's focus on these two writers in an intense moment as travelers, buddies, and rivals.
Another detail was David Foster Wallace's unusual height, matched by the actor Jason Segel at 6'4." Because you are always leaning into other people, Segal explained, you are often in a pose of subjugation. Those heights may stand for artistic stature as well. Jack Kerouac and J. D. Salinger ran from fame, and in the former's case, and like Wallace, to his ultimate demise. No matter how big, some artists are just too fragile.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.