In the words of David Lipsky, David Foster Wallace “wrote with eyes and a voice that seemed to be a condensed form of everyone’s lives — it was the stuff you semi-thought, the background action you blinked through at supermarkets and commutes — and readers curled up in the nooks and clearings of his style.” Lipsky, on assignment for Rolling Stone, spent five days with Wallace during the final leg of his book tour for Infinite Jest. Although Of Course is a transcript from their time together — road-tripping, playing chess, being stranded in airports, walking dogs, talking about fiction and fame — and it is, once you settle into its off-the-cuff style, an intimate account of a man who was astonishingly brilliant and deeply humane.
In an introductory essay (entitled “afterword”), Lipsky addresses Wallace’s suicide in 2008, noting that “suicide is such a powerful end, it reaches back and scrambles the beginning. It has an event gravity: Eventually, every memory and impression gets tugged in its direction.” Wallace — who spent time in a psychiatric hospital in the late 80s and began taking a first-generation antidepressant called Nardil in 1989 — emerges in this book as a hyperaware character: He seems to see, and to feel, almost everything. And he is anything but a sad sack — funny, generous, infinitely curious, with the ability to express perfectly formed thoughts on the first draft out of his mouth. (Wallace, says Lipsky, “was such a natural writer he could talk in prose.”)
Although Infinite Jest had the literary world buzzing, Wallace was wary of the fame and attention. Charis Conn, an editor at Harper’s, was Wallace’s tour guide when Wallace came to New York. “Him in New York City — that was a show on its own,” Conn tells Lipsky. “Sort of gee-whizzing everything, amazed by everything. He was so much smarter than anyone, including you, and yet his attitude was, he was genuinely pleased to be wherever he was, most of the time. If he was with a congenial companion.”
Lipsky proves himself just that, while acknowledging how intimidating it is to write about someone who could write circles around him. Lipsky never published the piece he was sent to write. (“Thank God,” he says. “I tried to write it, and kept imagining David reading it, and seeing through it, through me, and spotting some questionable stuff on the X-ray.”) But now, with Wallace gone (his posthumous novel The Pale King is slated to release in 2011), Lipsky’s biography succeeds in giving us a portrait of the artist as a young man, whose brilliance and humor showed through even in the mundane. “Are you done in the bathroom?” Wallace asks toward the end of the book. “Because I’ve gotta wreak some havoc in there.”