Staving Off ‘The End’ with Donald Margulies

The End of the Tour documents an encounter between David Foster Wallace and Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky, who tagged along for the end of the press tour for Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Lipsky’s book, Although of Course You End U

click to enlarge The End of the Tour
The End of the Tour

The End of the Tour documents an encounter between David Foster Wallace and Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky, who tagged along for the end of the press tour for Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Lipsky’s book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, chronicles the five days he spent with Wallace and serves as the basis for the film. But it could certainly be argued that Lipsky’s book and the new adaptation from director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) also captures a prescience in Wallace, who was reading the signs at the dawn of the Internet age, signaling a foreseeable end to intimately complex human interaction. He died a short 12 years later, so it is not as if we can look to him for answers for how we might turn the present situation around. Instead, I posed a series of questions to the film’s screenwriter Donald Margulies (who also happens to teach playwriting at Yale University, where he taught Ponsoldt more than a decade ago) about the end of many things and the beginning of new possibilities.

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself was sent to Margulies initially because it was assumed he might be interested in adapting it for the stage since the narrative, such as it is, is little more than a transcription of Lipsky’s taped interviews with Wallace.

“The book was essentially all conversation,” Margulies says via phone. “But I started reading it and I got very excited about the idea of it being a road picture — of putting these guys out there in the Midwest, which is where it took place, in the winter of 1996. And I was particularly excited about putting David Foster Wallace, who was one of the great chroniclers of American popular culture, on the American landscape. And that’s where it began.”

Indeed, it is fascinating to reconsider the film with this understanding because what takes place is a two-person character study, perfectly suited to the dramatic confines of the stage, and yet it unfolds organically, right before our eyes, and transforms into an incisive road trip that starts on a broad Midwestern map, but then detours down uncharted and intimate pathways.

But Margulies and Ponsoldt, along with Jason Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky, never allow us to get lost along the way. We remain on a well-defined course with Segel and Eisenberg offering clear emotional and psychological signals as to their own soul-searching and the momentary flashes of awareness that appear.

“As a dramatist, I’m always looking for high stakes,” Marguiles says. “What are the stakes involved in the conflict? Where is the conflict? For me, placing Lipsky in the foreground of the story — the way I viewed this from the beginning was that Lipsky was the protagonist of the story. It was about a young, talented writer who is at the beginning of his career who encounters a writer who has been anointed, who is only a few years older than he is and who has achieved everything he would ever hope to achieve as a writer at the age of 34. And that person is David Foster Wallace, one of the foremost voices of the last 25 years.”

The literal “end” of Wallace’s book tour, which Lipsky joins as part of his Rolling Stone interview, also highlights several potential metaphoric “endings” as well. Lipsky arrives at Wallace’s house with a copy of his own published novel, a middling release that he obviously feels insecure about passing along.

“At the end of this visit, this stay of Lipsky’s in 1996, Wallace was looking at the rest of his life, which we know will only last 12 years,” Marguiles says. “And what I think we were able to capture was that kind of sub-textual malaise, a kind of uneasiness that begins to seep into the story.”

I took that notion a step further with Margulies. The End of the Tour, to my mind, presents one of the final moments where a writer and/or critic has that level of access and unguarded exposure to a subject like Wallace.

“I think you’re right,” Margulies says with a bit of a melancholic laugh. “You know, the story took place not quite 20 years ago, and I think the nature of our media has exploded to such an extent that there are so many outlets. It is so hard to get an exclusive, a real scoop. The idea of a celebrity profile, which Vanity Fair had made an art form, is becoming more and more rare. I can’t imagine anyone permitting a visiting journalist to sleep in their guest room (like Wallace did with Lipsky).”

It is a different era, but we should not fear the end, because in it we might just, by chance, see the best reflection of ourselves.

THE END OF THE TOUR opens Friday.

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