Last night, instead of going to sleep like a sensible person, I read Bret Easton Ellis’ “Thoughts on David Foster Wallace and ‘The End of the Tour‘”. In it, the American Psycho author holds forth on how the film “The End of the Tour” is a treacly one-note pile of horse flops that, with almost obligatory irony, does precisely what the character of David Foster Wallace worries about in the film: makes a false D.F.W. and substitutes it for the real one.
In The End of the Tour something happens that the Wallace in the movie keeps arguing he would never want: to become a character, and the movie willfully or mindlessly ignores this complaint. This is what the Wallace in the film is bothered by in scene after scene after scene — and what does the movie do? It keeps filming him. What does Segel do? He keeps playing a particular ideaof David Foster Wallace — and this is why the movie would have driven Wallace insane. The Wallace estate as well as his editor have disavowed the film not because it gets anything factually wrong but because it does something that Wallace would never have wanted: it turns him into a character.
All of which is a fine point scored on a film I probably won’t see anyway, for reasons I’ll discuss later. But while reading it I find myself asking why Ellis bothered to write it. Because for all the complaints against the film destroying Wallace’s authenticity in the act of worshipping said authenticity, I didn’t get the impression that Ellis actually thought there was much in the authentic Wallace worth preserving.
Do I think he is the most overrated writer of my generation as well as the most pretentious and tortured? Yeah, I do. And I tweeted this along with other things that bothered me, not so much about David himself but more about how he had been reinterpreted by the culture. The sincerity and earnestness he began trafficking in seemed to some of us a ploy, a contradiction — not totally fake, but not totally real either, a kind of performance art, sensing the shift toward earnestness in the culture and accommodating himself to it.
Of course he goes on to tell us that he did like Wallace and thought he was a genius (Yeah, he did). And a good thought about being okay with complexity follows. But I can’t avoid the idea that if Wallace started selling himself before his death as a great big earnest dork, then he’s complicit in the film’s “false” version of himself, so who cares?
Granted, that may just be me sharing Ellis’ opinion of Wallace’s work. Every time I get on Amazon and try to cajole myself into checking out his books, I get to the part about how Vlad the Impaler is a parakeet and my enthusiasm swiftly dies. I know I’m supposed to find that bold and clever, but I don’t. And reading a multi-layer, meta-narrative Rube Goldberg watchama-thing, as Infinite Jest is supposed to be, sounds exhausting. Making a novel not-a-novel doesn’t make a novel better.
But if I’m being honest, I have the same problem with trying to read more Bret Easton Ellis. I read Less Than Zero last year, and have re-read it since, and I still don’t know where Ellis put the plot. Then I read American Psycho and I had to stop about halfway through because I could not read another brand-specific catalog of what every person in the room was wearing. Getting the joke didn’t make it easier to process; I eventually started skimming both them and the step-by-step descriptions of murdering people (I get it, Patrick reduces people to atomized parts…) just so I could get to the end, which has the same problem as LTZ: it doesn’t close so much as stop. I guess that’s a point, too.
I like the guy’s prose style, and he’s got an inventive eye for decadence, but the thought of downloading Imperial Bedrooms to my Kindle and slogging though another 200 pages of Clay observing things – himself included – with all the emotional involvement of an alien scout reporting to the mothership, makes a nap and a cup of tea sound like a much better use of my time.
Yet here I am writing about him, and thinking about what I’ve read of his. Cavils about plot and structure aside, Ellis makes for a good tour guide to the darkness at the heart of the City of Man.