Last week I watched two films about writers: The End of the Tour and Listen Up, Philip. The first film is based on the real-life occurrence of a Rolling Stone journalist interviewing David Foster Wallace towards the end of his book tour for Infinite Jest. During the film I slipped into my usual gripe: ‘I can’t be a real writer because I have neither the time nor the solitude presented in this film’; ‘I have not made the right life choices to write properly’; ‘this life has crept up on me while I was distracted elsewhere’. A, of course, with customary wifely ESP, clocked this reaction instantly. She tried, later, to call me out on it, but I resisted stubbornly. With the distance of a few days I am thinking about it all more positively.
The primary subtext of The End of the Tour is that writing is not all the stuff that surrounds writing – the industry of publicity and such. The depiction of DFW is presumably at least partly accurate, if clearly inspired in part by the plot and characters of Infinite Jest. There is much discussion on the dangers of engaging images, moving and otherwise, and at one point we see the writer spitting into a coffee mug, a la Hal Incandenza. Jason Segel’s DFW is a man who purports to be bewildered by his success, but who craves it like sugar regardless. He is a writer desperate for attention and yet suspicious of anyone who will give it to him too freely; a quaintly apposite Kurt-Cobain-and-fame paradigm that was still feasible in the naive 1990s, when the film is set.
Within this presentation is a comment on writing that, I felt, chimed with my own conclusions. Travelling the world is not writing; doing radio interviews is not writing; talking about writing is not writing. The DFW of the film sums it up adroitly: “That’s not real.” And Jesse Eisenberg’s character, the reporter David Lipsky, speaks a line to the effect that a writer has lost sight of what’s important when he derives more satisfaction from talking about writing than he does from the task itself.
One of the most compelling moments in the film’s denouement is that in which Lipsky snoops around in the great author’s house while he is outside scraping ice off his car. The other, lesser, David frantically reels off the things he sees into his Dictaphone as a record of the way this private genius lives, a final scrutiny that Wallace has resisted for the whole film. Lipsky ends up in the darkened room in which Wallace writes, which he respectfully leaves in darkness, a concession to DFW’s famous inscrutability but also an acknowledgement of what writing really is at heart: sitting alone in a room.
In Listen Up, Philip, we see the writer as hateful misanthrope, selfish and jealous guardian of his own solitude. Jason Schwartzman is unusually dislikeable as the titular fictional Philip, a cipher for a young Philip Roth. Philip systematically destroys his relationships under the tutelage of an older cipher for an older Roth, called (of course) Ike Zimmerman, whose name is only a few phonemes away from real-world Roth’s narrative alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman. And is Ike’s buddy Norm, who the protagonist encounters at a party and thinks he recognises, supposed to be a version of Thomas Pynchon?
This film is full of writer cliches: the writer as bastard; the writer as grasping and self-involved; the writer as philanderer and drinker; and ultimately the writer as lonely depressive. In the end, the film left me with the sense that, while all this solitude looks enticing in onscreen shots of Schwartzman riding his bike around Manhattan in a tailored jacket, the truth is that no-one can really live like that.