|Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel as Jason Lipsy and David Foster Wallace|
In his commencement speech to students at Kenyon College in 2005, David Foster Wallace related the parable of the three fish. Two young fish encounter an older fish swimming the other direction. “How’s the water?” asks the older fish. The two young fish continue swimming the other direction, until one says to the other, “What’s water?”
Wallace means that the most important realities are the ones that are the hardest to see and understand. Marshall McLuhan would have added that until those two fish could find a Counter Environment, they will never be able to comprehend the nature of water around them.
THE END OF THE TOUR is also a portrait of two fish, as it were, swimming around each other, each seeking some sort of understanding of the other. But there’s no counter-environment available. Jesse Eisenberg is a reporter for the Rolling Stone writing a story about the acclaimed novelist, David Foster Wallace. They spend a couple of days together riding through snowy Bloomington streets, attending Wallace’s book talk in Minneapolis, touring the Mall of the Americas, eating junk food, watching junk TV, and circling around each other, always circling. . . Both are writers. Both spend a lot of time not answering questions but asking their own questions. Both are wary and terribly insecure. And both plead confusion as to what is authentic in their own lives, and what is a pose.
Anyone who has spent a major part of his life interviewing celebrities of all stripes can watch with equal parts fascination and revulsion. I plead guilty. Mea culpa. I’ve been there, tracking down the suspects, cornering them, plotting the meetings, relishing the accidental encounters. I’ve known the exhilaration of sensing breakthroughs in communication—conversations with Spielberg’s cinematographer Allen Daviau and classical orchestra conductor Iona Brown—and agonizing over doubts as to the veracity of anything recounted—can you spell actor Tommy Lee Jones? And how about writer Ray Bradbury? Jones’s rude and digressive responses were simply a part of playing a cynical game. Ray, bless him! had fallen in love with those same Romantic stories about his life and work that he had been rehearsing for many years. I was the victim in the first instance, and the willing accomplice in the latter.
I have never read anything by Wallace, and I have no idea what he really looks like. But Segel’s portrayal has a marvelous nuance and spontaneity which leads me to want to believe what I see and what he is saying. . . and which enlists my willingness to entertain his contradictions. He is trapped in the kind of self-awareness that confesses his addiction to junk food and television while, at the same time, resisting their very “American” shortcuts to self-gratification. His is the self-awareness of his superior intellect and education, but it is also the fear and paranoia of seeming to exploit those very qualities lest they separate him from the world around him.