Letter 25: AOCYEUBY – The Quest Narrative

Dear David,

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away a young farm boy named Luke buys a robot containing a hidden message for one Obi-Wan Kenobi from a beautiful and desperate princess.  The robot runs away, Luke goes after it, meets said Obi-Wan Kenobi who invites him on an intergalactic adventure to rescue the beautiful and desperate princess.  Along the way, he meets a rogue smuggler and a “walking carpet;” blows up a space station; and learns the truth about his father, his sister[1], and his identity as a Jedi master.

In a suburb of London, a borderline-abused orphan named Harry meets a magical giant named Hagrid who tells him he is actually legendary wizard and whisks him away to a magical boarding school in the English countryside.  Over the course of seven years, he learns the truth about his deceased parents, develops his magical skills, and defeats the most evil wizard in the land.[2]

In March of 1996, a young writer named David arrives in Bloomington, Illinois, to accompany another young writer named David on the last leg of his Infinite Jest book tour.  The first David has been sent by Rolling Stone magazine to interview the second David to find out how this 1000+ page novel came into being, how much of the story is semi-autobiographical, and how David is coping with his thrust into national literary stardom.[3]

Thomas C. Foster begins his book How to Read Literature Like a Professor with a chapter on the “Quest Narrative” formula.  Every Quest Narrative has five necessary components:  “a) the quester, b) a place to go, c) a stated reason to go there, d) challenges and trials en route, and e) a real reason to go there” (3).[4]  He goes on to point out that the stated reason for going somewhere is always superficial, and in the course of the narrative, relatively unimportant.  The real reason for going on a quest is almost always self-knowledge.  Many classic works of literature follow this formula, and I would posit that Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself also fits the mold.[5]

We have our quester: one David Lipsky, a correspondent for Rolling Stone.  We have a place to go: suburban Illinois and surrounding states.  We have the stated reason to go: interview one David Foster Wallace.  Ask him about the genesis and evolution of the great postmodern epic he has just written.  Ask him about his past struggles with addiction and their possible influence on said novel.  Ask him his feelings about being the “next big thing.”  We have challenges and trials: a cancelled flight and a sometimes reticent interviewee, to name a few.  And we have the real reason for going: self-knowledge.

In reading the 300-some pages of transcription, it becomes quite apparent that this experience is more than a simple Rolling Stone piece can handle.  David Lipsky’s questions elicit rather lengthy prosaic answers, ones that demand much more than sound-bite summaries for an featured-writer article in a popular magazine.  The stated reason for this quest very quickly gets lost during those five days on the road.

By simply transcribing five days worth of conversation ranging in topic from your crush on Alanis Morrisette to America’s addiction to television and entertainment, with minimal authorial commentary, David Lipsky takes us on the journey with him.  And as the last page comes to a close, the conversation just ends as you head off to a church social; it doesn’t really conclude.  If self-knowledge is the real reason for this quest, we never really learn what Lipsky has learned about himself. 

We do, however, have the opportunity to learn something about ourselves.  This is not a book written so that we can get to know you, but one that allows us to get to know ourselves.  As we read your words, we are challenged and stretched and forced to confront our own beliefs and ideas and presuppositions.  And hopefully we walk away from eavesdropping on this conversation a little changed and a little closer to becoming ourselves.

[1] I have always found the whole brother-sister relationship between Luke and Leah to be a little creepy.  Luke is practically drooling when he first sees that holographic message.  Leah plants a big, sloppy kiss on him to make Han Solo jealous.  And then in that tender moment in which Luke explains to Leah that Darth Vader is his (their) father and that she is his sister, she replies with “I know.  Somehow I’ve always known.”  Now, hold on a moment.  Did none of those memories come flooding back with a royal vengeance?  Maybe it is in the director’s cut where they simultaneously flashback to that make-out session in the ice cave, begin to dry heave, and then go off to take showers in separate Ewok huts.  I guess I can understand not wanting to ruin the “moment” with such a scene.

[2] Harry does his share of kissing, or “snogging,” girls, but to my knowledge is not blood-related to any of them.

[3] Dear Mr. Lipsky: please don’t take offense to my lumping you with Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter.  I am simply using the first two examples as an attention-getting introduction for the point I will make later in this Letter.  It must be time for summer vacation; I’ve spent the last nine months teaching my students to write clever introductions.  I guess it’s starting to rub off a bit.

[4] Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

[5] Before I get a “no sh** Sherlock,” please hear me out.


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