Study Guide

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace Essay - Wallace, David Foster (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wallace, David Foster (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

David Foster Wallace 1962–

American novelist, essayist, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Wallace's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 50.

Wallace received considerable attention for his first novel, The Broom of the System (1986). Wallace presented an ambitious, eccentric, and lengthy book of stories within stories that featured elaborate wordplay, a large cast of characters, and philosophical speculation that recalled the previous generation of American writers. Wallace's book contrasted sharply with much of the American fiction of the 1980s, which featured minimalist stories, thinly developed characters, plots with little action, and cynical, nihilistic themes. Wallace followed his initial novel with a collection of short stories and novellas, Girl with Curious Hair (1989), critical articles and essays, and the nonfiction study Signifying Rappers (1990). In 1996, Wallace released a complex and extravagant novel, Infinite Jest. At 1,079 pages, the voluminous work has cemented Wallace's critical reputation as the "Generation-X" version of "metafictionists" such as Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, William Gass, and Don DeLillo.

Biographical Information

Born in Ithaca, New York, in 1962, Wallace has described his childhood as relatively ordinary and uneventful. Both of his parents were teachers and he was encouraged to read, which he did avidly and widely. As an undergraduate at Amherst College, Wallace showed great facility in mathematical logic, enjoying what he calls a "click" as steps in mathematical structure fit into place. Many of his philosophy professors considered him a strong candidate to achieve success in their field. Increasingly, though, he felt the "click" from his own philosophical speculations in fictional forms. After receiving his A.B. from Amherst in 1985, he went on to earn an M.F.A. degree from the University of Arizona in 1987. By the time he completed his coursework at Arizona, he had published The Broom of the System, and his literary career was under way.

Major Works

Taking its title from Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus, The Broom of the System presents Wallace's exploration of the philosopher's theories of language and meaning. Set in and around Cleveland in 1990, the novel follows Lenore Beadsman's quest to find her great-grandmother. Beadsman's namesake and self-appointed intellectual mentor, the elder Lenore, herself a former student of Wittgenstein, has disappeared from her nursing home and is believed to be hiding in the Great Ohio Desert (G.O.D.). The story is told from multiple perspectives and features alternating journal entries, conversations, stream-of-consciousness reflections, and third-person narratives. Lenore's efforts to sort out the confusion that surrounds her are complicated for her, and for the reader, by an array of sub-plots, frequent interruptions of the story, a large cast of characters, and Wallace's extravagant and suggestive wordplay. The same techniques are employed in a variety of contexts in the short story collection Girl with Curious Hair. Again Wallace explores themes of communication, identity, and meaning in an age dominated by popular culture. "Little Expressionless Animals" tells of the "Jeopardy!" game show producers' plot to unseat the longest running champion of their show because they fear the consequences of the public learning of her lesbian relationship. In "My Appearance" an actress tranquilizes herself into a stupor attempting to relieve her anxiety over appearing on the "David Letterman Show." The novella "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way" follows a group of former child actors on their way to a reunion. Infinite Jest is in some respects a summary statement of the first decade of Wallace's career. Set in a not-too-distant future in which numeric years have been replaced by corporate sponsor designations like the "Year of Glad" and the "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment," Infinite Jest is the story of the creation, loss, and attempted recovery of the perfect entertainment, a film entitled Infinite Jest, which is so funny that anyone who sees it must see it again to the exclusion of any other films. At more than a thousand pages with over one hundred pages of pseudo-scholarly footnotes, Infinite Jest physically recreates the themes it examines.

Critical Reception

Response to Wallace's work has been mostly enthusiastic. His many awards include the Whiting Writers' Award (1987), a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction (1990), and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1997). The Broom of the System received a great deal of attention, in part because of its dual-edition release. Wallace was immediately compared with Thomas Pynchon, both favorably and unfavorably. Nearly all early reviews heralded Wallace as a major talent. But many critics faulted him for excessive and self-indulgent wordplay, derivative style, and sophomoric humor. A critic for Kirkus Reviews wrote that The Broom of the System "suffers from a severe case of manic impres-siveness" and goes on to characterize Wallace as a "puerile Pynchon, a discount DeLillo." Wallace's work has continued to receive such sharply divided responses, sometimes within the same review.

Principal Works

The Broom of the System (novel) 1986
Girl with Curious Hair (short stories and novellas) 1989
Signifying Rappers [with Mark Costello] (nonfiction) 1990
Infinite Jest (novel) 1996
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (essays) 1997

Criticism

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 November 1986)

SOURCE: A review of The Broom of the System, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LIV, No. 22, November 15, 1986, p. 1686.

[In the following review, the critic finds that Wallace's first novel displays flashes of genius but also suffers from an immature and derivative style.]

This unusual debut, the first novel to be published simultaneously in hard-cover and as a paperback in Penguin's "Contemporary American Fiction" series, suffers from a severe case of manic impressiveness. Wallace, a recent Amherst grad, is something of a puerile Pynchon, a discount Don DeLillo, and even a bit of an original.

Brimming with subplots, stories within stories, countless one-liners, and a cast of characters worthy of some sort of postmodern Dickens, this bulky fiction, when it isn't plain tedious, seems to be a big inside-joke. Almost every male in the book went to Amherst, from Rich Vigorous (class of '69), the head of Frequent and Vigorous Publishers, to Andrew Sealander "Wang-Dang" Lang (class of '82), a former frat boy and campus swell, now married to Mindy Metalman, a "Playboy-Playmatish JAP from Scarsdale," whom Wanger met one night on a roll to Holyoke. But that doesn't begin to explain how Vigorous, with his abnormally small penis, and the strapping preppy meet in Amherst in 1990, the year in which most of this self-consciously strange book takes place. The connection between them, and between just about everyone else here, from sexy Candy Mandible to cruel Stonecipher Beadsman III, is the former's roommate and the latter's daughter, Leonore Beadsman, an overeducated switchboard operator at the Bombardini Building in Cleveland, Ohio. That's not far from the corporate headquarters of Stonecipheco, the family-owned baby-food company in fierce competition with Gerber's. Also nearby is the nursing home from which Leonore's great-grandmother, a former student of Wittgenstein (that "mad crackpot genius"), has strangely disappeared, thus setting into motion the hyperactive narrative. Jokes about fiction by "a nastily troubled little collegiate mind" should give readers further reason to pause.

Wallace dabbles in big ideas, with too many pseudo-Wittgensteinian pauses ("'…'") and much callow satire on consumer/evangelical America. Despite flashes of real genius, it's a heady Animal House vision.

Madison Smartt Bell (review date 6 August 1989)

SOURCE: "At Play in the Funhouse of Fiction," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 19, No. 32, August 6, 1989, p. 4.

[In the following review of Girl with Curious Hair, novelist Bell places Wallace in the context of "metafictionists" like John Barth and Thomas Pynchon in order to discuss how Wallace seeks to differentiate himself from that label.]

The appearance of his immensely long first novel, The Broom of the System, caused David Foster Wallace to be lumped in with "metafictionists" such as Barth, Coover, Pynchon & Co. Evidently Wallace is not altogether pleased with this categorization, and in his new and also sizeable first collection of stories...

(The entire section is 919 words.)

Jenifer Levin (review date 5 November 1989)

SOURCE: "Love Is a Federal Highway." in New York Times, November 5, 1989, Sec. 7, p. 31.

[In the following review, Levin finds Wallace's collection of short stories evidence of both an impressive talent and a tendency toward excess.]

With this collection of stories [Girl with Curious Hair], David Foster Wallace, the author of the novel The Broom of the System, proves himself a dynamic writer of extraordinary talent, one unafraid to tackle subjects large and small. Ever willing to experiment, he lays his artistic self on the line with his incendiary use of language, at times seeming to rip both the mundane and the unusual from their moorings, then setting...

(The entire section is 1173 words.)

Douglas Siebold (review date 21 January 1990)

SOURCE: "'Maximalist' Short Fiction from a Talented Young Writer," in Chicago Tribune, January 21, 1990, Sec. 14, p. 7.

[The following review highlights Wallace's distinctiveness from his predecessors, "the metafictionists," and his contemporaries, "the minimalists."]

David Foster Wallace is probably the most talented of the writers under 30 who have been forced on the reading public over the past five or so years by publishers excited by the commercial success of such books as Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City and Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero.

Most of the work of these writers has been forgettable, in some cases even...

(The entire section is 743 words.)

Sven Birkerts (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "David Foster Wallace," in American Energies, William Morrow and Co., Inc, 1992, pp. 386-92.

[In the essay below, critic and educator Birkerts sets Tom Wolfe's call for a return to fiction of social realism on the nineteenth-century model against contemporary techniques of story-telling to present Wallace as the exemplar of a viable alternative for a new approach to serious literature in our age.]

Tom Wolfe, as we all know, has a positive genius for wetting his index finger and getting it up there into the weather. In his recent essay in Harper's, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel," he raised a call for a...

(The entire section is 2251 words.)

Larry McCaffery (interview date Summer 1993)

SOURCE: "An Interview with David Foster Wallace," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol, 13, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 127-50.

[In the following interview, McCaffery questions Wallace on matters of style, technique, and substance in his writing, as well as his relationship to the popular culture that figures so prominently in his work.]

[Larry McCaffery:] Your essay following this interview is going to be seen by some people as being basically an apology for television. What's your response to the familiar criticism that television fosters relationships with illusions or simulations of real people (Reagan being a kind of quintessential example)?

...

(The entire section is 12596 words.)

David Kipen (review date 11 February 1996)

SOURCE: "Terminal Entertainment," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 11, 1996, pp. 1, 9.

[In the following review of Wallace's second novel, Infinite Jest, Kipen invokes the legacy of Thomas Pynchon to note Wallace's similarity and superiority to that legendary figure.]

It takes a special kind of nerve to write a book with roughly the mass of a medicine ball and then end it so abruptly and unsatisfactorily that the poor reader perversely finds himself wishing it longer. But David Foster Wallace's coda disappoints only because the preceding 3 1/2 inches of Infinite Jest have succeeded so well at projecting a world of brain-scalding complexity....

(The entire section is 1318 words.)

R. Z. Sheppard (review date 19 February 1996)

SOURCE: "Mad Maximalism," in Time, Vol. 14, No. 8, February 19, 1996, pp. 70, 72.

[In the following review, Sheppard demonstrates his approval of Infinite Jest by emulating its humor and irony.]

A 1,079-page novel that concludes with 100 pages of annotation and calls itself Infinite Jest is doubly intimidating. First, there is its length, which promises an ordeal like driving across Texas without cruise control. Second, the title itself hints that the joke may be on the reader. By definition, infinite means no punch line.

Yet David Foster Wallace's marathon send-up of humanism at the end of its tether is worth the effort. There is...

(The entire section is 800 words.)

Jay McInerney (review date 3 March 1996)

SOURCE: "The Year of the Whopper," in New York Times, March 3, 1996, p. 8.

[In the following review of Infinite Jest, novelist McInerney praises Wallace's talent while lamenting his self-indulgent prolixity.]

Reading David Foster Wallace's latest novel, Infinite Jest, I couldn't help thinking at times about 7-year-old Seymour Glass's book-length "letter" home from camp, published in The New Yorker in 1965 as "Hapworth 16, 1924." I felt a similar feeling of admiration alloyed with impatience veering toward strained credulity. (Do you suppose Seymour's parents actually read the whole thing?) I had previously been a great admirer of Mr. Wallace's...

(The entire section is 1213 words.)

Rick Perlstein (review date 4 March 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Infinite Jest, in Nation, Vol. 262, No. 9, March 4, 1996, pp. 27-9.

[In the review below, Perlstein calls Infinite Jest "a daring and brilliant exercise" but one that ultimately fails because the novelist's compulsion overwhelms his art.]

Jazz apocrypha has it that Miles Davis once asked his sideman John Coltrane to play shorter solos. Coltrane, who could never reach a satisfying conclusion, asked how, and Miles, ever laconic, replied: "Take the horn out of your mouth." Coltrane never did take Miles's advice. Until he explored every harmonic implication of every chord, or couldn't physically play anymore, Coltrane's horn stayed in his...

(The entire section is 2002 words.)

Steven Moore (review date Spring 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Infinite Jest, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 141-42.

[In the following positive review, Moore places Wallace firmly in the tradition of encyclopedic American novelists like William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and William Gass.]

While reading William Gass's The Tunnel last year at this time, I feared I was witnessing the last of a dying breed, the encyclopedic American novel that began with Gaddis's Recognitions in 1955, hit its stride in the sixties and seventies (Giles Goat-Boy, Gravity's Rainbow, Gaddis again with J R, The Public Burning, LETTERS), went baroque in the eighties...

(The entire section is 750 words.)

Tom LeClair (essay date Fall 1996)

SOURCE: "The Prodigious Fiction of Richard Powers, William Vollmann, and David Foster Wallace," in Critique, Vol. 38, No. 1, Fall, 1996, pp. 12-37.

[In the following essay, LeClair contrasts three roughly contemporaneous younger novelists against their innovative forbears, especially Thomas Pynchon, and makes his case for a new and scientifically more astute voice in American literature that broadens and deepens the commentary and critique begun by the so-called metafictionists.]

Since the publication of V. in 1963, when Thomas Pynchon was twenty-six, he has been the reigning, if now aging, prodigy of contemporary American fiction, the gifted author of two...

(The entire section is 12156 words.)

Richard Stern (review date 9 March 1997)

SOURCE: "Verbal Pyrotechnics," in Chicago Tribune Books, March 9, 1997, pp. 1, 11.

[In the following review, Stern examines Wallace's collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and equates Wallace's accomplishment with that of the classic essayist Montaigne.]

'I go out of my way," wrote Essayist Number One, "but by license not carelessness…. I want the material to make its own divisions … without my interlacing them with words, with links and seams put in for the benefit of … inattentive readers." As to style, "I love a simple, natural speech, the same on paper as in the mouth … succulent and sinewy, brief but compressed … better...

(The entire section is 1144 words.)

Laura Miller (review date 16 March 1997)

SOURCE: "The Road to Babbittville," in New York Times, March 16, 1997, p. 71.

[In the following review of Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Miller sees the writer fulfilling the promise and allaying the suspicions generated by his much-discussed novel Infinite Jest.]

Many readers young and old (but especially the young and media-saturated) regarded David Foster Wallace's mammoth novel, Infinite Jest, with suspicion. Jaded by too many middling writers heralded as the Next Big Thing, they wondered if, as its title intimated, this daunting tome wasn't just a big joke. Infinite Jest itself didn't quite clear things up. Messy,...

(The entire section is 823 words.)

Alexander Star (review date 30 June 1997)

SOURCE: A review of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, in New Republic, Vol. 216, No. 26, June 30, 1997, pp. 27-34.

[In the following review, Star discusses the often contradictory nature of Wallace's writing.]

Most novelists strive to extinguish the traces of juvenile self-consciousness from their work. Selfconsciousness is an adolescent twitch, a mannered style, a way of holding back from the potency of one's materials. It's an obstacle to communication, and a low form of candor, David Foster Wallace is not such a writer. He can't escape from self-consciousness; or he doesn't want to. Instead, he makes the sheer awkwardness of carrying a self through...

(The entire section is 6211 words.)