Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1025
David Foster Wallace grew up in Urbana, Illinois, the son of a philosophy professor and community college English teacher. He was a talented, competitive tennis player whose gifts for the game included oversweating in order to keep well ventilated and the ability to ascertain the differential complications between the angles of the court and the unpredictable midwestern winds that often seized balls while in play. Wallace majored in philosophy at Amherst College. His professors believed he would become an important philosopher, but after taking time off to drive a school bus, he completed his senior thesis as a creative piece, which would soon be picked up as a rough draft of his first novel, The Broom of the System. From there, he headed west for Arizona State University’s creative writing program.
The Broom of the System earned for Wallace a Whiting Writer’s Award and gained the twenty-five-year-old some cult and critical notoriety. The novel’s story line is built on phone messages, literary magazine submissions, and psychotherapy sessions. Readers come to realize that the central character’s search for her missing grandmother is actually a pursuit of her own identity. Wallace uses stylized wordplay to represent the notion that something’s value is nothing more or less than its function, a concept fostered by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea that language is a means by which reality is constructed. His postmodernist plot fragmentation, need to express philosophical ideas through fiction, and old-fashioned concern for character development are reflective of Wallace’s wide range of early influences, which include Donald Barthelme and Tobias Wolff. They are also staple concepts that persist throughout Wallace’s work.
His second book, Girl with Curious Hair, is a short-story collection assimilating American history, pop culture, and its icons with central characters that embody certain ideologies. A slacker takes an internship with Lyndon Johnson in “Lyndon,” while “Little Expressionless Animals” deals with the plans of the producers of Jeopardy!, the television game show, to eject a long-running champion because of her sexual orientation. This focus on pop culture is carried over into Wallace’s nonfiction with Signifying Rappers, a book cowritten with Mark Costello, wherein two white males use an obscure language to discuss the violence, misogyny, and arrogance often associated with hip-hop. Throughout his early years as a writer, Wallace was praised for the inventiveness and energy displayed in his writing, sometimes referred to as a genius restoring opulence to fiction after the dominance of minimalism.
Though Wallace compared a writer’s fame to that of a local meteorologist, the early attention scathed him. Just as his writing reflects brilliance mixed with humility, Wallace was unsure whether to believe those who dubbed him genius or the lurking internal whisper sometimes calling him fake. Driven by self-doubt and confusion as to what it means to be a famous writer, Wallace went through a three-year period of using drugs and alcohol during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, while living in Boston and Syracuse. Eventually, he checked into a psychiatric ward and was put on suicide watch. While details remain vague, friends have said Wallace sought the help of recovery programs. In the end, he came to realize he lacked the stomach for heavy drinking and the nervous system necessary for constant drug use. In 1990 he took a teaching position at Illinois State University and took up residence in a sparsely decorated home, with no television set, located amid cornfields.
Personal experience seems to have played a heavy role in Wallace’s 1,079-page novel, the highly publicized Infinite Jest. Wallace said that he wanted to write something sad. The book parallels a substance abuse program with an elite tennis academy and revolves around the search for a film titled “Infinite Jest,” to which viewers become addicted. Central characters are a tennis star, an addict from a rehabilitation center, and a group of wheelchair-bound Quebecois separatists; all want to use the film as a weapon. The novel’s massive length and its 304 footnotes are reflective of Wallace’s need not to spare a detail, a trait that seems to arise from both his meticulousness and his effulgence. While acknowledging the difficulty he posed for readers, he imagined the book’s audience akin to himself: educated people in their twenties and thirties who read persistently in the hope of eventual payoff.
This affinity for details and footnotes carried over into his essay writing. Contracted to write various essays for Harper’s and other magazines, Wallace attempted to capture and interpret his time. He allowed his own life, his attitude, and his ideas to spill through. The result was a body of essays in which he is the central character, experiencing and commenting upon everything, from luxury cruises to cracked midwestern tennis courts. For a while, his phone rang constantly, bringing offers to write what he described as assignments for which his instructions basically involved standing in a certain location, turning 360 degrees, and describing what he saw. He published the essays, unabridged, in 1997’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. That same year, he was awarded the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, otherwise known as the “genius grant.”
Upon his return to fiction, Wallace was interested in writing about sex and relationships. In 1999 he published Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, a collection of short stories and imagined interviews. While some readers continued to applaud his ability to invent ways of storytelling, others wondered where to find the emotion of the story. Still, many found the writing to be within Wallace’s normal range of hilarious, unsettling, and almost unbearable edginess.
Wallace was on leave from his position as creative writing professor at Pomona College in September, 2008 when he was found dead at his home in Claremont, California. He had hanged himself. His originality has placed him somewhere between the camps of Thomas Pynchon and Thomas Wolfe; meaning is often found within the cracks of his narratives. Wallace’s truest self seemed to come out in his essays. The brilliance and competitiveness displayed early in his life shine through with the originality of his work, making him a force in American literature.