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.
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.
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.
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.