David Foster Wallace 1962–-
American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
Known for his ambitious and unconventional novels and short stories that feature elaborate wordplay, humor, and philosophical speculation, Wallace is regarded as a major American author. His experimental and intelligent works are often compared to the fiction of earlier metafictional writers such as John Barth, William Gass, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon. Critics consider his stories difficult to categorize, as they utilize various narrative forms, such as interviews, outlines, monologue, journal entries, and stream-of-consciousness thoughts.
Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, on February 21, 1962. Both of his parents were teachers and he was encouraged to read, which he did avidly. As an undergraduate at Amherst College, Wallace showed great facility in mathematical logic, an interest that shows up in his fiction. 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 his first novel, The Broom of the System (1986). His second novel, Infinite Jest (1996), garnered much critical attention and catapulted him into the forefront of contemporary American letters.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Wallace's reputation as a short story writer is based on two collections of short fiction: Girl with Curious Hair (1989) and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999). In Girl with Curious Hair Wallace utilizes multiple perspectives, journal entries, conversations, stream-of-consciousness reflections, and third-person narratives in his stories. Moreover, he explores themes of alienation, identity, the futility of communication, and meaning in an age dominated by popular culture. “Little Expressionless Animals” tells of a “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 Late Night with David Letterman television series. The novella Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way follows a group of former child actors on their way to a reunion. The twenty-three pieces of fiction in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men explore many of the same thematic concerns as his earlier collection but is structured by a series of monologues in the form of mock interviews with narcissistic men reflecting on their dysfunctional relationships with women. The other stories in the volume utilize monologues, a play, pop quizzes, an outline of a writer's revisions, and brief snapshots of various characters and their lives to explore questions of physical and emotional intimacy and the difficulty of personal relationships.
Wallace is recognized as a major literary talent. His many awards include the Whiting Writers' Award (1987), a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction (1990), and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1997). But many reviewers have faulted his stories for excessive and self-indulgent wordplay, derivative style, inconsistency, and sophomoric humor. For some, his characters—especially in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—are neurotic, self-absorbed, and unappealing. However, most commend his stories as imaginative, intelligent, and humorous. They praise his dense and complex style and his entertaining plots and characters. Commentators have investigated his place within contemporary American literature and often find parallels between his short fiction and that of William Gass, John Barth, and Donald Barthelme.