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...
(The entire section is 1,387 words.)