Wallace, David Foster 1962-
WALLACE, David Foster 1962-
PERSONAL: Born February 21, 1962, in Ithaca, NY; son of James Donald (a teacher) and Sally (a teacher; maiden name, Foster) Wallace. Education: Amherst College, A.B. (summa cum laude), 1985; University of Arizona, M.F.A., 1987; graduate study at Harvard University. Politics: "Independent." Hobbies and other interests: Tennis.
ADDRESSES: Office—Department of English, Pomona College, 333 North College Way, Claremont, CA 91711. Agent—Frederick Hill Associates, 1842 Union St., San Francisco, CA 94123.
CAREER: Writer. Illinois State University, Bloomington-Normal, associate professor of English, 1993-2002; Pomona College, Claremont, CA, Roy Edward Disney Professor in Creative Writing, 2002—. Judge of 1997 O. Henry Awards, 1997.
AWARDS, HONORS: Whiting Writers' Award, Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, 1987; Yaddo residency fellowship, 1987, 1989; John Traine Humor Prize, Paris Review, 1988, for "Little Expressionless Animals;" National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1989; Illinois Arts Council Award for Nonfiction, 1989, for "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young;" Quality Paperback Book Club's New Voices Award in Fiction, 1991, for Girl with Curious Hair; Pulitzer Prize nomination in nonfiction, 1991, for Signifying Rappers; National Magazine Award finalist, 1995, for "Ticket to the Fair," and 1997, for "David Lynch Keeps His Head;" Lannan Foundation Award for Literature, 1996, 2000; MacArthur Foundation fellowship, 1997-2002; named Outstanding University Researcher, Illinois State University, 1998, 1999.
The Broom of the System, Viking (New York, NY), 1987.
Girl with Curious Hair (short stories and novellas; includes "Little Expressionless Animals," "My Appearance," "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," "Lyndon," "John Billy," and "Everything Is Green"), Penguin (New York, NY), 1988.
(With Mark Costello) Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present (nonfiction), Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1990.
Infinite Jest, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1996.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1997.
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1999.
Up Simba! (e-book), i.Publish.com, 2000.
Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, Atlas Book (New York, NY), 2003.
Oblivion, Little, Brown (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor of short fiction and nonfiction to numerous periodicals, including Contemporary Fiction, Harper's, and New Yorker. Short fiction included in anthologies, including Best American Sportswriting 1997, Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Contributing editor, Harper's, 1995.
SIDELIGHTS: Hailed as the "Generation-X"'s answer to John Barth, John Irving, Thomas Pynchon, and Don Delillo, American writer David Foster Wallace is an author whose talent leaves critics groping for the proper artistic comparison. Filmmaker David Lynch, and even comic David Letterman have all been invoked as readers tackle the sardonic humor and complicated style that have led Wallace to be cited as the late twentieth-century's first avant-garde literary hero. Wallace, according to Frank Bruni in his New York Times Magazine profile, "is to literature what Robin Williams or perhaps Jim Carrey is to live comedy: a creator so maniacally energetic and amused with himself that he often follows his riffs out into the stratosphere, where he orbits all alone."
In his debut novel, The Broom of the System, Wallace uses a variety of writing techniques and points of view to create a bizarre, stylized world which, despite its strangeness, resonates with contemporary American images. Set in Cleveland on the edge of the state-constructed Great Ohio Desert—also known as G.O.D.—the novel follows Lenore Beadsman's search for her ninety-two-year-old great-grandmother, also named Lenore Beadsman, who has disappeared from her nursing home. In attempting to find her childhood mentor, the younger Lenore encounters a bewildering assemblage of characters with names such as Rick Vigorous, Biff Diggerence, Candy Mandible, and Sigurd Foamwhistle. It is significant that the elder Lenore was a student of language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, since The Broom of the System has been viewed as an elaborate exploration of the relationship between language and reality. Wallace orchestrates Lenore's coming of age through the use of innovative plotting and language. The character's search for her great-grandmother then becomes the search for her own identity.
Critics have praised the skill and creativity evident in Wallace's experimental bildungsroman. Rudy Rucker, writing in Washington Post Book World, judged The Broom of the System to be a "wonderful book" and compared Wallace in particular to novelist Thomas Pynchon. Despite finding the novel to be "unwieldy" and "uneven" in parts, New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani commended Wallace's "rich reserves of ambition and imagination" and was impressed by his "wealth of talents." New York Times Book Review critic Caryn James liked the novel's "exuberance" and maintained that The Broom of the System "succeeds as a manic, human, flawed extravaganza."
In Wallace's second work, a collection of short stories titled Girl with Curious Hair, the author employs a mix of facts, fiction, and his own distinctive use of language to make observations about American culture. "Little Expressionless Animals," one of several stories that deals with American television, reveals a plan by the producers of the game show Jeopardy! to oust a long-time champion because of their sensitivity to her continuing lesbian love affair. The difference between appearance and reality is the subject of "My Appearance," the story of an actress's tranquilizerinduced nervous ramblings while she is waiting to do a guest appearance on the David Letterman show. In the title story, "Girl with Curious Hair," a young, Ivy League-trained corporate lawyer reveals the roots of his sadistic sexual impulses when he reflects on a Keith Jarrett concert he once attended with a group of violent punk rockers.
To reviewers, Wallace's imagination and energy are enticing. Wallace "proves himself a dynamic writer of extraordinary talent," asserted Jenifer Levin in NewYork Times Book Review, commenting that the writer "succeeds in restoring grandeur to modern fiction." Writing in Chicago's Tribune Books, Douglas Seibold commended Wallace's "irrepressible narrative energy and invention" claiming that, "as good a writer as he is now, he is getting better."
The buildup given to Wallace through his first books served as an appetizer to the hype that surrounded his 1996 novel, Infinite Jest—a work that, in the words of Chicago Tribune writer Bruce Allen, might well "confirm the hopes of those who called Wallace a genius and, to a lesser extent, the fears of those who think he's just an overeducated wiseacre with a lively prose style." The book is massive—over 1,000 pages—and the publicity upon its release was no less so. On the heels of wide-scale publicity, Infinite Jest became de rigueur as a book that literary fans bought and displayed, but would not—or could not—spend much time reading, according to reviewers. Some of the reason lies in the volume's heft and some in Wallace's dense prose style, peppered for the occasion with numerous pharmacological references that are partly responsible for the novel's 900 footnotes.
Infinite Jest is set in the not-too-distant future, in a date unspecified except as "the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment," corporate sponsors having taken over the calendar. The United States is now part of the Organization of North American Nations—read ONAN—and has sold off New England to Canada to be used as a toxic waste dump. Legless Quebeçoise separatists have taken to terrorism in protest; what is more, President Limbaugh has just been assassinated. The book's title refers to a lethal movie—a film so entertaining that those who see it may be doomed to die of pleasure.
Into this fray steps the Incandenza brothers: tennis ace Hal, football punter Orin, and the less-gifted Mario. The boys have endured a tough childhood—their father "having committed suicide by hacking open a hole in a microwave door, sealing it around his head with duct tape and making like a bag of Orville Redenbacher," as Nation reviewer Rick Perlstein noted. The brother's adventures in this bizarre society fuel the novel's thick and overlapping storylines. Readers looking for a traditional linear ending, however, are in for a surprise: Those who manage to "stay with the novel until the pages thin will come to realize that Wallace has no intention of revealing whether les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents succeed or fail in their quest," Perlstein continued. "Nor whether . . . Orin will master his awful desires . . . or whether Hal Incandenza will sacrifice himself to the Oedipal grail. Readers will turn the last page, in other words, without learning anything they need to know to secure narrative succor."
For the most part, critical reaction to Infinite Jest mixed admiration with consternation. "There is generous intelligence and authentic passion on every page, even the overwritten ones in which the author seems to have had a fit of graphomania," noted Time's R. Z. Sheppard. Paul West, writing in Washington Post Book World, came prepared for Pynchon but came away with the opinion that "there is nothing epic or infinite about [the novel], although much that's repetitious or long." As West saw it, "the slow incessant advance of Wallace's prose is winningly physical, solid and even, more personable actually than the crowd of goons, ditzes, inverts, junkies, fatheads and doodlers he populates his novel with."
Indeed, noted Kakutani, "the whole novel often seems like an excuse for [Wallace] to simply show off his remarkable skills as a writer and empty the contents of his restless mind." Kakutani's New York Times review went on to laud "some frighteningly vivid accounts of what it feels like to be a drug addict, what it feels like to detox and what it feels like to suffer a panic attack." In the crowd of ideas and characters, the critic concluded, "Somewhere in the mess, . . . are the outlines of a splendid novel, but as it stands the book feels like one of those unfinished Michelangelo sculptures: you can see a godly creature trying to fight its way out, but it's stuck there, half excavated, unable to break completely free."
Kakutani had more encouraging words for Wallace's 1997 release, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments. This nonfiction collection "is animated by [the author's] wonderfully exuberant prose, a zingy, elastic gift for metaphor and imaginative sleight of hand, combined with a taste for amphetaminelike stream-of-consciousness riffs." Supposedly Fun Thing covers Wallace's observations on cultural themes, such as the influence television has on new fiction. It also contains recollections of the author's childhood in the Midwest, thoughts on tennis—Wallace was a highly ranked player in his youth—and even a tour of the Illinois State Fair. While finding some aspects of the collection flawed, Kakutani ultimately praised A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again as a work that "not only reconfirms Mr. Wallace's stature as one of his generation's preeminent talents, but it also attests to his virtuosity, an aptitude for the essay, profile and travelogue, equal to the gifts he has already begun to demonstrate in the realm of fiction."
Inspired by the author's interest in mathematic systems, Wallace's 2003 work, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, focuses on nineteenth-century German mathematician Georg F. L. P. Cantor, a man who pioneered set theory in between stays at mental hospitals. Dubbing his work a "piece of pop technical writing," Wallace explores the theoretical history of the concept of infinity, from its roots in ancient paradoxes through its interpretation by scientists such as Galileo, as well as Plato and hosts of other philosophers, to today's theoretical mathematics. While New Yorker contributor Jim Holt noted that, with its author's limited mathematical understanding but contagious enthusiasm for his subject, Everything and More "is sometimes as dense as a math textbook, though rather more chaotic," is effective as a "purely literary experience." In Library Journal, Christopher Tinney praised the book as "classic DFW: engaging, self-conscious, playful, and often breathless," while John Green cited Everything and More as "a brilliant antidote both to boring math textbooks and to pop-culture math books that emphasize the discoverer over the discovery." Noting Wallace's characteristic "discursive style," a Publishers Weekly contributor praised the volume "as weird and wonderful as you'd expect," adding that, "had he not pursued a career in literary fiction, it's not difficult to imagine Wallace as a historian of science, producing quirky and challenging volumes . . . every few years." Praising Everything and More as "inspiring," Troy Patterson added in Entertainment Weekly that Wallace's "straightforward engagement with ultimate abstractions and unambiguous truths offers a heady pleasure distinct from that of fiction."
Wallace's first short-story collection in five years, Oblivion, "fashions complex tales rife with shrewd metaphysical inquiries, eviscerating social critiques, and twisted humor," according to Donna Seaman in Booklist. Charles Matthes for the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service shared a similar sentiment, but also felt the stories were "soulless" and maintained that the "verbal tics and tricks soon grow tedious." However, Joel Stein from Time described the eight tales contained in the book as "breathtakingly smart."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Boswell, Marshall, Understanding David Foster Wallace, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 2003.
Burn, Stephen, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: A Reader's Guide, Continuum (New York, NY), 2003.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 50, 1988, Volume 114, 1999.
American Scholar, winter, 2004, Allen Paulos, review of Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, p. 147.
Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, June 27, 2004, Brad Quinn, review of Oblivion.
Booklist, October 15, 2003, John Green, review of Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, p. 366; May 15, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of Oblivion, p. 1600.
Boston Globe, October 26, 2003, Caleb Crain, interview with Wallace.
Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1996, Bruce Allen, review of Infinite Jest.
Comparative Literature Studies, summer, 2001, Timothy Jacobs, "American Touchstone," p. 215.
Critique, fall, 2001, p. 3.
Entertainment Weekly, October 10, 2003, Troy Patterson, review of Everything and More, p. 127; June 18, 2004, review of Oblivion, p. 89.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2004, review of Oblivion, p. 422.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, June 16, 2004, Charles Matthews, review of Oblivion, p. K3330.
Library Journal, November 1, 2003, Christopher Tinney, review of Everything and More, p. 120.
Los Angeles Times, February 11, 1996; March 18, 1996.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 1, 1987.
Nation, March 4, 1996, Rick Perlstein, review of Infinite Jest.
New Yorker, November 3, 2003, Jim Holt, review of Everything and More, p. 84.
New York Review of Books, February 10, 2000.
New York Times, December 27, 1986; February 13, 1996; February 4, 1997.
New York Times Book Review, March 1, 1987; November 5, 1989; March 3, 1996.
New York Times Magazine, March 24, 1996, Frank Bruni, "The Grunge American Novel," p. 38.
Publishers Weekly, October 13, 2003, review of Everything and More, p. 71.
Science News, December 6, 2003, review of Everything and More, p. 367.
Time, February 19, 1996; October 30, 2000, p. 94; June 7, 2004, Joel Stein, review of Oblivion, p. 123.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), January 21, 1990, Douglas Seibold, review of Girl with Curious Hair.
Washington Post Book World, January 11, 1987; August 6, 1989; March 24, 1996.
Wilson Quarterly, winter, 2004, Charles Seife, review of Everything and More, p. 124.
Wired, October, 2003, Bruce Schecter, review of Everything and More, p. 76.
David Foster Wallace Unoffical Web site,http://www.davidfosterwallace.com (November 19, 2003).
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (April 24, 2004), interview with Wallace.*