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Nontraditional Writer David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace, known for his literary pyrotechnics, became a star with the 1,079-page novel "Infinite Jest."
David Foster Wallace, known for his literary pyrotechnics, became a star with the 1,079-page novel "Infinite Jest." (By Steve Liss -- Time Life Pictures)

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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 15, 2008

David Foster Wallace, 46, a writer known for his literary pyrotechnics, postmodern playfulness and impatience with traditional narrative forms, was found dead Sept. 12 in his Claremont, Calif., home.

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A statement released by Sgt. Karian Bennett of the Claremont Police Department said that Mr. Wallace's wife, Karen Green, found that her husband had hanged himself when she returned home about 9:30 p.m. Friday. He taught creative writing and English at nearby Pomona College but was on leave this semester.

Mr. Wallace published his first novel, "The Broom of the System" (1987), and a short-story collection, "Girl With Curious Hair" (1989) when he was in his mid-20s. Both books attracted enthusiastic reviews and something of a cult following, but it was "Infinite Jest" (1996), a sprawling seriocomic novel -- 1,079 pages and footnoted -- that made him a literary star.

The setting of the novel is a tennis academy and a drug-rehabilitation retreat in a near future in which years are no longer numbered but corporate-sponsored ("Year of the Trial-Sized Dove Bar," "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment").

Among the jumble of tales in the book is the story of the three Incandenza brothers -- a tennis prodigy, a football punter and a fire-hydrant-size dwarf -- and the lingering influence of their father's suicide. Also making an appearance is a band of wheelchair-bound terrorists searching for a copy of a movie titled "Infinite Jest."

In an interview with Laura Miller for Salon magazine, Mr. Wallace said the book was an effort to describe America as it approached the millennium.

Reviewing "Infinite Jest" in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote that the novel showed off Mr. Wallace "as one of the big talents of his generation, a writer of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything, someone who can write funny, write sad, write serious, write satiric, a writer who's equally adept at the Pynchonesque epic and the Nicolson Bakeresque minute, a pushing-the-envelope postmodernist who's also able to create flesh-and-blood characters and genuinely moving scenes."

She concluded, however, that "Infinite Jest" was a "loose baggy monster," far from perfect.

Commented the novelist Madison Smartt Bell, who also directs the creative writing program at Goucher College, "I think he was a genius -- and a more tormented genius that I guess people knew."

Mr. Wallace wrote what literary critics describe as metafiction in the tradition of John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon and, more recently, William T. Vollmann. Metafictional writers are known for their verbal acrobatics, occasionally at the expense of genuine feeling.

"Everything he did was clearly brilliant, some of it was clearly charming, but some of it had an inhuman brilliance that may have cost him some readers," Bell said. "It's all electricity and not much blood."

His nonfiction work was usually more accessible -- indeed, more human -- than his novels. Long first-person pieces he wrote for Harper's, Esquire, the New Yorker and other magazines took him to such bizarre and unlikely locales as the Adult Video News Awards.

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