Nontraditional Writer David Foster Wallace

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.

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.

"It is difficult to describe how it feels to gaze at living human beings whom you've seen perform in hard-core porn . . . ." he wrote in a story collected in "Consider the Lobster and Other Essays" (2005). "That strange I-think-we've-met-before sensation one feels upon seeing any celebrity in the flesh is here both intensified and twisted."

His best-known nonfiction work, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments" (1997), is a collection of seven pieces ranging from tennis -- Mr. Wallace was a ranked junior tennis player growing up in Illinois -- to television to the fun he was supposed to have on a Caribbean luxury cruise.

The collection also includes a long article, originally written for Harper's, recounting his visit to the Illinois State Fair, where his eye for the bizarre fastened on the carnival workers. "The carnies mix with no one . . . ." he wrote. "They all have the same hard blank eyes as people in bus terminal bathrooms."

In 2000, Rolling Stone assigned him to cover the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz). The candidate, he observed, was potentially "a real leader . . . somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own. "

Mr. Wallace was born in Ithaca, N.Y. His father, James Donald Wallace, was a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and his mother, Sally Foster Wallace, taught English at a community college in Champaign. Both survive him.

He majored in philosophy at Amherst College, planning to teach philosophy or mathematics. He told the New York Times that during his sophomore year, a professor told him he was a genius. "It was the happiest moment in my life," he said. "I felt like I would never have to go to the bathroom again -- that I'd transcended it."

After he received his undergraduate degree in 1985, he turned his full attention to fiction writing, enrolling in the creative writing program at the University of Arizona. He received his master of fine arts degree there in 1987.

Mr. Wallace taught English at Illinois State University from 1992 to 2000 and in 1997 received a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation.

In 2002, he was named the first Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing at Pomona College, a liberal arts college east of Los Angeles. He usually taught one or two writing classes a semester and had developed a reputation on campus as a personable, engaging teacher.

"David was, of course, a great figure in American letters," Gary Kates, vice president and dean of the college, said in a statement. "We knew when we hired him what an accomplished writer he was, but what we had no right to expect was what a brilliant teacher he would turn out to be -- how dedicated he would be to his students and what a wonderful mentor he would be for them."

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