David Foster Wallace

dfw by andrew barr

David Foster Wallace (1962 – 2008) was an American author of novels, essays, and short stories, and a professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California. He was widely known for his 1996 novel ‘Infinite Jest.’ In 1997, Wallace received a MacArthur Fellowship. He was born in Ithaca, New York. His father teaches philosophy at the University of Illinois and his mother teaches English at a community college in Champaign. In fourth grade, he moved to Urbana, Illinois. As an adolescent, he was a regionally ranked junior tennis player.

He attended his father’s alma mater, Amherst College, and majored in English and philosophy, with a focus on modal logic and mathematics. His philosophy senior thesis on modal logic, titled ‘Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality’ was awarded the Gail Kennedy Memorial Prize by Amherst. His other senior thesis, in English, would later become his first novel, ‘The Broom of the System,’ which centers on an emotionally challenged, 24-year-old telephone switchboard operator who has issues about whether or not she’s real.

Wallace committed suicide by hanging himself in September of 2008. In an interview with The New York Times, Wallace’s father reported that Wallace had suffered from depression for more than 20 years and that antidepressant medication had allowed him to be productive. When he experienced severe side effects from the medication, Wallace attempted to wean himself from his primary antidepressant, phenelzine. On his doctor’s advice, Wallace stopped taking the medication in June 2007, and the depression returned. Wallace received other treatments, including electroconvulsive therapy. When he returned to phenelzine, he found it had lost its effectiveness. In the months before his death, his depression became severe.

Wallace’s fiction is often concerned with irony. His essay ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction’ proposes that television has an ironic influence on fiction writing, and urges literary authors to eschew TV’s shallow rebelliousness: ‘I want to convince you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture (of which cutting-edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat. I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fictionists they pose terrifically vexing problems.’ Wallace used many forms of irony, but focused on individuals’ continued longing for earnest, unself-conscious experience and communication in a media-saturated society.

Wallace’s novels often combine various writing modes or voices, and incorporate jargon and vocabulary (sometimes invented) from a wide variety of fields. His writing featured self-generated abbreviations and acronyms, long multi-clause sentences, and a notable use of explanatory footnotes and endnotes—often nearly as expansive as the text proper. He used endnotes extensively in ‘Infinite Jest’ and footnotes in ‘Octet’ as well as in the great majority of his nonfiction after 1996. On the Charlie Rose show in 1997, Wallace claimed that the notes were used to disrupt the linearity of the narrative, to reflect his perception of reality without jumbling the entire structure. He suggested that he could have instead jumbled up the sentences, ‘but then no one would read it.’

According to Wallace, ‘fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,’ and he expressed a desire to write ‘morally passionate, passionately moral fiction’ that could help readers ‘become less alone inside.’ In his Kenyon College commencement address, he describes the human condition of daily crises and chronic disillusionment and warns against solipsism, invoking compassion, mindfulness, and existentialism:

‘The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day…. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t…. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.’

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