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David Foster Wallace Biography

Nationality: American. Born: Ithaca, New York, 1962. Education: Amherst College, A.B. 1985; University of Arizona, M.F.A. 1987. Career: Associate professor of English, 1993—. Awards: Whiting Writers' Award (Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation), 1987; John Traine Humor Prize (Paris Review), 1988; Illinois Arts Council Award for Non-Fiction, 1989; Quality Paperback Book Club's New Voices Award in Fiction, 1991; Lannan Foundation Award for Literature, 1996. Agent: Frederick Hill Associates, 1842 Union Street, San Francisco, California 94123, U.S.A.



The Broom of the System. New York, Viking, 1987.

Infinite Jest. Boston, Little, Brown, 1996.

Short Stories

Girl with Curious Hair. New York, Penguin, 1988.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Boston, Little, Brown, 1999.


Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present (with MarkCostello). New York, Ecco Press, 1990.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments. Boston, Little, Brown, 1997.

Contributor, Innovations: An Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Fiction, edited by Robert L. McLaughlin. Normal, Illinois, Dalkey Archive Press, 1998.

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David Foster Wallace has arguably become America's most well known younger—that is, under forty—writer, due largely to his mammoth novel, Infinite Jest. Though Wallace had already published a novel, The Broom of the System, and a collection of short stories, Girl with Curious Hair, before Infinite Jest appeared, it was with this last work that Wallace began to be favorably compared with such luminaries as Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis. Like that of these two predecessors, Wallace's work is ambitious and sprawling, by turns epicomical and philosophical.

Wallace's meganovel—extending over one thousand pages, with over one hundred pages of endnotes—is, like so much fiction of the postwar era, an amalgam of highbrow and lowbrow, literature and pop culture. Set in the vaguely near future in which time itself is identified by corporate sponsors (the "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment"), Infinite Jest revolves, mobius-strip-like, around two institutional settings, the elite Enfield Tennis Academy and the Ennett House Drug and Alcohol Recovery facility. While apparently situated at opposite ends of the social strata, the two settings mirror each other and what Wallace diagnoses as our peculiar modern malaise. As Wallace begins to probe the lives of the tennis prodigies at Enfield, who are there to prepare for the professional circuit or "The Show," and the histories of Ennett's addicts, he slowly reveals the inescapability of cultural conditioning. Whether it is the dysfunctional families of affluence who train their children in the spiritually deadening mores of privilege or the media complex that trains consumers in the likewise deadening "pleasure" of entertainment, all are trapped in the circularity of escapism and the contemporary obsession "with watching and being watched."

Like Pynchon's most expansive work, Infinite Jest makes no attempt to refuse the language and tone of techno-scientific discourse, especially as it is incorporated into vernacular language. Wallace seems to eschew the lyrical at all costs and instead finds eloquence, such as it is, in the flat euphemism and advertising-speak that so characterize American English at the millennium. Indeed, some critics describe Wallace, like William T. Vollmann and Richard Powers, as a distinctly information-age writer, one who has interiorized the decenteredness of the database and the pacing of hyperlinking to such a degree that his fiction feels more like information generation than literary fiction, with no discernible main character but instead an architecture of characters attached by tangential associations and prolonged riffs of uncertain meaning. Wallace himself refers to this stylization as "radical realism," because it is not intended as a postmodern experiment with the novel but as a mimetic reflection of American morality circa 2000.

Nevertheless, Wallace's plot structures in particular share a great deal with the novels we have come to regard as high postmodernism, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, for instance. His almost inscrutable web of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies are virtually second-nature to postmodern readers, and his philosophical concerns about the fragmented self, the impossibility of communication, and the omnivorousness of capitalism are all well-worn themes explored extensively by postmodern philosophers such as Frederic Jameson.

Wallace followed Infinite Jest with A Supposedly Funny Thing I'll Never Do Again, an anthology of essays and travel pieces, and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, a collection of short stories.

—Michele S. Shauf

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