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Who Was David Foster Wallace?

Updated on September 13, 2011

A Short Biography

David Foster Wallace was born on February 21, 1962 into an America that had not yet been victimized by President Kennedy's assassination. Although born in the hippie stronghold of Ithaca, NY, the Wallace family moved to Champagne, Illinois when David was just a few years old. He became a prodigious junior tennis player and also possessed an incredible mind for memorizing obscure facts and understanding complex math and logic.

Wallace first gained notice from the literary world with his first novel, The Broom of the System, published in 1987. Soon after Wallace would attempt to attain a masters degree from Harvard in Philosophy, but soon abandoned that plan and began teaching literature and Emerson College as an adjunct.

Wallace's magnum opus was completed in 1993 and published in 1996 under the title Infinite Jest . It's this novel that Wallace will be remembered for, and it has taken its place along with Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow , Toni Morrison's Beloved , Don DeLillo's Underworld , Philip Roth's American Pastoral , and a select few other novels as the so-called "canon" of modern American literature.

Wallace also published many short stories and articles for magazines including Playboy, Rolling Stone, GQ, Esquire, McSweeney's, The New Yorker and The Paris Review. His piece about Roger Federer for the New York Times, titled "Federer as Religious Experience" (see link below), is still considered one of the finest pieces of modern sports writing.

After suffering from depression for nearly 20 years, David Foster Wallace hanged himself on September 12, 2008.

Buy Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest is a novel about addiction. Addiction to drugs, addiction to athletics, addiction to entertainment. It takes place in the near future (although with the passage of time, that near future has now become just an alternative version of the present) when Mexico, the United States, and Canada have all joined as one organization. Parts of Ontario are used as a wasteland, and a growing group of Canadian separatists in wheelchairs are attempting to undermine the unification of North America. Enter into this chaotic situation the Incandenza family.

The Incandenzas run a prep school in Massachusetts for talented young tennis players. The patriarch of the family, James Orin Incandenza (referred to by family members as "Himself") has a strong interest in both tennis and avant garde film. Among the many films he directs is Infinite Jest IV,  also referred to simply as the Entertainment. This art film causes an uncontrollable addiction for anyone that even glances at it. For this reason, the Canadian separatist movement views it as a potential weapon. Rumors of another Incandenza film that is an anecdote to addiction to the Entertainment abound throughout the novel.

Aside from the addictive film and the stories about the various characters in the Incandenza family, their is also another sub-plot involving the residents of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House. These residents are all recovering addicts, and many of them work as the grounds crew at the adjoining Enfield Tennis Academy run by the Incandenzas. Wallace goes into great detail about the rehab process, including the ups and downs of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Infinite Jest can be a challenging novel because of the many different established characters and the non-linear plot that takes place over the course of a decade. The years in this alternative reality are no longer marked by numbers, but rather by sponsorships. Many of the events happen during the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. These sponsorships were necessary because a change in the way entertainment was disseminated (from standard TV with commercials to a cartridge viewer system with none) took away advertising opportunities.

Despite (or perhaps because of) its oddities and challenges, Infinite Jest is one of the most rewarding novels of modern times.  

This is Water - David Foster Wallace's Commencement Speech to Kenyon College, 2005

David Foster Wallace was invited to speak at Kenyon College's commencement ceremony in 2005. He gave a moving speech entitled "This is Water". The entirety of the speech has since been published in book form, but an excerpt can be found at the bottom of this page.

David Foster Wallace Quotes

"This is so American, man: either make something your God and cosmos and then worship it, or else kill it."

"What TV is extremely good at - and realize that this is "all it does" - is discerning what large numbers of people think they want, and supplying it."

"There are no choices without personal freedom, Buckeroo. It's not us who are dead inside. These things you find so weak and contemptible in us - these are just the hazards of being free."


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      Richard toran 6 years ago

      In listings "David Foster Wallace quotes, there is one NOT listed, from infinitenjest, which I think is insightful, very correct' short, and connotes the purity of science compared to psychology.

      The quote is:

      "the evolution of marriage is the product of concurrence and compromise"

      Evolution connotes science

      Product connotes the multiplication of math

      Marriage is all about psyches