David Foster Wallace’s marathon send-up of humanism at the end of its tether is worth the effort – at least that is what I am hoping. Early last September, a tad too late to participate, I learned about Infinite Summer – a web site created to unite people from all over the world during a summer spent reading and sharing their thoughts about Infinite Jest. This behemoth of a novel was released in 1996 and appears on many “best of” lists, including one issued by Time Magazine critics Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo. They picked the 100 best English-Language novels from 1923 to 2005 and ran the alphabetic list in the magazine.
The title is a sly wink at the book’s massive girth—it’s 1,000-plus pages in most editions—but the reference to Hamlet is well-earned (Hamlet refers to the skull of Yorick, the court jester: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!”); moreover, it’s supposed to be a damn funny book. The action takes place in Boston at two separate but curiously similar venues—an elite tennis academy and a drug rehabilitation facility—in a near future in which calendar years are available for corporate sponsorship (the Year of the Trial Size Dove Bar, the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, and so on). The plot of Infinite Jest—which revolves around, among other things, a lost, unwatchably beautiful art film and a conspiracy among wheelchair-bound Quebecois secessionists—is decidedly secondary to the painfully funny dialogue and Wallace’s endlessly rich ruminations and speculations on addiction, entertainment, art, life and, of course, tennis.
There are, beside the challenge of the length of the novel, some stylistic challenges too. There are frequent references to endnotes throughout the novel. In an interview with Charlie Rose (on PBS), Wallace characterized their use as a method of disrupting the linearity of the text while maintaining some sense of narrative cohesion. Acronyms are another signature device in Wallace’s work and are used frequently within the novel. Wallace’s writing voice is a postmodern mixture of high- and low-brow linguistic traits. He juxtaposes, often within a single sentence, colloquialisms and polysyllabic, obscure, or esoteric words.
The shy English professor from Bloomington, Ill., achieved “instant” rock-star fame with the release of Infinite Jest. Magazines demanded interviews; he granted some, but only one interviewer, David Lipsky of Rolling Stone, got to hang out with the rock star of novelists, at his home.
It’s interesting that this interview ever happened. Wallace probably allowed it because Lipsky was even younger, only 30, and was himself a novelist, having published The Art Fair to New York City acclaim that year. The two novelists met in Bloomington in 1996, then flew, drove, ate, smoked – “brothers of the lung,” for Wallace – and talked during the latter days of the book tour in support of Infinite Jest. However, Rolling Stone ultimately scratched the profile.
Then, in 2008, Wallace, 46, committed suicide by hanging. The public appetite for anything about Wallace meant that Lipsky’s notes from that five-day trip in 1996 metamorphosed into a Rolling Stone article entitled The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace. Lipsky won a National Magazine Award for this work.
David Foster Wallace was born on February 21, 1962, in Ithaca, New York and raised mainly in central Illinois, in a small town named Philo, by an English professor mother and philosophy professor father. It was no surprise when later, at Amherst College, Wallace graduated summa cum laude in both English and Philosophy, and subsequently pursued an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona. Wallace went on to write novels and to teach, first at Illinois State University and later at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
After receiving an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona, Wallace published his first book, The Broom of the System, a comic novel that received national attention for its offbeat humor. Soon after, he moved to Boston to study philosophy at Harvard, but abandoned this pursuit, instead taking a position in the English department at Illinois State University where he continued work on his epic masterwork, Infinite Jest, which was eventually published in 1996. In 1997, David Foster Wallace received the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. He continued teaching and publishing short work in various magazines, including Esquire, GQ, Harper’s, The New Yorker and the Paris Review. In 2002, he moved to California to become the first Roy E. Disney Endowed Professor of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Pomona College. In 2004, he published his last collection of short stories, Oblivion. David Foster Wallace was well-known for his stylistic experimentation, often challenging word choices, and lengthy, demanding sentence structure. Wallace’s inventiveness often seemed to be for its own sake, but it made his work addictively fun to read, like the deciphering of a particularly challenging puzzle.
David Foster Wallace received various awards, including the Whiting Award, the Lannan Award for Fiction, the Paris Review Prize for humor, the QPB Joe Savago New Voices Award, and an O. Henry Award. He committed suicide on September 12, 2008, at the age of 46.