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A Fellow of Infinite Jest

Published: 8/11/2011

Originally published on Obit-Mag.com.



David Foster Wallace (Flickr Creative Commons/claudia sherman)The novelist and humorist, David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest, committed suicide on August 12, 2008. He was 46.

Wallace, who had been teaching at Pomona College in southern California since 2002, was a writer of profound talent, whose experimental prose spiraled around itself in dizzying, self-referential undulations. His 1996 novel Infinite Jest, a 1,079-page tome, was littered with footnotes that explored wild tangents while conveying a fractured narrative about a near-future, schizophrenic North America. Regarded as one of the most inventive novels of the twentieth century, Infinite Jest is as daunting is as it's playful.

According to Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin, Wallace was “one of the main writers who brought ambition, a sense of play, a joy in storytelling and an exuberant experimentalism of form back to the novel in the late '80s and early 1990s. And he really restored the notion of the novel as a kind of canvas on which a writer can do anything."

Decried by some as an author merely flexing his muscles in a solipsistic jumble of ideas and prose, the publication of Infinite Jest was a literary event, a challenging book from a fiercely intelligent young writer. It demonstrated, according to New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, that Wallace,

“can do practically anything if he puts his mind to it. He can do sad, funny, silly, heartbreaking and absurd with equal ease; he can even do them all at once. He can do the Nicholson Baker miniature and the Pynchonian epic with similar panache, and he can do old-fashioned realism and newfangled postmodernism with one hand tied behind his back.”

Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System was published in 1987 to equal, if more guarded, critical acclaim. Wallace was fresh out of the University of Arizona, where he earned an M.F.A in creative writing. After abandoning more graduate study in philosophy at Harvard, Wallace set about writing Infinite Jest in 1991.

Along the way, he wrote essays, humor and criticism that trained a focused, if irreverent, eye on politics, tennis, film theory, vacationing and other disparate subjects. He was featured in Harper’s magazine, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and other publications. Many of these essays were published together in a few volumes like Consider the Lobster, the title essay of which explores vacationing as an abhorrent but oddly necessary human activity. Another prominent essay for Rolling Stone explored John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. His most recent essay of note examined the majesty of the tennis champion Roger Federer’s game through a maddening, detailed exegesis of one point during the 2006 Wimbledon final.

But Infinite Jest will be the work that defines his career as a writer and literary force who, along with a band of other determined, young novelists like Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Letham and Michael Chabon, re-invigorated the late 20th century novel. In a 2006 interview with Salon.com, Wallace spoke of his artistic intent in Infinite Jest,

“There's something particularly sad about [Infinite Jest], something that doesn't have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It's more like a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. Whether it's unique to our generation I really don't know.”



David Foster Wallace, 1997 (Steve Liss/TIME & LIFE Images)

David Foster Wallace, 1997 (Steve Liss/TIME & LIFE Images)



The generation of young literary types who were inspired, moved, and entertained by Wallace’s work certainly felt that stomach-level sadness this weekend as news of his death spread. Wallace was the type of mind that should have been pumped until its last drop.

The title for Infinite Jest comes from the scene in Hamlet, when Hamlet lifts the skull of the court jester, Yorick. Hamlet says, “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well.” Horatio responds, “A fellow of infinite jest.”

Alas, we did not know Wallace well enough.



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