If you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think it’s probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we’re here for is to learn how to do it.
David Foster Wallace was born in New York in 1962. He was an author of novels, short stories and essays. He wrote about self-consciousness and human flaws, but he mostly wrote about the pursuit of happiness, something that ultimately eluded him. He took his own life in September 2008.
Wallace looked set to follow in the footsteps of his philosopher father at Amherst College, where he studied English and Philosophy with a focus on modal logic and mathematics. His professors had him earmarked as a rare talent in the making, but they didn't know where his priorities lay. Jay Garfield, an adviser on Wallace’s thesis and now a professor at Smith College, once said of him, he "didn’t realize he was one of the great fiction writers of his generation with a philosophy hobby.”
Though his senior philosophy thesis won the Gail Kennedy Memorial prize, his English thesis would eventually become his first novel, The Broom Of The System (1987). It tells the story of Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, a 24-year-old telephone switchboard operator who has issues about whether or not she's real. The influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein is prevalent in the recurring theme of psychology relating to words, and how the use of words and symbols define a person. Wallace would reveal that it was partly-autobiographical, saying that it tells “the sensitive tale of a sensitive young WASP who’s just had this midlife crisis that’s moved him from coldly cerebral analytic math to a coldly cerebral take on fiction."
In 1993 he wrote E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, an essay setting out the issues that would shape a generation of McSweeney's writers. Wallace posited that a culture once skewered by irony and ridicule had now embraced such concepts and had been brought in on the joke, rendering the artists doing the ridiculing essentially pointless. “The old postmodern insurgents [who] risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship", Wallace suggested, would be supplanted by "the next real literary ‘rebels’ [...] artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal’.”
Some critics would accuse Wallace of failing to make good on this promise in his own writing, rife as it was with irony, but the aim was to acknowledge and truly understand the culture in order to subvert it. Before E Unibus Pluram came his 1989 collection of short stories, Girl With Curious Hair, which opens on the set of US gameshow Jeopardy – precisely the sort of televisual cultural staple which absorbed the sense of cynical rebellion that once lampooned it.
In 1991 he began work on Infinite Jest (1996), a "marathon send-up of humanism at the end of its tether". Time magazine would include it in its list of the 100 best novels from 1923 to the 2005. Dave Eggers would write this in the foreword to the 2007 edition: "The themes here are big, and the emotions (guarded as they are) are very real, and the cumulative effect of the book is, you could say, seismic."
Two facets of the novel are intimately informed by Wallace's own life. One of the main settings is the Enfield Tennis Academy, which echoes Wallace's past as a junior regionally-ranked tennis player. The matriarch of the Incandenza family, which runs the ETA, has several conversations with her son Hal regarding the correct use of grammar. This bears some resemblance to Wallace's own mother Sally, a student in English Composition and a professor of English, who would fake coughing fits at dinner whenever her children uttered solecisms.
1999's Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is a collection of short stories and transcribed interviews with male subjects with repulsive characteristics. Only the answers are shown, with the questions omitted from the text.
It features a short story entitled "The Depressed Person", which is ostensibly about an unhappy young woman; but the story offered an alarming glimpse into Wallace's own struggle with depression, which had been diagnosed during his time at Amherst College: “Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, Tofranil, Wellbutrin, Elavil, Metrazol in combination with unilateral ECT (during a two-week voluntary in-patient course of treatment at a regional Mood Disorders clinic), Parnate both with and without lithium salts, Nardil both with and without Xanax. None had delivered any significant relief from the pain and feelings of emotional isolation that rendered the depressed person’s every waking hour an indescribable hell on earth.”
A film adaptation was written and directed by John Krasinski in 2009, based on the interview sections of the book. Krasinski discussed his plans for the film with Wallace, and shared his idea that the unnamed interviewer was a student speaking to these men in preparation for her thesis, and that she was personally connected in some way to one of the 'hideous men'. Wallace agreed with this vision, saying "that's what [I] was trying to do in the book." A trailer can be seen here.
Between 1990 and 2003 he would publish several collections of non-fiction work: Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race In the Urban Present, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. Perhaps his strongest collection of essays is Consider The Lobster (2005), which tackles subjects as diverse as the adult entertainment industry, John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign and September 11th 2001. The essay from which the collection takes its name discusses the ethics of boiling a live creature, and can be read here.
Prior to his passing, he had been working on his first novel since Infinite Jest, and his first fiction since 2004's short story collection, Oblivion. His productivity could only stave off the demons that plagued him for so long, however. His sister once recalled how, as a teenager, he pinned to his bedroom wall a Kafka article bearing the headline THE DISEASE IS LIFE ITSELF. "I hated seeing those words [...] they seemed to sum up his existence."
Years later, while at Amherst, he would publish a story in the college's literary magazine, where he wrote this about depressed people: "Because all these people have, you see, by this time already killed themselves, where it really counts.... When they 'commit suicide', they're just being orderly."
On September 12 2008, his wife Karen Green found him at home, hanging by his neck from a belt nailed to a rafter. He was just being orderly.
His unfinished novel is to be published posthumously in 2011 under the title The Pale King. Expected to be around 400 pages long, it will tell the story of IRS agents trying to overcome the tediousness of their jobs. Thematically it will explore life's irrelevant complexities, and reflect Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2007, where he advised the audience to be "conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience."
Wallace reads an excerpt from his 1999 short-story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, entitled Death Is Not The End.