The dark side of David Foster Wallace

The author who was once hailed as 'the voice of Generation X' has hanged himself at the age of 46. Guy Adams reports from Los Angeles

Tuesday 16 September 2008 00:00 BST

For a writer who elevated irony to an art form, and whose infinite jesting co-existed with an all-too-apparent dark side, it felt grimly appropriate that David Foster Wallace should have chosen suicide as the means by which to end his own life story. The author, whose expansive novels, essays and short stories betrayed a mercurial talent and wicked sense of humour, might – in a different existence – have become one of the most influential literary voices of this, or any other generation.

But Wallace flattered to deceive. In a personal struggle worthy of one of the tortured characters in a novel by Don DeLillo, to whom he was often considered heir apparent, his adult life was constantly overshadowed by depression. For all his natural ability, and occasional brilliance, Wallace never lived-up to the fullness of his talent, or the haunting reach of his possibilities. After producing just two novels in a 21-year career, he was found dead at home in Claremont, a university town in eastern Los Angeles, on Friday night.

A police spokesman said that his wife, Karen Green, had returned home to find that Mr Wallace had apparently hanged himself. The novelist's father, James Donald Wallace, said he had been heavily depressed for a number of months and "just couldn't stand it any more". He was 46.

Yesterday, the world of books was mourning a writer once billed as the literary voice of Generation X. "He was a huge talent, our strongest rhetorical writer," said Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, the bestselling novel heavily influenced by Wallace's oeuvre. "He was also as sweet a person as I've ever known and as tormented a person as I've ever known."

A M Homes, the award-winning author of The End of Alice, and one of Wallace's closest friends in literary circles said: "I am so sad and stunned. It reminds us all of how fragile we are, and how close at hand the darkness is. He was a wonderful writer, a generous friend, and a singular talent."

To his many cult fans, Wallace was an author of unstoppable curiosity, imagination and ambition. His best work straddled the divide between ambitious literature and commercial fiction, and succeeded in chronicling, in darkly ironic terms, the complex direction of America at the end of the 20th century.

Wallace's subjects ranged from tennis (he was a former child prodigy) and politics, to mathematics and cruise ships. In addition to his novels and short stories, he was an award-winning journalist, publishing dozens of essays and working for a selection of America's influential titles, including Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and Esquire.

Earlier this summer, Wallace made headlines when he re-released an extraordinarily prescient profile of John McCain, which had been compiled in 2000, when he spent a week trailing the Republican Presidential candidate during his previous effort to get elected to the White House.

Fans credit the piece, "McCain's Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express With John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope", with bringing McCain's experiences as a prisoner of war to a wider public audience. It certainly helped cement the politician's standing as a Vietnam war hero.

The lengthy article also blended hagiography with veiled criticism, particularly in its irony-laden portrayal of the candidate's wife, who seems to have barely changed eight years on. "Mrs Cindy McCain is up there too, brittly composed and smiling at the air in front of her and thinking about God knows what," reads one typical passage.

However, Wallace's greatest contribution to the literary canon was his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, which was set in the near future (at a time called "the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment"). Its title refers to a short film being sought by terrorists who are convinced that anyone who watches it will be debilitated, or even killed, by enjoyment.

The book's principal characters are a stressed-out tennis prodigy and a former drug addict, and it was widely praised for presenting US society as hedonistic, self-obsessed, and devoted to celebrity – long before it was fashionable to do so.

Despite its cult following, Infinite Jest is not for the faint-hearted. It runs to 1,079 pages, and has more than 100 pages of footnotes, a trademark of Wallace's work. He wrote in lengthy sentences, with exotic punctuation, in a manner that appealed to a devotedly highbrow audience. The New York Times summed up his style yesterday when it billed Wallace as the writer "whose prodigiously observant, exuberantly plotted, grammatically and etymologically challenging, philosophically probing and culturally hyper-contemporary novels, stories and essays made him an heir to modern virtuosos like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo".

Wallace first achieved fame in 1987, with the debut novel, The Broom of the System, written while he studied creative writing at the University of Arizona. It was followed the following year by a collection of short stories, Girl with Curious Hair, which cemented his reputation as one of the most talented young writers of his age. A lifelong academic, who grew up in Illinois, where his parents worked at local universities, he worked in the English department at Illinois State University through much of the 1990s, before moving to Claremont in 2002, to become professor of English at Pomona University.

Wallace endured several stays in psychiatric hospitals from the late 1980s onwards. He once announced that his generation was full of people like himself: "Successful, obscenely well-educated, and sort of adrift." His emotional difficulties help explain, at least in part, his lack of productivity: Infinite Jest and The Broom of the System were the only novels he ever got around to publishing, though in recent years, he had managed two collections of short stories: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999) and Oblivion (2004).

Perhaps the most enduring measure of Wallace's legacy is the fact that, following his death, almost all of his books are now out of stock. In addition to Infinite Jest, for which there is now a three-week waiting list, Amazon said that Consider the Lobster, his 2005 collection of journalism, was now in its top 40 books.

Although the scale and complexity of his work is considered by many to make it unfilmable, a film of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, starring Julianne Nicholson and directed by John Krasinski is due out this year.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in