Monday, September 15, 2008

David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

American literature lost one of its most prodigious talents when David Foster Wallace was found dead in his home last week, an apparent suicide. Wallace had suffered from depression for years, and, according to his father, his condition had gotten significantly worse over the last several months and no form of medication or therapy seemed to have a mitigating effect. David Foster Wallace was 46 years old.

Wallace's abilities were evident from the start. His first novel, The Broom of the System (1987), brought him national attention and critical praise. A collection of short stories and a book of non-fiction followed. Then came Infinite Jest (1996), a sprawling, audacious, postmodern riot of a novel which ran to more than 1000 pages, including more than 100 pages of footnotes. It centered on a film which had an hypnotic, addictive effect on anyone who watched it and the battle for control of the film by a wide range of (mostly unsavory) characters. Time Magazine later named it one of the 100 best English-language novels, and a year after its publication Wallace was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant.

In the years that followed Wallace wrote nonfiction essays and articles on an almost impossibly wide range of subjects: cruise ships, tennis, lobsters, pornography, David Lynch and the 9/11 attacks, among many other things. His last book-length work was about John McCain, whom Wallace covered for a time during McCain's 2000 presidential campaign.

In November, 2007, Wallace was among a number of writers invited by The Atlantic to write an essay on "the future of the American idea." Wallace audaciously suggested a "thought experiment" in which it was assumed that "a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism" is part of the American idea. He went on to suggest that "a democratic republic cannot 100% protect itself [from terrorism] without subverting the very principles that made it worth protecting." "Have we become so selfish and scared," he asked, "that we don't even want to consider whether some things trump safety?"

An appreciation of Wallace's work by Michiko Kakutani, the chief book critic of the New York Times, can be found here.

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