You’ve probably heard of David Foster Wallace’s celebrated, bestselling tome of a novel, Infinite Jest. The international acclaim and fame that followed spooked the shy, somewhat reclusive author, who continued to write and teach, but never seemed quite comfortable in the role of literary superstar.
Wallace’s struggles with addiction and depression led to suicide attempts and stays in mental health in-patient facilities, and he’s known to have had inappropriate relationships with his female students, sometimes including obsessive, stalking behavior. In September of 2008, Wallace committed suicide.
Wallace’s work lives on however, and continues to draw new fans. Many literary scholars and readers feel he was a tortured genius who was ahead of his time. Others conclude he was simply a man with middling skill as an author, whose mental illness eclipsed any chance he may have had at true brilliance.
In David Lipsky’s view, David Foster Wallace was the best young writer in America. Wallace’s pieces for Harper’s magazine in the ’90s were, according to Lipsky, “like hearing for the first time the brain voice of everybody I knew: Here was how we all talked, experienced, thought. It was like smelling the damp in the air, seeing the first flash from a storm a mile away. You knew something gigantic was coming.”
Then Rolling Stone sent Lipsky to join Wallace on the last leg of his book tour for Infinite Jest, the novel that made him internationally famous…Amid these everyday events, Wallace tells Lipsky remarkable things—–everything he can about his life, how he feels, what he thinks, what terrifies and fascinates and confounds him–—in the writing voice Lipsky had come to love. Lipsky took notes, stopped envying him, and came to feel about him—–that grateful, awake feeling–—the same way he felt about Infinite Jest.
Told in his own words, here is Wallace’s own story, and his astonishing, humane, alert way of looking at the world; here are stories of being a young writer—–of being young generally–—trying to knit together your ideas of who you should be and who other people expect you to be, and of being young in March of 1996. And of what it was like to be with and—as he tells it—what it was like to become David Foster Wallace.
And then there’s the novel that started it all, Infinite Jest. From Amazon:
A gargantuan, mind-altering comedy about the Pursuit of Happiness in America set in an addicts’ halfway house and a tennis academy, and featuring the most endearingly screwed-up family to come along in recent fiction, Infinite Jest explores essential questions about what entertainment is and why it has come to so dominate our lives; about how our desire for entertainment affects our need to connect with other people; and about what the pleasures we choose say about who we are.
Equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy, Infinite Jest bends every rule of fiction without sacrificing for a moment its own entertainment value. It is an exuberant, uniquely American exploration of the passions that make us human – and one of those rare books that renew the idea of what a novel can do.
Publisher’s Weekly says: Set in an absurd yet uncanny near-future, with a cast of hundreds and close to 400 footnotes, Wallace’s story weaves between two surprisingly similar locales: Ennet House, a halfway-house in the Boston Suburbs, and the adjacent Enfield Tennis Academy. It is the “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment” (each calendar year is now subsidized by retail advertising); the U.S. and Canada have been subsumed by the Organization of North American Nations, unleashing a torrent of anti-O.N.A.N.ist terrorism by Quebecois separatists; drug problems are widespread; the Northeastern continent is a giant toxic waste dump; and CD-like “entertainment cartridges” are the prevalent leisure activity.
The novel hinges on the dysfunctional family of E.T.A.’s founder, optical-scientist-turned-cult-filmmaker Dr. James Incandenza (aka Himself), who took his life shortly after producing a mysterious film called Infinite Jest, which is supposedly so addictively entertaining as to bring about a total neural meltdown in its viewer…With its hilarious riffs on themes like addiction, 12-step programs, technology and waste management (in all its scatological implications), this tome is highly engrossing in small doses. Yet the nebulous, resolutionless ending serves to underscore Wallace’s underlying failure to find a suitable novelistic shape for his ingenious and often outrageously funny material.