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David Foster Wallace

Term Definition
David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest is a sprawling, thousand-page novel consisting of multiple intertwined plotlines and a plethora of footnotes that serve to disrupt the narrative flow even further. In this work, Wallace surely accomplished the writer's dream of truly capturing the spirit of a time. He also wrote several short stories and journalistic essays. However, he committed suicide in 2008, succumbing to a depression that had plagued him all his life. 


David Foster Wallace was an American writer who composed essays, novels, and short stories. In addition to his writing, he was also a professor of creative writing and English. His 1996 novel Infinite Jest was listed by Time magazine as one of the best novels in the English language published between 1923 and 2005. The L.A. Times called Wallace one of the most significant and groundbreaking writers of the last two decades. His last novel, unfinished, titled The Pale King, was published in 2011 after his death and was one of the finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 


David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, caught the attention of the entire country and garnered a lot of critical praise. Critics of the book compared him to Stanley Elkin, Thomas Pynchon, and John Irving. His next novel, Infinite Jest, was wildly successful and acclaimed. His next published work was the commencement address he made to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College printed as a book titled, This is Water. After his death in 2008, it was announced that there had been discovered an unfinished manuscript. Little, Brown and Company announced that they would publish the novel after it was pieced together by another writer with pages and notes that Wallace left behind. In addition to these works, he also published short fiction stories in periodicals such as GQ, Esquire, and Harper’s Magazine.

Writing Style

Most of David Foster Wallace’s writing is centered on moving beyond irony and metafiction often found in postmodernism literature. He uses several forms of irony, but also aimed to focus on an individual’s desire to have honest, unselfconscious experiences. Wallace’s writing often contains multiple voices and (sometimes made up) jargon and vocabulary drawn from a variety of fields. He uses his own abbreviations, long sentences with multiple clauses, and the use of footnotes and endnotes in his writing. He said that these notes were there to interrupt the linearity of the narrative and to reflect his views of reality without complicating the storyline. He felt that if he, instead, tried to include all his notes and thought into one, continuous work, then no one would read it. 

Additional Information

Many of David Foster Wallace’s written works were adapted for film and stage. In 2009, a film adaptation of a series of his short stories called Brief Interviews was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie, directed by actor John Krasinski, received negative reviews. The Simpsons based an episode off of one of Wallace’s essays titled “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”. In the episode, the family take a cruise and Wallace appears in the background of one of the scenes. Wallace once recalled wearing a tuxedo t-shirt to formal events, so the cartoon version of him wore a tuxedo shirt while attending a fancy supper in the ship’s dining room. In an upcoming film called The End of the Tour is said to be released soon, based on Wallace’s conversations with David Lipsky in Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, in which the role of Wallace will be played by Jason Segel. Though not a true adaptation, a season 5 episode of Parks and Recreation continuously references Infinite Jest. 

In addition to being adapted for film, twelve of his essays from Brief Interviews were adapted into stage plays performed at the New York International Fringe Festival. One of the stories from that collection of essays stood out particularly to composer Eric Moe, who adapted it into an operatic piece. In Germany’s experimental Hebbel am Ufer theater, there was a play performed based on Infinite Jest and took place in various locations throughout the city of Berlin. Finally, the story “Good Old Neon” from one of his collections was performed as a live stage performance at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2011. 


Though David Foster Wallace did not produce an astronomical amount of work, the work he did compose was immaculate. His unique style of writing enables earned him spots on lists of the most important books and writers of recent times. Even though he has passed, his work continues to be adapted and appreciated because they contain messages and stories that audiences can relate to. 

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