David Foster Wallace: Books & Life

Instructor: Ben Nickol
In this lesson, we review the works of noted American author David Foster Wallace. A prominent writer, Wallace published some of the most recognizable fiction and nonfiction of his generation.


David Foster Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York in 1962 to a philosophy professor father and English grammarian mother, two influences that would weigh heavily on his later work. He was a gifted child, excelling in both academic and athletic pursuits (in particular he was a gifted tennis player). After his schooling at Amherst College in Massachusetts, he attended graduate school in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona. In 1987, at the age of 24, he published his first novel. For the next nineteen years, he would publish numerous novels, collections of short stories, and essays. In 2008, he committed suicide at his home in Claremont, California.


The Broom of the System (1987)

Wallace's first novel, The Broom of the System is the story of Lenore Beadsman, who in her twenties begins to wonder about the relationship between language and reality (and wonder whether language creates reality, in which case she and everything else is just a figment of language). In what will become one of Wallace's hallmarks, the book is densely written, and includes extended ruminations on philosophy and addiction from numerous characters, emotional states, et cetera. Balancing that density is a vibrant humor and irony that also became one of Wallace's signatures.

While the publication of The Broom of the System earned Wallace critical attention and a wide audience, it has not aged well. The book generally is read only by Wallace aficionados, and even the author himself, later in life, expressed displeasure with it. He believed it showed talent, but was immature and unpolished.

Girl with Curious Hair (1989)

Wallace's first collection of short fiction, Girl with Curious Hair is comprised of nine stories written mostly over the course of his graduate education in Arizona. In these stories, we see the interest in media and fame, and their effect on identity, which came to define some of Wallace's later work (Infinite Jest in particular).

As with The Broom of the System, Girl with Curious Hair is no longer widely read, except by serious students of Wallace, and as with Broom of the System Wallace later expressed displeasure with the book, considering it immature. Also, the book was published at a time when Wallace was going through personal difficulties. Although the details of his troubles would not be widely publicized until after his death, he was a serious alcoholic and abuser of drugs while he was writing these stories.

Infinite Jest (1996)

While Wallace was fairly well known as an author from the publication of his first book, it was only with the publication of Infinite Jest in 1996 that he became a literary superstar. At well over a thousand pages, with hundreds of pages of footnotes, and footnotes of footnotes, the book was, quite literally, a massive publishing event. Wallace's readings, which before had been sparsely attended, became raucous events with at-capacity crowds. His long hair and bandanna became iconic. The book even appeared on some bestseller lists, which is extremely rare for a book of its size and difficulty.

While the book covers a great many locales and decades (mostly in the future), and the lives of many characters, it is set principally at a tennis academy outside Boston, Massachusetts. Attending the academy is Hal Incandenza, a gifted young player who, like Wallace, suffers from substance addiction. In seeking treatment for his addiction, Incandenza visits a halfway house in the same neighborhood as the academy. His experience at the house (along with a mirrored story wherein Hal's father, a filmmaker, has created a film so lethally entertaining that several governments are trying to track it down), comprises the novel's central plot.

Like his works before it and works to come, Infinite Jest is dense, humorous, philosophical, and concerned with the nature of addiction, media, and the connections between the two. As of the book's publication Wallace himself was enjoying a time of relative peace and stability, but the concerns in the book were concerns that had haunted his past, and that he would face again later in life.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999)

Perhaps Wallace's densest work of fiction, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is a collection of 23 stories dealing with language and linguistics, loneliness, substance abuse, and sex. While the stories are not overtly related, they share themes and characters, and are connected in their arrangement by four stories (each titled 'Brief Interviews with Hideous Men'), wherein male subjects answer questions about their sexual lives and sexual impulses.

Critically, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is much better regarded than Wallace's earlier work of short fiction, but like his first two books, it is not as widely read as Infinite Jest. In 2009, the actor John Krasinski adapted the book for film.

Oblivion (2004)

In his final collection of short fiction, Wallace shows us an author much more concerned with narrative, and less concerned with philosophical meanderings, than in his earlier work. As in that earlier work, the voice is funny, smart, and dense, but in Oblivion, Wallace stays much closer to direct depictions of story. In one of the book's best known stories, 'Good Old Neon', we see a narrator about to commit suicide by driving into a bridge abutment. As in his earlier work, there is a great deal of the narrator's reflections about his life and the predicament he's in, but the reflections are more concrete (we see his memories in actual scenes), and are balanced consistently by descriptions of the narrator's driving. In other words, the story confines itself to the real world in a way Wallace's earlier work often did not. Another of the book's well known stories, 'Incarnations of Burned Children,' shows us a child whose mother has accidentally poured scalding water down his diaper. The story is about the event's effect on the child later in life, but as with 'Good Old Neon' it confines itself mostly to the present moment, and lets abstractions remain implied.

The Pale King (2011)

Published after his death, The Pale King was Wallace's final work of fiction. Like his earlier novels, it switches perspectives and tones and deals with plot in only a fragmented way, but the main characters are IRS employees who sense a kind of unexpected peace and transcendence in their seemingly drab work. Unfinished at the time of his death, the book was revised and published by his longtime friend and editor Michael Pietsch, and was nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.


A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997)

While Wallace considered himself primarily a writer of fiction, he also wrote acclaimed essays about American culture, philosophy, politics, grammar, athletics, film and other subjects. His essays were first collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. The most notable works from this book include 'Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley', an essay about Wallace's transition from competitive tennis to higher level mathematics, and the title essay, wherein Wallace critiques a weeklong cruise he took to the Caribbean. The latter essay is perhaps Wallace's best-known work of nonfiction.

Consider the Lobster (2005)

In the last book-length work published in his lifetime, Wallace offers a collection of essays ranging from an account of his trip to the Maine Lobster Festival, in which he reflects on the morality of eating living creatures, to his on-location reporting of the Adult Video News awards (an awards banquet for pornographic actors and films). The best-known essay from the collection is 'Up, Simba,' though, which is an account of Wallace's time on the campaign trail with Senator John McCain during the 2000 Republican Primary. The essay was later published as a standalone volume entitled McCain's Promise.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create An Account