David Foster Wallace, Postmodern Novelist and Writing Teacher, Is Dead at 46

September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace, a writer who was known for his sprawling postmodern novels and humorous, heavily footnoted essays and journalism, died on Friday in an apparent suicide. He was 46. Police officials in Claremont, Calif., said Mr. Wallace’s wife returned home Friday night to find that he had hanged himself, The New York Times reported.

Mr. Wallace, who won a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1997, taught at Pomona College, where he held the Roy Edward Disney Chair in Creative Writing. He previously taught writing and English at Illinois State University, in Normal.

He was perhaps best known for his complex, 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest, which was published in 1996 and was set in a future in which years are named for corporate products. The novel drew comparisons to the works of William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon. Time magazine put Infinite Jest on its list of the 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005.

Mr. Wallace’s short stories and essays were also acclaimed. In his travel essays, he had a knack for exploring ordinary cultural events — a Caribbean cruise, a Maine lobster festival — and finding the grotesque and absurd in them. The Boston Globe said that his essay about the Maine lobster festival, which was published in Gourmet, “ranks as one of the most extraordinary New England-themed magazine articles of all time. It is alternately jarring, disjointed, contrapuntal, maddeningly long, and enviably brilliant.”

At a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, in which he made a reference to suicide, Mr. Wallace told graduates that caring about people and being educated were keys to the only real freedom in the world.

“The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing,” he said. “I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. … None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death.” —Scott Carlson