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American novelist David Foster Wallace dead at age 46

Some sad news from over the weekend: David Foster Wallace, whose mammoth, 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest was included in Time magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923-2005, was found dead of an apparent suicide on Friday.

Wallace was the spiritual and linguistic heir to the American postmodernists of the 1960s and 1970s – figures such as Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Wallace’s exuberant, flashy prose style – which included page-long sentences and paragraphs, copious footnotes and digressions, and extravagant verbal contortions – won him as many detractors as admirers, but he staked out a place in the forefront of a new generation of hip, urban, edgy American novelists that also includes figures such as Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, and Rick Moody. He in turn influenced younger writers such as Jonathan Safran Foer and Dave Eggers.

Wallace’s first novel, 1987’s The Broom of the System, owed a large debt to Pynchon, but by 1996, when he released his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, Wallace had found his own voice. Infinite Jest is a comedy of epic proportions, about a jacked-up, hyper-consumerist America that is addicted to every kind of excess: mass consumption, drugs and booze, sex, and television. Wallace was a particularly acerbic commentator on millennial North America’s conspicuous consumption: practically alone among well-known American novelists, he maintained a consistent critique of the dehumanizing and deadening effects of modern Western society.

He was also a prodigious and wide-ranging essayist, who wrote about everything from growing up in Tornado Alley to attending a porn convention in Las Vegas to riding John McCain’s Straight-Talk Express campaign bus in 2000. His essays, like his fiction, were stamped with his bracing intelligence, scabrous wit, and keenly observant eye.

Wallace’s ambitious prose style was also compulsively readable, and his energetic verbal acrobatics injected new life into a literary culture that was threatening to become irredeemably moribund. He was a maverick, an original, and a brilliantly uncompromising craftsman. The loss of his voice is an occasion for sadness; the legacy that he left us in his short life is cause for joy.

The website The Howling Fantods! has a fairly comprehensive roundup of coverage, and Bruce Weber’s piece in the New York Times makes reference to Wallace’s depression, which he had apparently been suffering for several months prior to his death.