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Wallace, David Foster

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1962-2008) US author who began publishing work of interest with "The Planet Trillaphon as it Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing" for the Amherst Review in 1984; the story combines a post-modernist sensibility – the planet in question is a non-metaphorized vision of the internal architecture of a distressed mind roiled by anti-depressant Drugs – and a presciently sf-like recognition that Perception does not only influence but may in fact shape the case of the world. Throughout his short but extremely intense career, Wallace was lucky in the writers who influenced him – the list includes Don DeLillo, David Markson and Thomas Pynchon – and was himself widely influential on his peers and successors.

His first novel, The Broom of the System (1987), utilizes images from and investigations of Linguistics to create a character who understands the surreal world he inhabits as confirming that he is in essence a linguistic construct. His second novel, the vast Infinite Jest (1996), which is set in a Near Future North America now called ONAN (Organization of North American Nations), is genuine sf, both in its literal setting and in the intensity of its gaze upon the multifarious unfolding of the things of the world into the futures that are upon us. The central line of plot revolves around the attempts of Les Assassins des Fauteils Rollants, a group of legless Québécois separatists, to gain possession of a Basilisk: a short film called "Infinite Jest", contained in a cartridge as a recursive loop, which has the effect on those who view it so absorbing them that they are unable to stop watching. The obvious relevance of this central line of story to urban life in the late twentieth century is never reduced to metaphor; in accordance with the deep grammar of the fantastic in general, the story is told literally. In his unfinished, posthumously edited final novel, The Pale King (2011), it appears that by 1985 or so the modern world is hovering on the cusp of obliterating, basilisk-like boredom, induced in part by a radical transfiguration of reality into clockwork superfetations of information (see Information Theory), and accompanied by the kind of emanations – ghosts, ESP phenomena including levitation, characters whose sensitivity to data flow is supernatural – that can plausibly be sourced in the kind of Urban Fantasy (see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy) served to intensify traditional horror in authors like Fritz Leiber, whose "Smoke Ghost" (October 1941 Unknown) prefigures Wallace's rendering of life and work in an American Internal Revenue Service tax centre.

Wallace's short fiction, some of it of quite extraordinary intensity and linguistic verve, ranges from explosive, gonzo exercises in postmodernism (see Postmodernism and SF) to the kind of sf found in his masterpiece; most of this material was assembled as The Girl With Curious Hair (coll 1989), Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (coll 1999) and Oblivion: Stories (coll 2004). Much of Wallace's nonfiction addressed political issues; some of it was prescient. [JC]

David Foster Wallace

born Ithaca, New York: 21 February 1962

died Claremont, California: 12 September 2008




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