David Foster Wallace, whose prodigiously observant, exuberantly plotted, grammatically and etymologically challenging, philosophically probing and culturally hyper-contemporary novels, stories and essays made him an heir to modern virtuosos like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, an experimental contemporary of William T. Vollmann, Mark Leyner and Nicholson Baker and a clear influence on younger tour-de-force stylists like Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer, died on Friday at his home in Claremont, Calif. He was 46.
Mr. Wallace was an apparent suicide. A spokeswoman for the Claremont police said Mr. Wallace’s wife, Karen Green, returned home to find that her husband had hanged himself. Mr. Wallace’s father, James Donald Wallace, said in an interview on Sunday that his son had been severely depressed for a number of months.
A versatile writer of seemingly bottomless energy, Mr. Wallace was a maximalist, exhibiting in his work a huge, even manic curiosity — about the physical world, about the much larger universe of human feelings and about the complexity of living in America at the end of the 20th century. He wrote long books, complete with reflective and often hilariously self-conscious footnotes, and he wrote long sentences, with the playfulness of a master punctuater and the inventiveness of a genius grammarian. Critics often noted that he was not only an experimenter and a showoff, but also a God-fearing moralist with a fierce honesty in confronting the existence of contradiction.
“David Foster Wallace can do practically anything if he puts his mind to it,” Michiko Kakutani, chief book critic of The New York Times, who was not a consistent praiser of Mr. Wallace’s work, wrote in 2006. “He can do sad, funny, silly, heartbreaking and absurd with equal ease; he can even do them all at once.”
Mr. Wallace, who had taught creative writing at Pomona College in Southern California since 2001 and before that had taught at Illinois State University, came to prominence in 1986 with a broadly comic first novel, “The Broom of the System” (Viking), published when he was just 24. It used the narrative frame of a young woman’s search for identity to draw a loopy portrait of America on a comic and dangerous spiral into the Disneyesque confusion of reality and artifice.
Mr. Wallace was best known for his mammoth 1996 novel, “Infinite Jest” (Little, Brown), a 1,079-page monster that perceives American society as self-obsessed, pleasure-obsessed and entertainment-obsessed. (The president, Johnny Gentle, is a former singer.) The title refers to an elusive film that terrorists are trying to get their hands on because to watch it is to be debilitated, even killed, or so it’s said, by enjoyment. The main characters are a stressed-out tennis prodigy and a former thief and drug addict, and they give rise to harrowing passages about panic attacks and detox freak-outs. The book attracted a cult of fans (and critics too) for its subversive writing, which was by turns hallucinogenically stream of consciousness, jubilantly anecdotal, winkingly sardonic and self-consciously literary. The following year Mr. Wallace received a MacArthur Foundation grant, the so-called genius award.
In contrast to the lively spirit of his writing, Mr. Wallace was a temperamentally unassuming man, long-haired, unhappy in front of a camera, consumed with his work and its worth, perpetually at odds with himself. Journalists who interviewed him invariably commented on his discomfort with celebrity and his self-questioning. And those who knew him best concurred that Mr. Wallace was a titanically gifted writer with an equally troubled soul.
“He was a huge talent, our strongest rhetorical writer,” Jonathan Franzen, a friend of Mr. Wallace and the author of “The Corrections,” said in an interview on Sunday, adding later, “He was also as sweet a person as I’ve ever known and as tormented a person as I’ve ever known.”
Mr. Wallace was born in Ithaca, N.Y., where his father was a graduate student in philosophy. When David was 6 months old, his father got a job at the University of Illinois, and the family moved to Champaign, Ill., where David became a locally prominent junior tennis player. At Amherst College, he studied philosophy and English, graduating summa cum laude in 1985. It was also at Amherst, said his mother, Sally Foster Wallace, an English teacher who specialized in grammar, that he began to write. One of his two senior theses became “The Broom of the System”; the other was about Aristotle and whether statements about the future can be true.
Mr. Wallace received a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Arizona in 1987 and began sending out his short stories, many of them collected in the volumes “Girl With Curious Hair,” “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” and “Oblivion.” He also wrote essays and reported pieces on an astonishing array of topics, from lobsters to Roger Federer, the pornography industry to John McCain, collected in several volumes, the latest being “Consider the Lobster and Other Essays” (Little, Brown, 2006).
In addition to his wife, whom he married in 2004, and his parents, who live in Urbana, Ill., Mr. Wallace is survived by a sister, Amy Wallace Havens of Tucson.
His father said Sunday that Mr. Wallace had been taking medication for depression for 20 years and that it had allowed his son to be productive. It was something the writer didn’t discuss, though in interviews he gave a hint of his haunting angst.
In response to a question about what being an American was like for him at the end of the 20th century, he told the online magazine Salon in 1996 that there was something sad about it, but not as a reaction to the news or current events. “It’s more like a stomach-level sadness,” he said. “I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness.”
James Wallace said that last year his son had begun suffering side effects from the drugs and, at a doctor’s suggestion, had gone off the medication in June 2007. The depression returned, however, and no other treatment was successful. The elder Wallaces had seen their son in August, he said.
“He was being very heavily medicated,” he said. “He’d been in the hospital a couple of times over the summer and had undergone electro-convulsive therapy. Everything had been tried, and he just couldn’t stand it anymore.”