Brilliance and Depression

David Foster Wallace, a towering figure in the world of modern literature, struggled with depression and addiction for much of his life. He dropped out of Amherst College twice due to depressive episodes before graduating in 1985 with a double major in English and philosophy. His undergraduate English thesis, a novel, was published as The Broom of the System a year later, when he was just twenty-four, while Wallace attended a writing program at the University of Arizona.

His alcoholism began around the time he held a residency at the artists' colony Yaddo, drinking with Bright Lights, Big City writer Jay McInerney, and accelerated when he returned to teach at Amherst in fall 1987. He was unemployed the next semester.

An erratic period saw the publisher Viking Penguin drop his first story collection, Girl with Curious Hair, because one of the stories appropriated actual lines of dialogue from a television talk show. Depression set in and Wallace underwent electroshock therapy. Although good news arrived-another publisher wanted to bring out his short-story collection- Wallace had decided to pursue a philosophy career and enrolled in a doctoral program at Harvard University in 1989. By October, he had checked into McLean Hospital, a psychiatric institution, where he was put on suicide watch and told he had liver problems.

Wallace's masterpiece, Infinite Jest, written over the course of ten years, takes addiction as its theme. His time in rehab helped inspire one of the book's two main settings.

The world view of Infinite Jest appears in a more compressed and accessible form in the 2005 Kenyon Commencement speech "This Is Water." The two share certain elements, such as the parable of the fish, which appears in one of the Alcoholics Anonymous sections of Infinite Jest and also serves as the opening of the Commencement speech. But more importantly, both the complex novel with its many points of view and the simple speech written in a single voice insist on the same truths: that no one is a minor character, that even the dead-eyed clerk checking out your groceries has an important inner life, that being a good person requires attentive focus to the inner lives of others.

Infinite Jest thrust Wallace into the literary spotlight in a way he both craved and feared. The book won critical acclaim. Suddenly lots of people wanted to hear Wallace speak.

He began work on his next book, The Pale King, but would not complete it. The pressure to surpass Infinite Jest, combined with the difficult subject matter- The Pale King was meant to be about boredom-led to writer's block.

Meanwhile, he suggested switching antidepressants to a newer one with fewer sideeffects. When he tapered off his initial drug, he became profoundly depressed, and the newer drug didn't alleviate it. He tried shock treatment and his old antidepressant again, but before it had a chance to work, he took his own life, hanging himself and arranging the fragments of The Pale King around him. It was published in 2011. -E.L.