Tuesday, July 30, 2013

David Foster Wallace - The Broom of the System

David Foster Wallace began what would become The Broom of the System as his honors thesis in English, meaning that he wrote it at an age uncomfortably close to my own. That similarity aside, and despite its place at the very beginning of Wallace’s body of work, The Broom of the System is, I imagine, likely approached how I came to it, which is to say by those who have just read the brilliant Infinite Jest and are curious about what else Wallace has done.

From that vantage point, the most obvious characteristic about this work is its relative simplicity. Here we have less technicality, fewer pages and characters, less experimentation, and no footnotes at all. But viewing The Broom of the System as only a building block on the road to Infinite Jest is not a fair way to view an earlier work. Looked at it at least partially upon its own terms, The Broom of the System is a fun, silly, and bright novel that occupies, albeit to a lesser extent, the same intersection of insight and absurdity that Wallace’s masterwork is known for.

We begin with Lenore Beadsman, a telephone operator in her mid twenties at a publishing house, whose brilliant but eccentric great-grandmother vanishes from the nursing home where she has lived in a temperature-controlled room for decades. In theory, the book is about searching for her. As this is a Wallace book, however, we don’t so much proceed forward through the plot as we do outwards. Though time does pass over the course of the novel, no real progress is made on the search, and just about none of the other plot threads are really brought to a conclusion. Instead, Wallace uses the search for the great-grandmother to introduce us to and explore those around Lenore. We meet her brilliant but deranged brother in his college dorm room, see her horrendous and hygiene-anxity-obsessed psychologist, and get to know quite well the head of her publishing house, Rick Vigorous, who is also her obsessive, controlling, and neurotic lover.

The absence of much more than a cursory plot tells more here than it did in Infinite Jest. Wallace strews the novel with the promise of events – some personal, some world-changing – and they are uniformly either not followed up upon or are advanced in the most ambiguous fashion possible. The tactic works for several of the book’s main threads but left me wondering why we had bothered with some of the smaller ones. Details like Lenore’s psychologist really not being a psychologist at all but rather an impostor  put in place by unknown hands, are added but never expanded. The book ends in mid-sentence, something that balances between powerful and obnoxious, and might lean toward the latter.

Still, lambasting our failure to find Lenore begins to, after not too long, miss the point of it all. This is not a novel about searching. Rather, The Broom of the System is a story about stories. Lenore’s great-grandmother believed in Wittgensteinian fashion that the world is words (p. 74). Lenore, therefore, is terrified that the world is nothing but words, that All that really exists of my life is what can be said about it (p. 119), that hers is A life that’s told, not lived (p. 119). What, she cannot help but wonder, sets her apart from a character in a story, controlled entirely but what is said by and about her?

Fittingly enough for a book about stories and their telling, The Broom of the System is packed with voices. Wallace proves himself as a chameleon, able to shift into new kinds of speech with each addition to his cast, and the focus is often almost entirely upon the words being spoken. Some scenes are presented as transcripts, nothing but tags and dialogue, leaving the reader to read the emotion in between the lines. Others go so far as to remove the tags, simply presenting us with monologues or with two or more conversants that are only separated by their manners of speech. Our first introduction to Rick Vigorous and the grown Lenore is a conversation between them that shows us their voices before their names. All of this is a choice that could prove disastrous, but Wallace is a skilled enough writer that I never had a moment when I couldn’t tell who was talking.

Stories are in no shorter supply. Frequently, it seems that much of what Lenore does is stumble across stories, and colorful backstories are often the object in the spotlight. We are also treated to many of the submissions that Vigorous receives for his literary magazine, and they were a prime example of how Wallace can balance levels and extremes. The stories are awful, and Vigorous, as he relates them to Lenore, frequently comments upon the terrible sentimentality or ideas in a section – but, perhaps in part because of their license to be contrived that allows them to then deny that very charge, they are often moving as well. Besides which, they are the location of some of Wallace’s most madcap creativity and are always a joy to hear described.

One of the results of Lenore’s belief in the totality of words, and one of the key ambiguities that the novel ends on, is whether people can change along with their words. In the prologue, a teenaged Lenore is sexually menaced by a collegiate Lang, who is joking but still threatening. Years later, as the novel nears its end, the two end up together. Lang insists that his earlier actions were just because they were kids back then, and, when Lenore asks why he now talks differently around her, he says I guess maybe we all talk differently with different people (p. 411). The implications, if we really are just what we say, would be that we are genuinely different people in different circumstances. The novel ends before we get to see if Lang is genuinely different, but I think that my extreme discomfort whenever he was with Lenore give at least my answer to the question.

Wallace’s commitment and ability to have his own cake and eat it too, to mock the excess of the submissions but still communicate it, is present throughout the book. It can be seen in Wallace’s tentative but inevitable approach to metafiction. The Broom of the System is far too concerned with its own telling to really be anything but, but Wallace is aware of the dangers. As Lenore says of a story, she read, It wasn’t real at all. It was like a story about a story (p. 335). Wallace being Wallace, he is not so much scared off by those dangers as he is enticed to play. One of the most amusing bits is his brief stab at all the college kid writers out there that write too-dark, too-pretentious stories and should be out partying instead, something that applies to not only me and my own dark, pretentious stories but Wallace himself at the time of writing this whole thing.

Indeed, Wallace is a master at finding tensions in stories and psychologies, and many of his deepest insights – and even his most poignant moments – come from such regions. Early on, he discusses how one’s obsessions – in one’s appearance, say – are counterbalanced by an equally strong obsession to not appear obsessed with the first obsession. Soon after, we hear, in a Vigorous submission, of how Ironically enough, a man, in whom the instinct to love is as strong and natural and instinctive as can possibly be, is unable to find someone really to love (p. 180), for his need to love proves hopelessly unattractive and prevents him from fulfilling it. Vigorous himself exhibits a paradox not far from that. He is defined by his love for Lenore, is desperate to ensure that their relationship survives, and, because he is so desperate for that, threatens to drive her away with his jealousy.

Other great details and insights abound throughout the novel. Wallace is the kind of writer that can draw the truth out of almost any situation and restate it in a fresh way. One example of that is what Vigorous comes to refer to as The Reversal after Lenore describes it to him, the way that at first you maybe start to like some person on the basis of, you know, features of the person. The way they look, or the way they act, or if they’re smart, or some combination or something. […] But then if you get to where you, you know, love a person, everything sort of reverses. It’s not that you love the person because of certain things about the person anymore; it’s that you love the things about the person because you love the person. (p. 287). Then there is how Wallace draws connections between every facet of love and our fundamental need/desire to not be alone, such as how one character comes to realize that Weight Watchers sees itself as a warrior in the great war against loneliness (p. 90).

Besides all of that, Wallace is a damn funny writer. Continuing (or, I suppose, preceding) Infinite Jest’s tradition, some of the best lines involve facial hair, such as the college kid that has a little blond beardish thing sprouting from his chin, making it look a little like an armpit (p. 14). Another character works in neuroses like a whaler in scrimshaw (p. 58). Needless to say, the humor continues above the level of the sentence. One of the novel’s most amusing running jokes is Vigorous’s attempt to write. The reader is treated to scenes and stories of his as he spitefully reenacts the scenes of his life with better results through his fictional altar ego in the most childish way possible. Earlier on, the governor of Ohio decides that the state has gone soft and decides to give the people a blasted area to measure themselves against, leading to the Great Ohio Desert – or G.O.D.


The Broom of the System is a smaller work than Infinite Jest, one with less searing brilliance that could have used a bit more of an ending and a bit less game playing. Still, it’s interesting to see how David Foster Wallace got his start, and, more than that, this is an interesting and worthy novel in its own right, one at home on the tight-rope balancing act of comedy and insight, storytelling and commenting upon storytelling.

4 comments:

  1. One can tell that you are simply over thinking the book. The book is merely a story, and you are losing yourself in your highly intellectual, but unnecessarily long blog posting. Furthermore, if you were to listen to Mr. Wallace's commencement speech given at Kenyon College in 2005, you would recognize his ideas and ideals in writing the book were merely to test the readers of the book and to lead them into a stage of being self-aware. The book is very well written and goes into as much detail to show how each character fits in place of the world. That being said, I encourage you to rethink your opinion.

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    1. I don't think the author is over-thinking this at all. I came across this article in a search to find out why the book ends mid-sentence. An interview with his agent, Bonnie Nadell, reveals that Wallace wrote her a 20-page explanation of why the book had to end this way, including a breakdown of Wittgensteinian theory. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Wittgenstein is practically nonexistent, and my search for an explanation continues. That said, there's A LOT going on in this novel, and it requires a close reading.

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  2. Brilliant blog post which helped me understand various strands of the book. Strongly disagree with cflanagan.

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  3. Another anonymous disagreement with cflanagan except to say that I agree with him/her that it was an enjoyable book and well-written. Just finished it last night, in fact. Recently read the D.T. Max bio. Read many of Wallace's essays and am half way through JEST. Very familiar with the brilliant Kenyon address.... One would need to go an awfully long way to overthink Wallace, and using the Kenyon address as a lens through which to interpret Wallace's fiction is a mistake, I think. For one thing, Wallace wrestled terribly with the themes he put forth to that Kenyon audience. Like Salinger, a favorite author of Wallace's, Wallace was not ultimately able to live the advice he put forward in his writing. This is not hypocrisy but a writer struggling with himself, his art, his life. It is too terrible to think about the literary and intellectual loss for all of us that DFW could not overcome his awful struggle. Anyway, the blog post in question was a respectful and respectable shot at reviewing the novel. Thanks.

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