Broom of the System

The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace, published by Penguin Books, 1987.  (Book Choice for January, 2010)


David Foster Wallace committed suicide in September 2008, at age 46.  With great sadness I think of his passing now that I have heard and seen interviews he participated in and have read much about the vicissitudes of his way-too-short career and his bouts of insufferable depression.  Praised to the heavens as a wunderkind, recipient of many prestigious awards, he taught writing and literature in college.  With perspicacity and conciseness that implied a perfectionist mentality, he wrote novels, several books of short fiction and especially distinguished himself through his non-fiction essays, many of which appeared in major arts journals.  Of course, he’s perhaps best known for the mammoth novel Infinite Jest[1], which shows up on some critics best 100 books of the 20th century.  Having now read many of his non-Jest works, I share with serious readers of the present generation who admire his writing a deep sorrow at having been deprived of his creative genius.  He had intellectual power and imaginative vision to vitalize and renew the art of storytelling for years to come.  Broom of the System, my choice for The Retired men’s Book Club, being his earliest successful experiment, probably showed Wallace in his least disciplined, most free, and least constrained mode of composition.  If one reads the McCaffrey interview, cited below, Wallace called his early work naïve and pretentious and wished he could do it over.  His up-tightness and self-deprecatory nature seemed connected to his cerebral anxiety and perfectionist principles.  From his green age, Wallace’s Broom is an amazing verbal explosion of storytelling, for which he should have been eternally grateful to his agent and editor who allowed the composition to see the light of day.

In order to smooth a way for our men’s club readers to approach Broom of the System, I suggested reading his Kenyon College commencement address (from May 2005) entitled “It is Water.”  Also to read “All That” in The New Yorker (December 14, 2009), Wallace’s wonderfully polished short story about magic and faith, which seemed to me as familiar a piece of modernist fiction as I can imagine him having composed.

The poem of W.H. Auden, “The Novelist,” which I found by surprise while reading John Barth’s Friday Book, seemed uncannily apropos to the writing life of David Foster Wallace.

The Novelist

Encased in talent like a uniform,
The rank of every poet is well known;
They can amaze us like a thunderstorm,
Or die so young, or live for years alone.

They can dash forward like hussars: but he
Must struggle out of his boyish gift and learn
How to be plain and awkward, how to be
One after whom none think it worth to turn.

For, to achieve his lightest wish, he must
Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just
Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
And in his own weak person, if he can,
Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man

by W.H. Auden

Sweeping in the New.

“…the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.” DFW in Larry McCaffrey, “An Interview with David Foster Wallace.” Review of Contemporary Fiction, (13:2) Summer, 1993, 127-50.

It’s natural we retired men, educated in the tradition of realist and modernist literatures, have chosen such 20th-century fictional works to discuss.  Reading very strange literature, difficult to interpret, judge, etc., our Tartuffe natures will likely show up, as exemplified in Burk Ketcham’s response to Broom, “Udder Rot.”  The most mature novelists, Rushdie and Atwood, of our previous choices–London, Lowry, Salinger, Rushdie, and Khaled– in The Enchantress of Florence and Blind Assassin, reacting to recent decades of post-modernist tastes do extend and amplify their art in employing very complicated designs of plot: storytelling within the story, chronological shifts, a miscellany of points of view, and solutions to intricate mysteries.  Much history and culture is woven into their rich tapestries and to some degree there is a self-consciousness that creeps into the narrative.  For the most part, though, we can probably accept all the novels we’ve enjoyed to date, however much the degree of stylistic difficulty has been upped, as continuations of the modernist experience of literature.

To further our investigations of human nature through fiction, to seek in our dark times for hints of the magical, lively, and bright imagination, what could be better than a contemporary,[2] exemplary postmodernist story, Broom of the System, by David Foster Wallace, who, in 1987 when first published, was a twenty-five-year-old mind on fire?[3] Wallace, working in a time when the “death of the novel” had been announced for two decades,[4] strove to take his audience, probably imagined as thoughtful, young, modern hip readers, into unfamiliar narrative territories, like the man-made theme landscape, the Great Ohio Desert (G.O.D.).

Broom seemed amazingly inventive to me, experimental in ways different from anything we’ve read.  Unsettling in its many twists and turns, it might baffle or disturb our easy-reading ways, our confidence with getting to the bottom of the story by figuring it out.  It certainly is a test of our interpretational prejudices.  Precocious David Wallace, rather than accept that experimentation with novel writing was exhausted, has[5] a fabulist’s ball narrating Lenore Beadsman’s saga, fashioning imagined acts and characters to delight his readers and to put us in touch with mysteries of humanity, mortality and reality.  Perhaps in Broom’s extravagant sweep we might question the idea of the novel itself, the artifice and reality of its creation.  Characters are just made of wordings.  We might consider how an imagined universe gets “worded” down because a novel itself is just a congeries of words.  We might ask where, and who, the story comes from.  We may wonder where it, and the extremely self-conscious author, takes us, or why it, the author as conductor, sometimes bumps us off on a lonely street we don’t belong on.  In Broom I don’t believe there is any interpretive certainty as we would approach it with our brains wired through our 20th-century reading experience.  Sensibly, we may have to overcome gravity and lighten ourselves to enjoy Broom of the System

Every story must enchant and hold its readers. If Broom fails to do that because of our established tastes, it’s discussable what puzzles or disappoints.  Wallace is a wonderful wordsmith[6] and in his stories within the story there is sometimes obvious pastiche.  Imitation of the best will always show up, but any writer worth her[7] salt will strive for inventions in form and style if for no other reason than to explore the limits of storytelling, varieties of linguistic play and resources of human imagination.  An Amherst student when he began composing, Wallace tackles some heavy philosophical subjects in his novel—difficult ideas have always been important for the best modernist stories—but I think you’ll agree, he shapes his story in a very original design for all types of readers.  On the surface he creates an urban world laid out in the 1960s on the road-plan of Jayne-Mansfield’s image.  “. . . !”  Is this notion just for the fun of it?  He invents a coterie of unusually troubled characters who interact knowingly and unknowingly, seeking sanity and harmony in their human relationships.[8] From the earliest emanations of novelistic storytelling, like Homer’s Odyssey, the strategy has been to appeal to a large audience of readers, and from antiquity on that meant to use many narratives within the story, to use different voices, and shape characters whose adventures the audience yearns to go on.   Wallace’s Broom chooses philosophy of language and novelistic character development in storytelling as his central theme.   I say “central theme,” but I am not sure a couple of phrases like those mentioned are adequate to explain its theme(s).   Why should we demand certainty and security in confronting otherworldliness?

A Synoptic Glimpse, or Why I Wanted to Follow Lenore’s Odyssey.

Deceptively, Broom opens with a normal realist-modernist first chapter, set in 1981, in the time when a Hollywood B-actor became POTUS[9].  The heroine, Lenore Beadsman, a mere 15-year-old ninny, is visiting her older Mt.-Holyoke-student sister, Clarice, in the campus dorm room she (Clarice) shares with sexy Mindy Metalman and mousy Sue Shaw.  The college girls are lounging, goofing off, rolling reefers, passing around the j-bird, as they listen to repeat plays of a Cat Stevens record (“Tea for the Tillerman” anybody?  Stevens changed his name to Yusuf Islam after converting to Islam).    Mindy, her hair wound in a towel-turban, wearing a loose shower-robe, flashes her slick, shapely legs, shows of her ample cleavage and displays her ugly bare feet with toenails of chipped polish, all of which exhibitionism annoys Lenore.  Innocent Lenore, besides sort-a checking out Mount Holyoke as a possible college choice, is also delivering from East Corinth, Ohio, a baggie of maryjane for her sister, along with some other “stuff” she picked from the local pusher at Shaker Heights H.S.

[You may stop here, take a nap (Fnoof!), or go directly to the end.]

Without warning, two male characters, numskull Amherst frat-jocks, bombed-eyed and head-banging drunk, invade the dorm room to request the girls’ ball-point signatures on their mooned butts.  Yclept Andrew “Wang-Dang” Lang and his bud, Digg Bifference, I mean Biff Diggerance, a literal wall and door head-banger, they’re fulfilling some doddypole rude ritual game of the dorms’ “Comonawannaleia” party going on downstairs in Rumpus Hall.  Shocked by the libertine manners, Lenore grows so pained by the stupidity and indecency of both sides, that of the floating-eyed, randy dopes as well as of the stoned college girls’ participation in such ass-Holyoke gamey neediness.  [Well, obviously I am not going to elaborate on the whole novel in this detail, but…]  What finally hooked my attention was innocent Lenore’s 15-year-old spunk in the face of a potentially drippy sexual farce played out by trippy-faced e–[If only their parents knew!]–litist college kids.  After throwing her stiletto-heeled shoe at blotto Biff, the spike stuck like a knife-thrower’s miss in the veneer of the hollow door, Lenore storms off, her parting shot upon the asinine collective zoo being as follows:

“… I’m leaving, let me leave, please,” says Lenore.  She turns. [Aren’t good writers supposed to avoid such stage directions?]  “You’re a coward,” she says to Sue Shaw.  “You have ugly feet,” she says to Mindy Metalman.  “Look at her feet, Andy, before you do anything rash.”  She turns to the door. [There’s that “turning” again.]  “Get out of the way, Booff, or whatever your name is.”


“Let me leave, or I’ll put your eye out with my shoe,” Lenore says to Biff, hefting her other shoe.  (P.20)

Panicky leave-taking as this may be by teenage Lenore, she is neither indecisive nor mealy-mouthed in her assertiveness.  Love that gumption!  Therefore, my sense of a heroine of some odd punch and mettle lead me to desire further adventures of Ms Lenore Beadsman, daughter of the very well-off Stonecipher Beadsman tribe of zanies whom we come to meet in time.

Chapter Two opens in the future time of 1990, familiar realist exposition giving way now to conventional dramatic dialogue (Is Wallace still seducing the reader?) with Rick Vigorous and 24-year-old Lenore in tryst mode.   Who these characters are, though, the reader does not know until near the chapter’s end.[10] Rick is bending Lenore’s ear with definitions of “second-order vanity” and paraphrasing a story of a vain man with creeping leprosy, who leaves his lovely girlfriend  to seek a cure, etc. etc.   That’s the first story-within-story and the tussle of wordy meanings between Rick, who acts vigorously possessive of his girlfriend, and Lenore, who despises his grabby possessiveness.  In 1990, Lenore’s Oberlin college years behind her, she also works for Rick, earning a meager $4 an hour at the telephone exchange for Frequent and Vigorous Publishers.  She rooms frugally in Cleveland with Candy Mandible, who helps Lenore out minding (tending and feeding) her loquacious master-mimic cockatoo named Vlad, short for Vlad the Impaler, a gift of Rick’s to keep Lenore entrapped at home, as a pet sometimes can do.

Yes, A Bit More Synopsis.

When Lenore finally returns to her digs, driving in her red, plastic super-compact Mattel car, which sports a plastic-choke [what an absurd reach conspicuous consumption and built-in obsolescence planning had come to in 1990!] the story of Broom begins to explode or fracture, at least in one fragment, into a mystery, (Hey!) another decent hook:  about the unknown whereabouts of Great-Grandma Lenore Beadsman Sr., an erstwhile student of wunderkind philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who (i.e. Lenore Sr.) has gone AWOL from the Shaker Heights Rest Home, and not alone, but with 21 other residents, plus four orderly staff.  Where did Great-Grandma Lenore go and why?  Good question!  Lenore may now have to play detective….   But really, it’s not so predictable; the adventure does not run along linear plot lines; it soon becomes wacky in very interesting shifts of styles and points of view.  There are dreams told (Queen Victoria with her knickers down) and odd-ball–more odd-ball than anyone other than Franz Kafka or Vladimir Nabokov could imagine–parodistic storytelling; there are kooky mayoral business meetings from long ago, present day psychologist’s counseling sessions, a quasi-technological analysis of Comtrex-28 telephone-exchange cable malfunction, and–well, the list of shifts and changes goes on and on, from serious to comic, from parody to satire, from philosophical and philological to Monty-Pythonesque word-gobbling farce, from sappy sentimental vignettes to crisply intellectual explications, and so on–and none of the shifts necessarily in that order.  To sum up:  David Foster Wallace has written a treatise on problems of storytelling itself, including words and meanings, purposes and meanings, character flatness and wholeness, story-line and story-squiggle, and to go into too great detail about Wittgensteinian semiotic investigations, or Derridean Francosophic polyguities, or Lyotardian metanarrative balderdash that often gets baked into the academic pomo pie would, I’m afraid, bore you to tears.  So here I leave the synopsis alone, but wish you good reading, with a free spirit, to learn about the use of telephonic lymph nodes and how a leg can be fed, and many other ways roughage can clean one’s system up.   At this green 25-year-old’s initial novel, it will be wise not to sneer or lose one’s temper; the author’s wit can captivate and is greater in some ways than his skill in this tooth-cutting overture of his fiction career.  Broom bids goodbye to print story-telling as we used to know it and smiles hello to tomorrow’s And-Now-For-Something-Quite-Different.   [All synopsis ends here.]



[1] Never did I manage a read of Infinite Jest.  However, I do recall a decade ago carrying around in my briefcase that blue two-pound paperback brick encasing the 1000+page maximum opus of the still young college lit. pomo whiz kid; I guess at the time I felt it would demonstrate the state of avant-garde literature in fin-de-siècle America.  The term postmodern was still a mystery to me then, though I had heard and read it used to describe all types of arts.  Giving up on the weight-lifting exercise, I presented Jest to my then 30-year-old son as a birthday gift for his reading shelves, where I notice to this day its serves as a styrdy book-end book, the finest blue buttress against a fleet of much flimsier spines.

[2] Endnotes and Footnotes, and often excessively long ones, are a common feature in most of DFW’s works, though not used in Broom of the System. The contemporariness of Broom, as post-modernist even, in our post-post-postmodern times, can be questioned since the Digital Age has no great relevance in the story.  Wallace, who grew up on megadoses of daily TV watching, uses the television and screen watching, the affects of televisual interaction, and dependence on chaotic fiber-optic telephone technologies as representations of McLuhanesque cultural change.

Considering the modern writer’s angst in interesting his own TV-entertained generation of intelligent young readers in challenging literatures, Wallace wrote his own medium-is-the-message treatise on the dimming of imagination and waning hunger for difficult, artistic literature.  See: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (New York:  Back Bay Books, 1997), 21-82.

[3] This footnote (endnote) is just meant to remind you that endnotes will be used, unattended to as they may be.

[4] John Barth announced “the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities” in “Literature of Exhaustion,” Atlantic Monthly, August 1967, p 29-34).  Likewise, George Steiner, an old-school philologist,  felt literary novelty had come to a dead-end in his 1960s essays in Language and Silence. Like “The End of History” idea, the “End of the Novel” seems a quite preposterous notion since greater freedoms of form and content are offered writers since the critical pundits of theory had their snooty say.

[5] I’ll use present tense from this point on to imply what I think Wallace “does.”  The present tense itself demonstrates one of the deceptive qualities of verbs to describe something performed, accomplished and done.  Wallace’s words still go on a-doing for the kindled imagination.

[6] For the intensity of his lexical investigation, see “Authority and American Usage” in Consider the Lobster (New York: Back Bay Books, 2006), 66- 127.

[7] Wallace mostly used the feminine pronoun for reader, writer, or other.

[8] In some general respects, Wallace shows influences from Salinger’s stories of the confused Glass family we read about in our first club choice: Franny and Zooey. References to Salingerian motifs appear in Rick Vigorous’ oral fictions. Like Franny, Lenore is psychologically troubled in finding a harmonious engagement with a male partner; the Beadsman brothers, John and Lavache, are super-intellectual like the child prodigies of Salinger’s family, and all the offspring are quite estranged from their parents, foraging alone for comfort and peace in a disagreeable social environment.

[9] No, Reagan’s not in it.  I just thought I’d remind you of how weird a time that was

[10] Just as in Atwood’s Assassin, the reader is held in suspense not really knowing who the two “cuddlers” in the liaison are until Lenore is mentioned in the final exchange; storytelling is a main element of the chapter.

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2 Responses to Broom of the System

  1. gil4or says:

    Delendum: A reference I made to a poetic entry, entitled “Udder Rot,” has been deleted by order of Burk Ketcham. Perhaps it will be reentered later as “Utter Rod” in regards to The Broom’s significance, as in the passage of meaning as use, meaning as fundamentalness (p 149-150).

    From this point on I’ll just leave my mistakes as you see them.

    David G.

  2. David Gilmour says:


    Remarks on Art, Writing, Novels, and Readers by David Foster Wallace from his interview with Larry McCaffrey published as “An Interview with David Foster Wallace” in Review of Contemporary Fiction (13:2), Summer,1993, 127-50).

    Listening to radio interviews and watching (and listening to) televised interviews with David Foster Wallace as he explains himself and his views about writing and art, I felt Wallace revealed much about his thoughts on himself as writer and the nature of the novel and writing that might interest readers of his fiction. Since Broom of the System (1987) is the work we discussed, the interview conducted by Larry McCaffrey contains much thinking of Wallace’s that is or may be germane to this early work. Other worthwhile interviews I encourage Wallace’s readers to consult are the following: Interviews on Bookworm, with Michael Silverblatt

    On Readers and Readership
    1. LM: Who do you imagine your readership to be?
    DFW: I suppose it’s people more or less like me, in their twenties and thirties, maybe, with enough experience or good education to have realized that the hard work serious fiction requires of a reader sometimes has a payoff. People who’ve been raised with U.S. commercial culture and are engaged with it and informed by it and fascinated with it but still hungry for something commercial art can’t provide. Yuppies, I guess, and younger intellectuals, whatever. These are the people pretty much all the younger writers I admire—Leyner and Vollman and Daitch, Amy Homes, Jon Franzen, Lorrie Moore, Rick Powers, even McInerney and Leavitt and those guys—are writing for, I think. But, again, the last twenty years have seen big changes in how writers engage their readers, what readers need to expect from any kind of art.
    2. [Function of fiction] LM: You’ve mentioned the recent change about what writers can assume about their readers in terms of expectations and so on. Are there other ways the postmodern world has influenced or changed the role of serious writing today?
    DFW: If you mean a post-industrial, mediated world, it’s inverted one of fiction’s big historical functions, that of providing data on distant cultures and persons. The first real generalization of human experience that novels tried to accomplish. If you lived in Bumfuck, Iowa, a hundred years ago and had no idea what life was like in India, good old Kipling goes over and presents it to you. And of course the post-structural critics now have a field day on all the colonialist and phallocratic prejudices inherent in the idea that writers were “presenting” alien creatures instead of “re-presenting” them—jabbering natives and randy concubines and white man’s burden, etc. Well, but fiction’s presenting function for today’s reader has been reversed: since the whole global village is now presented as familiar, electronically immediate—satellites, microwaves, intrepid PBS anthropologists, Paul Simon’s Zulu back-ups—it’s almost like we need fiction writers to restore strange things’ ineluctable “strangeness,” to defamiliarize stuff, I guess you’d say.

    On Reading and Fiction as Art
    1. [Illuminating possibilities of being human:] Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

    2. [Exploring human capacities to deal with cultural vicissitudes:] Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being. If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still “are” human beings, now. Or can be. This isn’t that it’s fiction’s duty to edify or teach, or to make us good little Christians or Republicans; I’m not trying to line up behind Tolstoy or Gardner. I just think that fiction that isn’t exploring what it means to be human today isn’t art. We’ve all got this “literary” fiction that simply monotones that we’re all becoming less and less human, that presents characters without souls or love, characters who really are exhaustively describable in terms of what brands of stuff they wear, and we all buy the books and go like “Golly, what a mordantly effective commentary on contemporary materialism!” But we already “know” U.S. culture is materialistic. This diagnosis can be done in about two lines. It doesn’t engage anybody. What’s engaging and artistically real is, taking it as axiomatic that the present is grotesquely materialistic, how is it that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn’t have a price? And can these capacities be made to thrive? And if so, how, and if not why not?

    3. [Commodification of art] …[W]hen you talk about Nabokov and Coover, you’re talking about real geniuses, the writers who weathered real shock and invented this stuff in contemporary fiction. But after the pioneers always come the crank turners, the little gray people who take the machines others have built and just turn the crank, and little pellets of metafiction come out the other end. The crank-turners capitalize for a while on sheer fashion, and they get their plaudits and grants and buy their IRAs and retire to the Hamptons well out of range of the eventual blast radius. There are some interesting parallels between postmodern crank-turners and what’s happened since post-structural theory took off here in the U.S., why there’s such a big backlash against post-structuralism going on now. It’s the crank-turners fault. I think the crank-turners replaced the critic as the real angel of death as far as literary movements are concerned, now. You get some bona fide artists who come along and really divide by zero and weather some serious shit-storms of shock and ridicule in order to promulgate some really important ideas. Once they triumph, though, and their ideas become legitimate and accepted, the crank-turners and wannabes come running to the machine, and out pour the gray pellets and now the whole thing’s become a hollow form, just another institution of fashion. Take a look at some of the critical-theory Ph.D. dissertations being written now. They’re like de Man and Foucault in the mouth of a dull child. Academia and commercial culture have somehow become these gigantic mechanisms of commodification that drain the weight and color out of even the most radical new advances. It’s a surreal inversion of the death-by-neglect that used to kill off prescient art. Now prescient art suffers death-by acceptance. We love things to death, now. Then we retire to the Hamptons.

    4. [Art and loneliness:] LM: A phrase in one of your recent letters really struck me: “The magic of fiction is that it addresses and antagonizes the loneliness that dominates people.” It’s that suggestion of antagonizing the reader that seems to link your goals up with the avant-garde program—whose goals were never completely hermetic. And “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” seems to be your own meta-fictional attempt to deal with these large areas in ways that are not merely metafiction.
    DFW: “Aggravate” might be better than “antagonize,” in the sense of aggravation as intensification. But the truth is it’s hard for me to know what I really think about any of the stuff I’ve written. It’s always tempting to sit back and make finger-steeples and invent impressive sounding theoretical justifications for what one does, but in my case most of it’d be horseshit. As time passes I get less and less nuts about anything I’ve published, and it gets harder to know for sure when its antagonistic elements are in there because they serve a useful purpose and when their just covert manifestations of this “look-at-me-please-love-me-I-hate you” syndrome I still sometimes catch myself falling into. Anyway, but what I think I meant by “antagonize” or “aggravate” has to do with the stuff in the TV essay about the younger writer trying to struggle against the cultural hegemony of TV. One thing TV does is help us deny that we’re lonely. With televised images, we can have the facsimile of a relationship without the work of a real relationship. It’s an anesthesia of “form.” The interesting thing is why we’re so desperate for this anesthetic against loneliness. You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are like sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of real art fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.

    On Broom of the System:
    1. [Magic of good fiction] DFW: …The popularity of “Broom” mystifies me. I can’t say it’s not nice to have people like it, but there’s a lot of stuff in that novel I’d like to reel back in and do better. I was like twenty-two when I wrote the first draft of that thing. And I mean a “young” twenty-two. I still thought in terms of distinct problems and univocal solutions. But if you’re going to try not just to depict the way a culture’s bound and defined by meditated gratification and image, but somehow to redeem it, or at least fight a rearguard against it, then what you’re going to be doing is paradoxical. You’re at once allowing the reader to sort of escape self by achieving some sort of identification with another human psyche—the writer’s, or some character’s, etc.—and you’re “also” trying to antagonize the reader’s intuition that she is a self, that she is alone and going to die alone. You’re trying somehow both to deny and affirm that the writer is over here with his agenda while the reader’s over there with her agenda, distinct. This paradox is what makes good fiction sort of magical, I think. The paradox can’t be resolved, but it can somehow be mediated—”re-mediated,” since this is probably where post-structuralism rears its head for me—by the fact that language and linguistic intercourse is, in and of itself, redeeming, remedy-ing.

    2. [Broom, metafiction, and Wittgenstein]
    LM: Of course, even “The Broom of the System” can be seen as a metafiction, as a book about language and about the relationship between words and reality.
    DFW: Think of “The Broom of the System” as the sensitive tale of a sensitive young WASP who’s just had this mid-life crisis that’s moved him from coldly cerebral analytic math to a coldly cerebral take on fiction and Austin-Wittgenstein-Derridean literary theory, which also shifted his existential dread from a fear that he was just a 98.6 calculating machine to a fear that he was nothing but a linguistic construct. This WASP’s written a lot of straight humor, and loves gags, so he decides to write a coded autobio that’s also a funny little post-structural gag: so you get Lenore, a character in a story who’s terribly afraid that she’s really nothing more than a character in a story. And, sufficiently hidden under the sex-change and the gags and theoretical allusions, I got to write my sensitive little self-obsessed bildungsroman. The biggest cackle I got when the book came out was the way all the reviews, whether they stomped up and down on the overall book or not, all praised the fact that at least here was a first novel that wasn’t yet another sensitive little bildungsroman.
    LM: Wittgenstein’s work, especially the “Tractatus,” permeates “The Broom of the System” in all sorts of ways, both as content and in terms of the metaphors you employ. But in later stages of his career, Wittgenstein concluded that language was unable to refer in the direct, referential way he’d argued it could in the “Tractatus.” Doesn’t that mean language is a closed loop—there’s no permeable membrane to allow the inside from getting through to the outside? And if that’s the case, then isn’t a book “only” a game? Or does the fact that it’s a language game make it somehow different?
    DFW: There’s a kind of tragic fall Wittgenstein’s obsessed with all the way from the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” in 1922 to the “Philosophical Investigations” in his last years. I mean a real Book-of-Genesis type tragic fall. The loss of the whole external world. The “Tractatus” ’s picture theory of meaning presumes that the only possible relation between language and the world is denotative, referential. In order for language both to be meaningful and to have some connection to reality, words like “tree” and “house” have to be like little pictures, representations of little trees and houses. Mimesis. But nothing more. Which means we can know and speak of nothing more than little mimetic pictures. Which divides us, metaphysically and forever, from the external world. If you buy such a metaphysical schism, you’re left with only two options. One is that the individual person with her language is trapped in here, with the world out there, and never the twain shall meet. Which, even if you think language’s pictures really are mimetic, is an awful lonely proposition. And there’s no iron guarantee the pictures truly “are” mimetic, which means you’re looking at solipsism. One of the things that makes Wittgenstein a real artist to me is that he realized that no conclusion could be more horrible than solipsism. And so he trashed everything he’d been lauded for in the “Tractatus” and wrote the” Investigations,” which is the single most comprehensive and beautiful argument against solipsism that’s ever been made. Wittgenstein argues that for language even to be possible, it must always be a function of relationships between persons (that’s why he spends so much time arguing against the possibility of a “private language”). So he makes language dependent on human community, but unfortunately we’re still stuck with the idea that there is this world of referents out there that we can never really join or know because we’re stuck in here, in language, even if we’re at least all in here together. Oh yeah, the other original option. The other option is to expand the linguistic subject. Expand the self.
    LM: Like Norman Bombardini in “Broom of the System.”
    DFW: Yeah, Norman’s gag is that he literalizes the option. He’s going to forget the diet and keep eating until he grows to “infinite size” and eliminates loneliness that way. This was Wittgenstein’s double bind: you can either treat language as an infinitely small dense dot, or you let it become the world—the exterior and everything in it. The former banishes you from the Garden. The latter seems more promising. If the world is itself a linguistic construct, there’s nothing “outside” language for language to have to picture or refer to. This lets you avoid solipsism, but it leads right to the postmodern, post-structural dilemma of having to deny yourself an existence independent of language. Heidegger’s the guy most people think got us into this bind, but when I was working on “Broom of the System” I saw Wittgenstein as the real architect of the postmodern trap. He died right on the edge of explicitly treating reality as linguistic instead of ontological. This eliminated solipsism, but not the horror. Because we’re still stuck. The “Investigation” ’s line is that the fundamental problem of language is, quote, “I don’t know my way about.” If I were separate from language, if I could somehow detach from it and climb up and look down on it, get the lay of the land so to speak, I could study it “objectively,” take it apart, deconstruct it, know its operations and boundaries and deficiencies. But that’s not how things are. I’m “in” it. We’re “in” language. Wittgenstein’s not Heidegger, it’s not that language “is” us, but we’re still “in” it, inescapably, the same way we’re in like Kant’s space-time. Wittgenstein’s conclusions seem completely sound to me, always have. And if there’s one thing that consistently bugs me writing-wise, it’s that I don’t feel I really “do” know my way around inside language—I never seem to get the kind of clarity and concision I want.

    Appendix: Remarks about the nature of Wallace’s writing by Dave Eggers in the 2006 Forward to Infinite Jest.
    “David Foster Wallace has long straddled the worlds of difficult and not-as- difficult, with most readers agreeing that his essays are easier to read than his fiction, and his journalism most accessible of all. But while much of his work is challenging, his tone, in whatever form he’s exploring, is rigorously unpretentious. A Wallace reader gets the impression of being in a room with a very talkative and brilliant uncle or cousin who, just when he’s about to push it too far, to try our patience with too much detail, has the good sense to throw in a good lowbrow joke.” (p.xi-xii)

    Perhaps Eggers was thinking of Laurence Sterne’s commentary on writing in Tristram Shandy when he wrote the above, especially with an uncle (Uncle Toby) in the room. It would seem to me that Wallace had followed Sterne’s advice at times, and at other times disobeyed it. E.g. in Infinite Jest, with its excessive length and its multitude of footnotes, Wallace is not so conscious of boundaries in his tell-all motivation. In-as-much-as I think Wallace is Sternian in style and satire, probably from his having read the marvelous wit and nonsense of Tristram, I finish with Sterne’s statement on “writing when well managed”:

    “Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation: as no one, who knows what he is about in good company, would venture to talk all;——so no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good breeding, would presume to think all: The truest respect which you can pay the reader’s understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself. (Volume II, opening paragraph of Ch. XI)

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