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, 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.
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, 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? Wallace, working in a time when the “death of the novel” had been announced for two decades, 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 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 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 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. 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. 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. 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.]
 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.
 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.
 This footnote (endnote) is just meant to remind you that endnotes will be used, unattended to as they may be.
 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.
 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.
 For the intensity of his lexical investigation, see “Authority and American Usage” in Consider the Lobster (New York: Back Bay Books, 2006), 66- 127.
 Wallace mostly used the feminine pronoun for reader, writer, or other.
 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.
 No, Reagan’s not in it. I just thought I’d remind you of how weird a time that was
 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.