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Book Review: The Broom of the System, by David Foster Wallace

Post-modernist meta-fiction = Wallace's first wank.


The Broom of the System

Viking Press, 1987, 467 pages



At the center of The Broom of the System is the bewitching (and also bewildered) heroine, Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman. The year is 1990 and the place is a slightly altered Cleveland, Ohio, which sits on the edge of a suburban wasteland-the Great Ohio Desert. Lenore works as a switchboard attendant at a publishing firm, and in addition to her mind-numbing job, she has a few other problems. Her great-grandmother, a one-time student of Wittgenstein, has disappeared with twenty-five other inmates of the Shaker Heights Nursing Home. Her beau (and boss), editor-in-chief Rick Vigorous, is insanely jealous. And her cockatiel, Vlad the Impaler, has suddenly started spouting a mixture of psychobabble, Auden, and the King James Bible, which may propel him to stardom on a Christian fundamentalist television program.

Fiercely intelligent and entertaining, this debut novel from one of the most innovative writers of our generation explores the paradoxes of language, storytelling, and reality.




I am not a big fan of meta-fiction, post-modernist fiction, or experimental fiction. That's not to say I don't like any of it, but it has to be really, really good and/or brilliant.

The Broom of the System was David Foster Wallace's debut novel. Evaluating it from a writer's perspective, yeah, Foster knew his way around language, and he does lots of clever things, even a few funny things. Evidently this book is taught in graduate schools. Well, okay, there's plenty of text for analysis. We have a lot of characters: Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, who has a very uncomfortable and complicated relationship with her boss, Rick Vigorous, who is a walking bundle of neuroses and sexual anxieties. The shit that comes out of his mouth is almost as drink-sputter-worthy as when the cockatiel Vlad the Impaler shows a talent for remembering every embarrassing utterance said in its presence. Norman Bombardini, who responds to his wife's leaving him by embarking upon a psychotic quest to eat until he fills the universe. Andrew "Wang Dang" Lang, Judith Prietht, Dick Lipp, Sigurd Foamwhistle, and Ruble and Kopek Spaskova are just a few more of the wryly-named characters who fill this surreal book.

To the extent that there is a story here, it's about Lenore trying to figure out where her great-grandmother ran off to (apparently into the Great Ohio Desert, on her walker). Mostly it's about Lenore listening to Rick recite long narratives as surreal meta-fictional episodes, with occasional episodic digressions into speeches and dialogs involving other characters, or Lenore answering the phones at Frequent and Vigorous Publishing.

I am tempted to call The Broom of the System pretentious and wanky. (Well, I kind of did above.) David Foster Wallace himself seems to have a fairly non-pretentious sense of humor about his own pretensions, as he said in this interview:

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°F 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.


Yes, The Broom of the System is one of those very clever books written by a very clever man who requires you to be familiar with the likes of Wittgenstein and Derrida to get all the jokes.

So, will Lenore find her great-grandmother? Will she hook up with Wang-Dang Lang, the drunken frat boy who showed up demanding she sign his naked ass in college? Will she dump her control-freak basket-case of a boyfriend? Will Vlad the Impaler announce the Second Coming of the Savior, or will he recite X-rated break-up speeches on Christian cable TV?

About halfway into this book, Rick Vigorous tells Lenore a story. We get lots of these meta-fictional narrations throughout the book, suspending the main story to tell some other tale, usually something bizarre and full of ridiculously improbable events. This one is about a man who falls in love with a woman who always wears a scarf around her neck, which he comes to discover conceals a tiny tree toad that lives in a hollow in her neck. The tree toad is the living embodiment of her emotional disconnection from the rest of the world, and when she takes him home to her family, he discovers that they all have small animals living in their necks. Yes, it is very metaphorical and very post-modernist-weird. Anyway, things get even stranger (in this meta-story), and the details would make even less sense unless you read the whole thing, but toward the end, Lenore interrupts a very petulant Rick, and seems to be speaking for the reader:


"May I please ask a question?"

"Yes."

"Why didn't the thermos woman just take the tree toad out of her neck and put it in a coffee can or something?"

"(A) The implication is that the only way the animal-in-neck people can rid themselves of the animals in their necks is to die (see for instance, the subway), and (B) you're totally, completely missing what I, at any rate, perceive to be the point of the story!"


Yeah, that pretty much describes me, and what I imagine David Foster Wallace to be saying: "Never mind the absurdity of this ridiculous story I'm telling you, you're missing the point!"

Apparently, Infinite Jest is kind of like this, except for over a thousand pages.


Verdict: David Foster Wallace's debut novel is ambitious, clever, kind of pretentious, and full of characters in search of a plot. Someone who's spent a lot of time in graduate school talking about semiotics will probably love this book, as will fans of Kurt Vonnegut and John Kennedy Toole. If post-modernist meta-fiction does not appeal to you, run away.




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