Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Typhoon of Ideas: The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace

The Broom of the System
by David Foster Wallace
Reviewed by Derek Harmening

Zadie Smith (White Teeth, NW) said of David Foster Wallace: “He's so modern he's in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us.  Goddamn him.”  And maybe it’s best to keep that in mind while trying to wrap your head around his debut novel, The Broom of the System, a typhoon of ideas about language, identity, and purpose bound to make any fiction you read thereafter take on dimensions of meaning you’d never considered.  (At least, that’s what happened to me.)

My first experience reading Wallace was an all-chips-in gamble: at the behest of my co-workers, I went straight for Infinite Jest.  Like any sane reader, I was incredibly wary about tackling a 1,000-page behemoth with hundreds of footnotes and more plot threads than Pulp Fiction and Magnolia combined.  But it didn’t take long for the book to consume me entirely; I gave myself up to it for two months and came out the other side exhausted, emotionally pummeled, but profoundly changed.

Simply put, Wallace won me over.  Since then I’ve been working steadily through his oeuvre: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again; Brief Interviews with Hideous Men; Consider the Lobster, and now The Broom of the System.  It’s largely the work of a college senior, one of two theses Wallace wrote at Amherst, and really, it’s more brilliant than any undergraduate thesis has any right to be.  Critics seem to unanimously treat it as second-tier Wallace, but they speak for themselves—it was the best book I read in 2013 and it left me floored.  (For those of you who’ve read or plan to read Infinite Jest, it’s worth mentioning that Broom is in many ways a blueprint for the concepts and themes more fully explored in Wallace’s magnum opus.  Maybe that’s why I’m so enamored by it.)

In his biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, D. T. Max explains the inception of Broom: “The premise of the novel…began…with a chance comment from a girlfriend.  She told [Wallace] that she would rather be a character in a novel than a real person.  ‘I got to wondering just what the difference was,’ Wallace wrote.”

Enter Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, a 24-year-old switchboard operator at Frequent & Vigorous Publishing, who feels that something about her life is not quite right.  She’s convinced it has no real meaning beyond what she says and does, and even those things seem ordained by a power outside her control.  It doesn’t help that she maintains a suffocating relationship with Rick Vigorous, an insanely jealous, self-absorbed publishing exec who learns about Lenore’s innermost feelings by extracting information from their shared therapist.

Lenore’s life is—not to put too fine a point on it—weird.  Her great-grandmother, a former student of Wittgenstein, has vanished with nary a trace from the Shaker Heights nursing home; her pet cockatiel has inexplicably begun reciting verses from Shakespeare and Auden; her landlord, Norman Bombardini, has pledged to eat himself to infinite size and wants to absorb Lenore in the process; and, to top it all off, her publishing firm’s phone lines are in complete disarray and no one can figure out why.

In true Wallace fashion, though, all of these wildly absurd tangents are very closely related, and the rest of novel gives way to Lenore’s quest to find out what it all means.  The only clue her great-grandmother in absentia has left is a baby-food label with a drawing of a figure holding a razor and can of shaving cream.  Lenore surmises this is a riddle, the one about the barber who “shaves all and only those who do not shave themselves.”  So who shaves the barber?  The paradox is this: if the barber doesn’t shave himself, then he must shave himself, because he himself belongs to the category of people he shaves.

Is your head spinning yet?  Good.  That’s exactly what Wallace wants.  The Broom of the System piles paradox upon paradox, irony upon irony, challenging readers to think complexly about language and its function—not only in fiction, but in reality.  Put another way: Lenore Beadsman is a character in a novel.  Her thoughts, her experiences, her language, all of these are controlled by the author, and it’s how those words line up next to one another on the page that give them—and hence Lenore—any meaning.  The system in which she exists is closed.

But what if, Wallace suggests, what if Lenore broke free from her prescribed reality?  What if she were to discover qualities and values in herself distinct from the words written about her?  What if every reader perceived Lenore differently, thus changing who and what she was?  What if the system were opened?  As Marshall Boswell explains it in Understanding David Foster Wallace,
A story comes alive when there is a puncture in the closed system; this puncture creates disorder, which here might be understood as conflict or drama.  The larger implication is that the story gets transmitted to the reader, who is outside the story.  Although the interaction of reader and text is a relationship fraught with ambiguity and misunderstanding, since there are so many choices for interpretation, it is nevertheless the vital energizing force that keeps the story alive.  Interpretation is open and never complete, yet that is also the very source of its vitality.
At its core, The Broom of the System is an invitation for us to challenge ourselves—as readers, as writers, as cynics and critics.  And damn, is it fun.  It’s got mystery, slapstick, autobiography, philosophy, story-within-story and some of the most acutely perceptive and laugh-out-loud dialogue I’ve ever read.  It has one of the greatest closing lines in contemporary literature.  And, like nearly everything Wallace has written, it reminds you just how miraculous language is—how limitless.

“The world is words.”

Derek Harmening graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2011 with a degree in English, and then from the Denver Publishing Institute with a certificate in publishing.  He currently works at the Book Cellar in Chicago.  His work has appeared in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s undergraduate magazine Laurus and on the Chicago Artists Resource website.

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