David Foster Wallace was a writer with whom I was determined, out of principle, not to fall in love.
The hype! The fandom! All that geeking out! The angsty 18-year old girls with severe haircuts and ironic t-shirts toting around Infinite Jest like the goddamned Rosetta Stone! The whole thing smacked of hipsterism and zeitgeist in a way that I wanted to distance myself from. No, sir! No 1,000-plus page schizoid novel for this reader; I’ll take Proust for $800, Alex. Besides, he couldn’t be worth his salt—this multiple-named longhaired dude whom I occasionally mixed up with Jonathan Franzen.
But after my boyfriend finished Infinite Jest, rapturous and feverishly babbling about acronyms, I took a stab at it and fell hard—fell flat on my face in the way that feels like heaven when you’re crazy in love and running through a pine forest at dusk somewhere in New England. It was probably the only novel I’ve ever read that got me out of my depth in terrifying ways, but all the same left me laughing for full hours at a time— the only novel that altered my entire perception of what comic writing can do. To this day, I can’t say I’ve downright missed, longed for a novel the way I yearn for Infinite Jest.
This is exactly why I was so fearful of picking up the earlier-published The Broom of the System; it’s the only other novel Wallace wrote (forthcoming Pale King aside). While I was hungry to be in his thrall once more, in some ways, the journey would end here.
Reading The Broom of the System offers the chance to travel through time to meet the aged teacher/writer/historical figure you’ve idolized back when they were young and foolish and open to possibility. Which is probably why I don’t entirely disagree with Wallace’s complaint that the novel seems written by “a very smart fourteen-year-old”— it does lack the world-weary urgency of his later work. It’s Wallace when he was youthful enough to make stoner jokes, but already so entrenched in his desire to take language somewhere new that neither he nor his characters can see past its confines. To put it a little more succinctly: reading 20-year old DFW is like listening to an eight-year old violinist play Vivaldi with tears streaming down her cheeks. Beautiful, but disturbing as hell.
Broom concerns Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman of Shaker Heights, Ohio—a fairly unambitious Amherst graduate in an unfulfilling relationship with her impotent boss, Rick. Rick runs an equally impotent publishing firm; Lenore answers the phones. Aside from some zany, if forgettable capers (Lenore’s grandmother disappears from her nursing home and brings a gang of geriatrics to the man-made “Great Ohio Desert;” Lenore’s pet bird mysteriously acquires the ability to quote the Bible on command and ends up on Christian broadcast television), in typical Wallace fashion, not much “actually happens.” What we read, mainly, are a bunch of disparate but interconnected discourses—transcripts of Lenore’s and Rick’s individual therapy sessions, stories ostensibly submitted to Rick’s literary journal in which the dominant theme is abject misery, and Rick’s own (fantasies? memoirs?) notebook musings, which suggest the extremes to which we’ll go in order to keep believing the lies we tell ourselves, about ourselves.
Broom is a journey into the metaphysics of discourse—the stuff we communicate with our lovers; the crap we invent about our family; the way we use language to be in the world—or in Lenore’s case, to escape it. (She constantly feels like she’s a character in a novel who’s being manipulated by the writer; good one, DFW.) Reading a single page of Broom, you’re likely to run into at least four or five different linguistic registers—Lenore’s corn-fed-but-too-smart-for-her-own-good Midwesternness; Rick’s unbearably pretentious literary-babble; “Wang-Dang” Lang’s Texan frat-boy drivel; the list goes on. This is Wallace in the nascent stage of his literary powers, attempting to reconcile his interest in Wittgenstein and language with his desire to speak of something urgent and true about us and our beautiful messes. As one might guess, the novel ends with no resolution—if we haven’t “gotten” that Wallace’s fiction isn’t about plot or character development, we get it now with the last sentence, spoken by Rick—“I’m a man of my”—which breaks off mid-sentence. What delicious irony!
The ending Wallace couldn’t have seen coming is the ending in which we sit and agonize over the loss of a writer who, in just twenty years of writing, contributed more—not just to arts and letters, but to what it means to be human and attempting to make some sense of this terrifying world—than so many others who have been heaped with awards and special perks and had decades more to perfect their art. The irony there is inescapable, and it doesn’t taste quite as nice.