5/14/21 — This Week’s Reading Review

Michael Ducker
9 min readMay 14, 2021

The Broom of the System is the first novel by David Foster Wallace. The novel began to take shape when Wallace was still an undergraduate at Amherst College. Having completed his first thesis — a monograph criticizing Richard Taylor’s influential essay “Fatalism” — Wallace then turned his attentions toward crafting a novel-length second thesis. Submitted under the title The Great Ohio Desert, the project was awarded an A-plus. After this, Wallace enrolled in the creative writing MFA program and began seeking a publisher for his undergraduate writing project. Viking Penguin ultimately picked up the project, and it was put under the editorship of Gerry Howard, and it is here that it took on its final shape and name.

Our protagonist is Lenore Beadsman, an Oedipa Maas-like protagonist who has been confronted with the mysterious disappearance of her great grandmother — a former student of Wittgenstein also named Lenore Beadsman. The book’s title derives from the elder Lenore’s demonstration of the Wittgensteinian thesis that “something’s meaning is nothing more than its function” (149). The issue at hand is determining what part of the broom is its most essential element. The answer to this depends on whether you want to use the broom to sweep up dust or break a window. In the case of the former, the bristles are essential; in the case of the latter, the handle is the more important part. The elder Lenore would terrifyingly demonstrate this by breaking windows with a broom until the child got the correct answer. The younger Lenore is no student of Wittgenstein. Indeed, she is tortured by the implications of his thought as taught to her by her grandmother. Less existentially terrifying is her job as a switchboard operator at Frequent and Vigorous Publishing, Inc., an operation almost entirely run by Lenore’s boss and boyfriend, Rick Vigorous. Inadequate in both penile size and literary ambition, Vigorous is anything but what his name implies. The novel traces Lenore’s attempts to locate any information at all about her great grandmother’s whereabouts while simultaneously trying to manage the neurotic decline of her relationship with Rick. There’s also Vlad the Impaler, a talking bird who has been snatched up by televangelists who hear in his repetition of a sexually charged breakup speech the word of God.

The style of The Broom of the System is undeniably that of an apprentice novel, and one can feel the young David Foster Wallace working his way through the voices of his various favorite authors. DeLillo is there in the visual precision, the attention to color and light, and the flattened dialogue wherein characters seem to almost talk past each other. Pynchon is there in the zany psychedelia of grotesque situations brought to a feverish pitch, in the cartoonish names and puns throughout, and, to be frank, in the whole general outline of the novel’s plot, which bears more than a superficial resemblance to The Crying of Lot 49. Nabokov is here too, his influence felt in the overly inflated erotic descriptions of women that serve, more than anything, to deflate the man doing the erotic narrating. For all its mimicry, however, there are undeniably spots of originality here. Although far from a master of tone, one can, at times, feel Wallace moving towards the chatty, erudite, almost-in-the-scene-and-generally-just-psychologically-sensitive (to the point of tending to borrow from the idiolect of characters) narration style of his subsequent writing. This often gets lost in the constant shuffling of imitation and the general polyvocality of the novel, but the promise is still there.

The novel opens in 1981. A fifteen-year-old Lenore Beadsman is visiting her older sister Clarice at Mount Holyoke College. A party rages on the floor below while the girls sit around talking with Clarice’s roommates Mindy Metalman and Sue Shaw. Lenore expresses her desire to attend the party below when the subjects of “Rapes and assaults and stuff” and campus security are raised (9). The girls ultimately agree that it would be fine to briefly swing by the party, but immediately after Lenore has switched into her party dressed, three drunk frat bros barge into their room with an obscene request: the girls must sign their asses as part of a hazing ritual. The scene turns tense, with Sue Shaw brought to tears and Lenore throwing her considerably dangerous footwear at one of the boys. The girls — Lenore excepted — ultimately give in, sign the asses, and this opening chapter of grotesque masculinity concludes. We are then brought up to the narrative present: 1990 in the fictional town of East Corinth, just outside of Cleveland. This futuristic Ohio not only features an additional town constructed in the shape of an actress, it also features The Great Ohio Desert. A man-made black sand desert designed by the governor to serve as “A point of savage reference for the good people of Ohio. […] An Other for Ohio’s Self” (54).

When the novel flashes forward to the present, we find Lenore Beadsman and Rick Vigorous in bed, doing something that “satisfies standard cuddling criteria” (22). Here, we are introduced to one of the novel’s devices used to smuggle in stories within stories. Lenore will ask Rick to tell her a story that his publishing imprint has received. Rick will then proceed to describe at length the plot of this story. There is always a certain ambiguity, intensified later on, around whether these stories are submissions or Vigorous’s creations. The first story he tells centers around a concern that will become an idee fixe for Wallace’s writing: neurotic self-awareness and the vicious circle it forms. In Vigorous’s story, this takes the form of “a second-order vain person,” a man so vain he becomes obsessed with entirely concealing his vanity from the world (23). The man’s “obsession-obsession” ultimately drives his life towards physical self-destruction and ruins his capacity to connect with his girlfriend meaningfully (26).

The next chapter sets up the mystery that ostensibly drives the plot of the novel. Lenore Beadsman’s great grandmother Lenore Beadsman — former student of Wittgenstein, woman in need of a room kept 98.6°F due to an inability to regulate her body temperature — has gone missing from her nursing home along with a host of other patients. This event serves as the Pynchonian elusive mystery, one that is less of a problem to be solved than an occasion to put characters on collision courses, subject them to equally mysterious conspiracies, and allow them to reveal themselves by bumping up against the world. The conspiracy in question eventually folds in Lenore’s father, Stonecipher Beadsman III, owner and operator of baby food company Stonechipheco. He reveals to Lenore that, with the help of her great grandmother and her great grandmother’s fellow nursing home patient, his company discovered a baby food formula that allows children to acquire language skills at an early age. (This same formula appears to be the reason why Vlad the Impaler has mysteriously improved his language abilities to the point that televangelists took notice.) The elder Lenore has, moreover, been hiding in the tunnels that contain the phone lines for much of the region, including the call center in which her great-granddaughter works. Her requirement that the temperature of any room she occupies be a bodily 98.6°F has been causing the phone trouble that plagues Lenore and her colleagues throughout the novel. Despite the elaborate plot that leads to its revelation, the message here is clear: Wittgenstein makes communication difficult if fully internalized.

Indeed, the younger Lenore is haunted by “an intuition that her own personal perceptions and actions and volition were not under her control” (66). She feels determined by language, every act and statement already anticipated within the totality of language and its games. It is “as if she had no real existence, except for what she said and did and perceived and et cetera, and that these were, it seemed at such times, not really under control” (67). Which, of course, is an accurate description of her predicament as a character in a book. To what degree Wallace intends this puerile metafictional observation is unclear. It often feels like he is in the act of tying up a Gordian knot consisting of the problematic relationship between theory, text, world, and social sphere. Texts like Westward the Course of Empire Takes it Way and Infinite Jest will attempt to sort through this problematic at length. It is this quality of a return to postmodern literature and theory in an attempt to maturely sort out their problems without abandoning — as Wallace thought minimalism and MFA realism did — their insights that has led some to characterize Wallace’s writing with neologisms like post-postmodernism, metamodernism, new sincerity.

Those novels seem to represent something new, a break with trends that simultaneously returns to older trends, an offering of a new through-line in literary history. I hope to return to this the further I get into my current reading of Wallace’s oeuvre. In The Broom of the System, however, he opts to cut the knot loose by cutting Rick Vigorous’s final line short. Seemingly on the verge of consummating his lifelong erotic fixation with Mindy Metalman, he cries out, “‘I’m a man of my ” at which point the text concludes in a blankness that elides the final “word” so that, in Wallace’s reading, “word and reference are unified…in absence” (Max, 314). Textual problematic is — perhaps with too much cleverness — eschewed by the literal termination of textual content.

And Lenore is not the only neurotic in The Broom of the System. Both Lenore and Vigorous are seeing the equally neurotic therapist Dr. Jay, whose worldview and treatment turn on what he calls “membrane theory.” The precise substance of Dr. Jay’s membrane theory is unclear. Such a lack of clarity may be intentional, as we learn later in the novel that Dr. Jay is little more than “a pathetic phobic neurotic whom Lenore [Sr.] used her influence to rescue from institutional commitment by your wife, who if you recall objected to being scrubbed with antiseptic every night before bed” (311). His membrane theory may be little more than a concurrence of neurosis and professional vocabulary. Nevertheless, the reader is given somewhat lengthy descriptions of the membrane theory. (Moreover, personal communications show that Wallace insisted on the inclusion of the theory despite the objections of his editor (Max 68). The center of the theory is that there exists a “Self-Other membrane” that regulates the relationship between the subject and the world (137).

In Dr. Jay’s reading, this is essentially consubstantial with anxieties over hygiene and sexual penetration — the former being Lenore’s primary anxiety, the latter being Rick’s. “Self and Other. Difference. Inside-Outside,” Dr. Jay tells Rick Vigorous, “What does the Outside do? It makes you unclean. It coats Self with Other. It pokes at the membrane. And if the membrane is what makes you you and not-you not you, what does that say about you, when the not-you begins to poke through the membrane?” (136). This membrane-based neurosis also extends to the peripheral character Norman Bombardini. Recently divorced and incredibly overweight, Norman has so internalized membrane theory that he wishes to eat the entire universe, becoming so extremely obese that “Self and Other” are united in him (90).

Indeed, The Broom of the System may be said to contain Wallace’s first treatment of what we might call the dialectic of mental illness, which consists of the productive tension between the desire for emotional sincerity and the stability of health. We see this problem raised, for instance, in Vigorous’s elaborate story about a couple whose children are “in danger of dying, eventually […] unless, that is, treatment is administered to keep them really ever from crying” (108). This is not as neatly harmonized with the general deconstructionist concerns of the novel’s metafictional register as one might wish. Nevertheless, we can see Wallace striving towards a more humanistic conception of the relationship between fiction, health, and theory.

Some points don’t in The Broom of the System don’t entirely come together. The character of Lang is ultimately revealed as a sort of idealized male lover for Lenore, but the intense misogyny of his first appearance (as an adult) in the novel is never explained away or recontextualized in any meaningful sense. Moreover, Wallace’s experiments in character and voice in The Broom of the System typically fail because of an inability to craft a unique voice for a character. They all come out sounding similar. This is a more noble failing than his potentially offensive attempts at AAVE when the character of Judith Prietht appears. This and the “She be cry” section of Infinite Just…well, they don’t work, let’s say that.

Until next week,

Michael Ducker