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David Foster Wallace: The Broom of the System

This novel – Wallace’s first – was selected by Penguin as the first in its Contemporary American Fiction series and was published simultaneously in both paperback and hardback. Presumably Penguin was aiming for a bit of a street cred. Though not as long as Infinite Jest, it is still a long book, weighing in at 467 pages. Like Infinite Jest, it is a massive inside joke. If you didn’t go to Amherst College, for example, some of this novel may well be lost on you. Our heroine is Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman. At the beginning of the novel she is fifteen but much of the novel is set nine years later, when she is twenty-four, in 1990. At this age, she works as a telephone operator for the publisher Frequent and Vigorous and she is having an affair with Rick, the Vigorous of the publishers, who happens to be impotent. (Yes, that’s his name. Lots of names in this book are jokes.) Her brother is known as the Antichrist, her pet cockatiel is called Vlad the Impaler and has a lot to say for himself and her great-grandmother, also called Lenore and a former student of Wittgenstein, has disappeared from her nursing home.

There is a plot, sort of, and it is the search for the missing grandmother though, in good post-modern fashion, the plot is not all that important. Much of the novel is set in Cleveland, bordering on the Great Ohio Desert whose acronym escapes no-one and is set in the then future, i.e. 1990. Lenore’s family is in the baby food business and a scrawled drawing on the label of a jar of the baby food is one of the clues to the missing great-grandmother. But the plot and clues are just pegs for Wallace to hang his preoccupations on, of which language, specifically Wittgenstein’s approach to language, is one. The book has been described as a book of stories and it is that as well. Rick, unable to have sexual intercourse with Lenore, tells her stories. These stories and the excerpts from Rick’s journal which are often disturbing (Wallace and his fellow post-moderns are definitely tackling the breakdown of the nuclear family) are also part of the language theme – Are we who we are or are we who we are described by language? Lenore is unsure. Meanwhile popular culture and TV is taking over – it’s Bob Newhart and Gilligan’s Island here, the televangelists are easy fodder for satire and sex and drugs are still predominant. Wallace is clearly enjoying himself and the book is certainly funny but, as he will in Infinite Jest, he is showing us a world that is really not as it seems.

Publishing history

First published 1987 by Viking