The Broom of the System: David Foster Wallace Leaves Me Wondering What I just Read


There’s a moment when attempting to convey something to someone who just does not get it that one simply keeps baptizing the person with an immense substance of whatever it is, while simply holding out hope that he or she will eventually get it. This is a tactic known to many as “Beating someone over the head with it.” It is a pastime that is enjoyed by many for both its success rate and its simplicity. Someone who was among the ranks of the many that enjoy this system, was obviously David Foster Wallace.

The Broom of the System is by far the quirkiest novel I’ve ever read. Wallace’s style is definitely unique, and this relates to my paragraph. Wallace, rather than leaving his reader behind in the dust, goes to great detail to explain what it is he is applying throughout this novel. This is fascinating to me, and I will admit, was also a tad annoying to my taste, before getting accustomed to it. For the most part, I approach fiction as ideas being pragmatized. Fiction stands in a unique ground that allows a writer to take something such as a dense philosophical concept and attempt to create a situation in which the concept is enacted. This concept can be performed in absolutely wacky situations that seem absolutely far out and unbelievable, but for me it becomes looking for the moments where the wackiness crosses over into being relatable, which requires me to determine whether or not the novel as done its job. These concepts, however, don’t necessarily make themselves apparent. Indeed, in a lot of fiction it seems that concepts are used and employed but without informing the reader. Thus making it a joy to read something that is without a doubt pulled from a philosophy that the reader is familiar with.

That is precisely what I found Foster Wallace’s first novel to be absolutely fascinating. He engages Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language throughout the novel, something which I am utterly unfamiliar with; and rather than tell the story and let his reader catch up and understand it as they may, he instead devotes entire passages and chapters to characters explaining the philosophical concepts he is working with. What is even more remarkable is that he does it so very tastefully. There is never a moment in which a reader can truly feel overwhelmed by the density of what Wallace is trying to convey. He weaves through oversimplifications and ill thought out objections, explaining why such notions are incorrect, as well as having a bit of fun in writing characters who have those sorts of objections to the concepts, but yet still staying grounded in the overarching possibility that such objections really are correct and the concept he is attempting to put into motion is utterly wrong; which in turn brings readers more into the fold as they go over passages such as this one:

“The woman is apparently obsessed with words. I neither am nor wish to be entirely clear on the matter, but apparently she was some sort of phenomenon in college an won a place in graduate study at Cambridge, no small feat for a woman, in the twenties; but in any event, there she studied classics and philosophy and who knows what else under a mad crackpot named Wittgenstein, who believed that everything was words. Really. If your car would not start, it was apparently to be understood as a language problem. If you were unable to love, you were lost in language. Being constipated equalled being clogged with linguistic sediment. To me the whole thing smacks strongly of bullshit.”

David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System

In the middle of these philosophical ramblings within the book is the story itself. The Broom of the System is a story about trying to find meaning without depending on others to give you meaning. The main character, Lenore Beadsman, is the member of a family that maps out each members’ life before they have a chance to make any decisions of their own. One is never really sure if Lenore is making a decision out of free will, or because her father or gone-missing great-grandmother have created a situation in which she must do a certain thing. To complicate this further, her boyfriend Rick Vigorous is insanely jealous and demands Lenore make constant declarations of her feelings for him, but caring more about situations outside of Rick, she skirts these conversations regularly. This is knotted even more by another character who is obsessed with Lenore to the point of wanting to absorb her own existence into his; she becoming the Yin to his Yang.

This novel is wacky, yet understandable and uniquely relatable.

Recommended to: Those who are itching to dip their toes into the pool that is “postmodern literature” and those who struggle to to feel relevant and meaningful outside of their family.

Avoid as if it were the one backpack that is filled with forks and spoons instead of a parachute: Those who hate puns and those who don’t want to partake in any language games.


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