In the latest example of my hands having far too much time on them (first example), please take some time to look over Exhibit A: a complex PowerPoint diagram I put together to document the intricate character relationships in The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace’s now 25-year-old first novel. (Here’s a link to a legible version.)
BOTS, in an extremely simplified sense, is about Lenore Beadsman, a 20-something underemployed receptionist at the publishing house of Frequent and Vigorous, a job made all the less demanding by Lenore’s relationship status with F&V Chief Executive Richard “Dick” Vigorous (as the kids say, “it’s complicated.”) One day in 1990, Lenore gets a call from a Mr. Bloemker, manager at the Shaker Heights Home, where her great-grandmother (also named Lenore Beadsman) has apparently gone missing, along with another two-dozen patients and staff members. In the company of Dick Vigorous, Lenore goes in search of her missing great-grandmother—both physically and I suppose intellectually—along the way discovering or re-discovering various people in her life and in many cases stumbling across histories or idiosyncrasies they had heretofore failed to disclose.
This is all, of course, if we are operating under the assumption that BOTS is “about” anything at all. Throughout the novel (which is, as the aforementioned chart suggests, rather dense) DFW uses his characters to explore such subjects as love, the self versus the other, the ludicrous chicanery of corporate America and, of course, the purpose of life. Additionally, whatever existential topics are not brought up in mere character-to-character conversation, Wallace alludes to through short stories, ostensibly submitted to Frequent & Vigorous for potential publication, but relayed verbally by Richard to Lenore during the course of their relationship.
Despite being a big fan of DFW, I have for many years avoided reading his novels, after a 200-page false start with Infinite Jest left me feeling like maybe I’m just not sophisticated enough to appreciate them. The same neurosis that prohibits me starting the Game of Thrones books — that of being unable to read a novel without being at all times well familiar with each of its characters — is quite clearly in play here, as not only does DFW create ensemble casts of quirky human beings, but in many cases the details of said human beings are proven more significant than one originally thought, forcing one to constantly flip back 100 pages to ensure that they’ve fully grasped the nuance of said protagonist (or villain), and/or to to, I don’t know, spend a few hours creating a PowerPoint that might help them moving forward.
Truth be told, as soon as I’d finished my character diagram, I found BOTS a much easier read, so I welcome all of you to print it out and tuck it away for your own perusal of the book. Saved from the stress of trying to remember exactly who everyone was (difficult despite DFW’s best efforts to create some truly awesome names), I was able to focus more on the narrative itself.
Broom of the System is weird, predictably so, and never seems to make any grandiose point, or come to any sort of neat conclusion (in fact, the novel famously ends mid-sentence.) I can see this particular style — coupled with Wallace’s penchant for run-on sentences, existential ramblings and just generally strange shit — being unappealing to some people, and in most cases it would be less than appealing to me as well, as I have historically shied from these “exploring the meaning of things through pseudo-realistic circumstances” novels; see, for example, This Book Will Save Your Life). But I have a soft spot for David Foster Wallace about the size of a small planet (see:) so I’d forgive him pretty much any level of literary chaos.
Moreover, the novel’s greatest strengths are its unorthodox ways of presenting information: conversations between unidentified characters, dialogue presented as transcripts, press releases, novels within novels, etc. Unrestricted by any one style or voice, DFW is free to go off on the very tangents that are his signature, one of which in fact provides the name of the novel:
“What did she with me — I must have been eight, or twelve, who remembers — was to sit me down in the kitchen and take a straw broom and start furiously sweeping the floor, and she asked me which part of the broom was more elemental, more fundamental, in my opinion, the bristles or the handle. The bristles or the handle. And I hemmed and hawed, and she swept more and more violently, and I got nervous, and finally when I said I suppose the bristles, because you could after a fashion sweep without the handle, by just holding onto the bristles, but couldn’t sweep with just the handle, she tackled me, and knocked me out of my chair, and yelled into my ear something like, ‘Aha, that’s because you want to sweep with the broom, isn’t it? It’s because of what you want the broom for, isn’t it?’ Et cetera. And that if what we wanted a broom for was to break windows, then the handle was clearly the fundamental essence of the broom, and she illustrated with the kitchen window, and a crowd of domestics gathered; but that if we wanted the broom to sweep with, see for example the broken glass, sweep sweep, the bristles were the thing’s essence. No?”
BOTS is full of weird anecdotes like this, whose philosophical implications would each make for complex nonfiction works of their own (and, for all I know, may already have.)
So let’s recap: The Broom of the System is accessible, but complex, not only in the breadth of its own plot but in the density and sophistication of the other subjects it explores. DFW does not write for those of a certain intellect, so much as he was never able (willing?) to step away from the quality of his own. The book has a lot of characters, whose importance — either individually or with respect to one another — can be hard to keep tabs on. But BOTS is good, uniquely good, a stepping stone to the sprawling tomb(s) DFW would compose later on in his too-short life. In other words, a great start to a tragically stupendous career.
TITLE: The Broom of the System
AUTHOR: David Foster Wallace
PAGES: 467 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Infinite Jest, Consider the Lobster
SORTA LIKE: Chuck Klosterman meets Jennifer Egan
FIRST LINE: “Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden.”