Broom of the System (1987)


By David Foster Wallace

Lenore Beadsman’s life is complicated. The 24 year old heir to the Beadsman baby food empire struggles to balance her career as a call center operator — where the lines of communication seem perpetually crossed — with her, um, complex relationship with her boss, Rick Vigorous, of Frequent and Vigorous Publishing. She also worries about her younger bother, who refers to himself as the Antichrist; her bird, Vlad the Impaler, which has a tendency to curse and prophesy; and her grandmother, a former student of Wittgenstein who has suddenly gone missing from her retirement home.

The majority of Broom of the System, first published in 1987, takes place in the future (1990, actually), which allows Wallace the freedom to distort the otherwise recognizable landscape of his northern Ohio. Here, popular culture has literally shaped life: an entire city has, in fact, been designed to resemble Jayne Mansfield from above. College students meet to watch Bob Newhart and play drinking games; others gather at a bar built around a Gilligan’s Island theme. Wallace, a former philosophy major, had obviously been reading Baudrillard, as he has great linguistic fun interrogating the simulacrum — the copies of copies of copies that have come to replace actual experience in contemporary American culture. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Great Ohio Desert (G.O.D.), a man-made blot intended to serve as “A point of reference for the good people of Ohio. A place to fear and love. A blasted region. Something to remind us of what we hewed out of. A place without malls. An Other for Ohio’s Self.”

Wallace’s first novel, written as his MFA thesis, is obviously heavily indebted to (but not entirely derivative of) Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Both are detective stories of a Post-Modern, epistemological bent, more concerned with the language that constructs meaning — both in their stories and in the world — than with the literal “truth” that their heroines pursue. And both authors push the conceit to hilariously absurd ends. Wallace even one-ups Pynchon’s famous final scene — Oedipa Maas sits, waiting like we do, for the mystery to be revealed — by actually ending Broom of the System mid-sentence. It’s perhaps too easy of a trick, and one that must surely make the more mature Wallace cringe, but it feels perfectly appropriate here.