Monday, April 27, 2015

David Foster Wallace & The Broom of the System

One of the products of David Foster Wallace’s undergraduate work at Amherst University was a novel called The Broom of the System. Originally, Wallace wrote Broom as his undergraduate thesis for his English degree, which Little, Brown and Company published in 1987 just before Wallace headed off to start working on his MFA at the University of Arizona.
            Admittedly, the book isn’t Infinite Jest, and Wallace, himself, was never a huge, huge fan of Broom. He retrospectively saw the novel as a sophomoric endeavor in which he tried to get people to recognize how smart and funny he was by pitting Wittgenstein’s line that there is nothing outside of language against Derrida’s (in)famous claim from Of Grammatology that there is nothing outside of the text.
            Written heavily under the influence of postmodern writers such as Barth, Gaddis, and Pynchon, Broom is 400+ pages of self-referential meta-fiction that explores such themes as self-consciousness and solipsism. On one hand, the book is a farcical bildungsroman that follows the maturation of a young woman named Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman; on the other, it is a solemn examination of language and its relationship to the world in which we dwell. The basic plot shtick follows thusly: Lenore finds out that her great-grandmother—Lenore Beadsman Sr.—is MIA from the nursing home in which the Beadsmans’ dumped Gramma. Lenore embarks on a quest to find her missing great-grandmother—“great it could really probably be argued in more than one sense of the word, which is to say the supplier of [Lenore’s] name, the person under whose aegis [she’d] first experienced chocolate, books, swing sets, antinomies, pencil games, contract bridge, the Desert, the person in whose presence [she]’d first bled into [her] underwear . . . the person through whose personal generosity and persuasiveness vis à vis certain fathers [she’d] been overseas, twice, albeit briefly, but still, [her] great-grandmother who lived right near [her]” (31). Unfortunately for Lenore, her missing Gramma isn’t her only problem; she also navigates through two other plights over the course of Broom: a neurotic boyfriend and a vocal pet cockatiel, Vlad the Impaler (also known as Ugolinon the Magnificient) that becomes the spokesbird for “The Partners with God Club”—a televangelist TV show. Lenore’s negotiation through the three crises sets off an exploration of the use of words and symbols to define a person.
            Over the course of the novel, Wallace introduces his reader to a large cast of characters that Lenore encounters on her odyssey to discover the whereabouts of her run-away Gramma. The core group of characters includes approximately thirty-odd Pynchon inspired characters (e.g., Rick Vigorous—a name that is embarrassingly ironic w/r/t his being totally underendowed in the sexual department—or Mindy Metalman—a really pretty blond bombshell with “pretty ugly feet” [3]), and pretty much everyone of the main characters make an appearance during the climax of Broom.
            The end of this one is weird. The action comes to a head in the lobby of the Bombardini Building, an advertising firm where Lenore works as a switchboard operator, and there is no real closure to Broom’s end. Lenore, Peter Abbot, Stonecipher Beadsman III, Mr. Bloemker, Sigurd Foamwhistle, Dr. Jay, R. D. Lang, Candy Mandible, Mindy Metalman, Neil Obstat, Walinda Peahen, Judith Prietht, Clint Roxbee-Cox, Ron Sludgeman, Alvin Spaniard, Dr. Martin Tissaw, Rick Vigorous, and a few more all arrive at the Bombardini Building in a steady flow and cram themselves into the building's lobby. As the marble floor shakes a little under all of the feet—Norman Bombardini, the owner of the advertising firm, is walking down the sidewalk outside of his firm, n.b., Norman is in the process of eating himself to a size in which he will outgrow the world—Peter Abbot starts to explain why the Bombardini Building’s phone lines have been malfunctioning over the course of the novel. “[T]he tunnels are incredibly temperature-sensitive,” Abbot explains, and he goes on to state that it’s important to remember “that all the calls in the lines are just basically lines of heat … They’re just little lines of a kind of heat going back and forth, is all they really are” (455). Believe it or not, this sentence is the novel’s big reveal. The phone lines run through a tunnel beneath the building, and the general consensus among readers and critics is that Gramma has been living in the tunnel system below the building.

            Wallace never confirms nor denies that Gramma moved underground, but the reader does know, because of a quick reference way back on page thirty-nine, that Gramma has a “complete absence of any kind of body thermometer. She now depended for her body’s temperature on the temperature of the air around her,” which means that every room that Gramma is in must be a toasty 98.6° (39). At the end of the penultimate chapter, Abbot notes that the tunnels should be around 60° - 70°, but the tunnel “looks like it’s kind of decided it’s a real freakin’ human being or something” (457), and the temperature shows that it’s a perfect 98.6°. Because Gramma never actually appears, the Broom’s end is rather anti-climatic. For all we know, Gramma could be on a binger in Vegas or buried in the desert. None of the characters wonder or ask if she’s down there, and Wallace never goes OZ-style pulling back the curtain. The end is basically an example of Zeno’s paradox. The reader has been moving through the novel, but is never actually able to reach the final point, the resolution.

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