Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Broom of the System

The Broom of the System, by David Foster Wallace
1987, 467 pp.

I came very accidentally to David Foster Wallace. If you go to the search page on the London Review of Books website, the example illustrating how to search for terms in quotes is "david foster wallace." I remember seeing his short story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men at a used bookstore, sandwiched peculiarly in the Marxism section, on the very bottom shelf, towards the left. I remember reading Amazon reviews of Infinite Jest at work in 2005, when browsing through the longest books in the English language. I decided not to read it on the grounds that it did not appear to have much sex or violence in it. I am a regular reader of the infrequently updated blog of the web developer for the Penny Arcade webcomic (it's a long story) and it was there that I saw he'd killed himself. "Time to rerereread Infinite Jest," the blog said. Now that I've read his fiction, I notice that virtually every word on that blog is written in a voice desperately trying to sound like his. For a moment he seemed to be everywhere. A giant had fallen and I had only just discovered him.

Then I read D.T. Max's long, painful article in The New Yorker. It is a deeply emotional piece of reporting, and produced a few images of Wallace which I am still unable to shake off. The article covers his life and literary career, but was the first outlet after his death which reported on his long struggle with depression, so the theme of his struggles against his own mind ran through the piece. He’d hid it from the public for years, never mentioning his heavy medication, his past substance addictions, or his trips to mental health facilities, including more than one round of electric shock therapy. I’ve now read all of his interviews and essays and one of his novels, and I cannot conceive of how the public could have missed this. It's everywhere in his work. His depression is written on every page. But amid the process of tracing the impact of depression on his life and work, Max takes the time to let Wallace’s friends and family remember what kind of person he was:

“Longtime agent Bonnie Nadell recalls how he stood on line at FedEx the week before Christmas to mail an autographed book to a fan. "He would just do things like that because he was a really sweet person," she says. His students at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., remember the committed, engaged teacher: Amanda Shapiro had taken writing classes with him the past three years, and recalls the copious comments she got back from him about her assignments. "He would write five pages of notes on a six-page story," she says, "and put so much care and thought into helping us as writers. He would type out the letters, and then annotate them, in pen, with little smiley faces and notes and corrections."”

Interviewers always found him mystifying. He was a big, athletic guy, who had been something of a tennis prodigy in his youth, but he dressed in sloppy, poorly-fitting clothes and wore glasses invariably described as “granny” style. After his first round of shock therapy, his sister remembered him sitting in a corner, writing in a notebook with a Care Bears cover. I’ve seen his interview with Charlie Rose, one of the very few he ever gave, in which he speaks in an incongruously gentle voice, giving long, recondite answers to facile questions, using precise diction devoid of vocalized pauses, but constantly upset with himself for not articulating better. The Salon obituary saw the same thing:

“On "Charlie Rose," Wallace was like a giant combine moving through a field of wheat when he was supposed to be posing with a cute donkey and an old leather plow in front of the family barn. In the midst of long answers that continually posed an impossible series of new questions, moving over the humps of the host's simplistic assumptions with a clatter and bang, he stopped and asked Charlie, 'I assume all this will be edited out, right?'”

After the New Yorker article, I got kind of fixated. I've now read all of his essays, his book reviews, his interviews, and his articles. Everything available online. I have found that he had a gift for saying, in perfect, fluent, erudite prose, things that I had hoped to think of in ten years. Not that he would write things I'd been thinking but hadn't figured out how to say, but that I'd be on step two of a thought process, trying to figure out step three, and there he'd be, elegantly describing the view from the last step. His piece on the politics of the English language is a perfect example of his humanism, his empathy, and his considered opinion on a difficult matter. I highly recommend it to you. His voice is very firmly rooted in a 1990’s sense of Generation X anxiety, riddled with acronyms and born of a recognition that his was a generation deprived of its own voice by the rapacious, ongoing hunger of Baby Boomer self-indulgence and of what the New York Review of Books called “the panic of influence.” Wallace was an old-fashioned late 19th-century social and psychological novelist and observer of human behavior, but was steeped in the flashy literary tricks of post-modernism. The post-modernists argued that our cultural mechanisms are such that it is now impossible to say anything meaningful about the human experience, but ignore that there plainly is a void in human relations which only fiction can fill, harnessing as it does the provocation of empathy and understanding. I could carry on this topic for a long time, but you would do better to read his own thoughts on the matter. The point is that with his work Wallace was advancing a moral argument as much as an aesthetic one: that fiction does still have purpose, that meaningful things can be said even among the cultural logic of late capitalism, that human beings can connect with one another, and that therefore fiction can help us through the immense loneliness of living in this world. His argument in general seems to be that only the artifices of fiction are able to produce the illusion that it is possible to genuinely empathize with and understand another person, which is a depth of true feeling necessary to continuing to live. Fiction therefore, in its duplicity, is true in a way that reality is not. But recognizing its inherent falseness, how it is it to be honestly employed? This is a question he grappled with his entire life, and the utter failure of his contemporaries to take it seriously is to their eternal shame.

He employs in his numerous essays a largely moral vocabulary to cut apart topics ranging from the uses and abuses of the English language, to the Maine Lobster Festival, to the self-absorption of the John Updike school of Baby Boomer narcissism in fiction. These essays give us a sense of his formidable intellectual pugilism: the Updike review in particular is downright daring. Few other young authors would ever dare to take on such a revered elder statesman, but Wallace not only shreds his book to pieces but, like Karl Marx, recognizes that Updike's entire ontological predicate is flawed. He not only wrote a bad book, but wrote it for bad reasons, and indeed seems to be existing incorrectly. In these essays, Wallace seems everywhere to be making a doomed stand in favor of meaning in human existence, despite all of the hideous cultural constructs we have invented to implement our alienation from one another.

Which brings us to The Broom of the System. The novel was originally Wallace’s senior English thesis at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His other major was philosophy, in which he specialized in semantics, formal logic, and analytical philosophy with a very heavy background in higher mathematics. His philosophy thesis on modal logic was entitled Richard Taylor's 'Fatalism' and the Semantics of Physical Modality and was awarded the Gail Kennedy Memorial Prize. In it he developed a new formal apparatus called “intensional-physical-modality” to wholly dismantle Taylor’s 1962 argument about fatalism. Here is a typical sentence: “Let Φ (a physical possibility structure) be a set of distinct but intersecting paths ji–jn, each of which is a set of functions, L’s, on ordered pairs {t, w} ({time, world situation}), such that for any Ln, Lm in some ji, Ln R Lm, where R is a primitive accessibility relation corresponding to physical possibility understood in terms of diachronic physical compatibility.” This, I think, is at the heart for my affinity for Wallace: not only do I almost universally agree with his opinions and analyses, not only do I have great admiration for his intellect and accomplishments, and not only am I in awe of his capacity for articulation, but further I find something fascinating in the juxtaposition of ruthless intellect and emotional vulnerability. The author of that sentence was the same sad, fragile young man writing in the Care Bears notebook.

The Broom of the System is both very good and very frustrating. The story involves Lenore Beadsman, daughter of baby-food magnate Stonecipher Beadsman III, and her sort-of boyfriend Rick Vigorous, who is half of Frequent and Vigorous Publishing Company. Lenore’s great-grandmother (also named Lenore) was a student of Wittgenstein at Cambridge and lives in a nursing home which must be kept at 98.6 degrees, since her body cannot regulate its temperature. She’s literally cold-blooded, you see. The elder Lenore vanishes without a trace, along with about twenty other employees and inmates of the nursing home, thereby kicking off the ostensible plot. The Stonecipher company seems to be producing some sort of new baby food which makes babies super-smart, which sort of involves Rick Vigorous and someone else named Andrew Sealander Lang in a way which I guess could also be called a plot. There are a lot of coincidences: in the unpromising opening chapter, a young Lenore is visiting her sister at Amherst when two frat guys burst into their room and demand that Lenore’s sister and roommates sign their posteriors, for the purposes of fraternity initiation. One of them grows up to be Andrew S. Lang, one of Lenore’s sister’s roommates turns out to be Lang’s future wife and former neighbor of Rick Vigorous. And so on. There are sort of magical-realist peculiarities: Rick Vigorous’ son has a mystical connection to Richard Nixon, and a town is built in the shape of Jayne Mansfield. The Governor of Ohio commissions a desert to be built (the Great Ohio Desert, no points for considering the acronym) in order to restore a sense of the sinister to suburban Cleveland. Instead of watching television, a family turns on a video feed of themselves wearing masks, acting out each others lives. There are three sort-of plots: where did the elder Lenore go and why? Will the younger Lenore stay with the neurotic and jealous Rick Vigorous, or with Lang? What will happen with the super baby food?

Well, I'll tell you: I don't know.

All of this is given with some playful post-modernist digressions. Many scenes are presented only in dialogue, studded with an immensely annoying habit of having one character say: “....” I kept wondering why it was four dots instead of three, and began to theorize that maybe it was an ellipsis with a period at the end. Some chapters are given in transcript form. Rick Vigorous is mainly impotent, so instead of having sex, he tells Lenore stories, all of which are tragic and convoluted and have sort of metaphysical application to the action of the story. One chapter is a story he wrote himself, starring a surrogate character who appears occasionally in italics, reaping great victories Rick Vigorous himself does not enjoy. There are some first-person excerpts from what is apparently Rick Vigorous’ diary. Eventually we get the point: we never see anything through Lenore’s eyes, only words other characters use to describe her. As her Wittgensteinian grandmother would say, he does not exist and has no life beyond the words the characters (and through them, Wallace) uses to create and refer to her. How does she differ from a character in a story Rick Vigorous tells? Is a character in a story within a story more or less real than the character telling the story? Or more real than the character reading it? Wallace is playing for keeps here: he ends the book in mid-sentence, when he stops using language to create the characters.

Now, all of this is very clever, frequently amusing, and when Wallace really lets himself get going on the possibilities of philosophy, it’s downright fascinating. But he has two very serious problems. The first, and in my opinion most fatal, is a problem of voice registers. All the characters sound the same. They speak a sort of arch, reflexive, adverb-studded hipster jargon regardless of age, education, or socioeconomic standing. The segments from Rick Vigorous’ diary are the only exceptions, and they’re lovely pieces of writing. Consider this: "A kiss with Lenore is a scenario in which I skate with buttered soles over the moist rink of lower lip, sheltered from weathers by the wet warm overhang of upper, finally to crawl between lip and gum and pull the lip to me like a child's blanket and stare over it with beady, unfriendly eyes out at the world external to Lenore, of which I no longer wish to be part."

I must wonder why Wallace chose to give him such an expressive inner life and such a bland outer one. The dialogue passages particularly accentuate this problem, since it quickly sounds like one voice talking to itself. Sometimes he just lays on too much grad student jargon. Look at this: "The fat lady's not really real, and to the extent that she's real she's just used, and if she thinks she's real and not being used, it's only because the system that educes her and uses her makes her by definition feel real and non-educed and non-used." Some tightness of diction and the removal of recursive sentence structures (everyone always refers to “X vis-à-vis Y” or “X, as regards the whole Y situation,” or something similar) would probably cut a hundred pages off the novel. He also forgot the very first rule of good writing: kill all the adverbs. Every subject of everyone’s speech in this book is improbably, unbelievably, surprisingly, startlingly, incredibly, achingly adverbial. Furthermore, there seems to be a confusion about formality. Characters are never consistent in levels of vulgarity, and often the narrator seems to be a bit more prudish than the characters are. It strikes an entirely wrong note to have a narrator refer to “bottoms” and “going to the bathroom,” when characters say they have asses and are shitting. Choose one or the other, preferably consistent with the subjective formality of the occasion in which the characters are speaking.

The voice problem is pretty clearly a problem of an inexperienced novelist who has learned to write the way he speaks but not yet the way other people speak. Tackling something of this scope and complexity, especially while inventing a system of modal logic, was always going to have a few beginner mistakes. The other problem is a structural one, which is endogenous to Wallace’s decision to not resolve any of the plot strands. The New Yorker article tells us that he was aware of this: “The problem for Wallace, as he reflected after its publication, was that “Broom” offered an analysis but derided even the idea of a solution. In a 1989 letter to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, a friend, Wallace said that “Broom” felt as if it had been written by “a very smart

I'd say he was too harsh on himself. It felt as if had been written by a very, very smart twenty-four-year-old. He also described “Broom” as covert autobiography, “the sensitive tale of a sensitive young WASP who’s just had this midlife crisis that’s moved him from coldly cerebral analytic math to a coldly cerebral take on fiction . . . which also shifted his existential dread from a fear that he was just a 98.6°F calculating machine to a fear that he was nothing but a linguistic construct.” The existential dread is certainly there, but there is also an awful lot of jokes and playfulness going on, as Wallace clearly spends some time playing with his art form. And it seems especially towards the end, when Lenore’s pet bird has become a televangelist celebrity, that the sense of dread has been lost and the novel has gone entirely off the rails. Apparently he was smart enough to know that, but felt that it was an accurate portrayal of life: “Yet when he tried to write a proper conclusion,” the New Yorker says, “in which geriatrics emerge, revelations revelationize, things are cleared up,” the words felt wrong to him. “I am young and confused and obsessed with certain problems that I think right now distill the experience of being human,” he wrote to Howard. Reality was fragmented, and so his book must be, too.”

All of that is theoretically sound, but does not make for a satisfying reading experience. I finished the book wondering why I had read so many strange transcripts of Lenore and Rick’s sessions with their psychiatrist, and long passages of nonsense dialogue from Lenore’s bird. What was the point of introducing Bombardini, the man who decides to eat until he reaches infinite size and fills the universe with Self, only to never appear again? What was the point of establishing an emotional connection between Lenore and Rick, Lenore and Lang, and Rick and Lang’s wife, never to resolve it? Really, what was the point of writing the novel?

The point was to exorcise Wallace’s fears, and to experiment with the boundaries of language. The point was for him to grow, develop, and learn as a writer. I'm glad he did it and I'm glad he published it. Name another novelist whose work at the age of 24 is available for public consumption. At that age, even Karl Marx was making silly arguments about Democritus, and Shakespeare was probably busy hoarding grain. The Broom of the System is fascinating as an artifact, and as a process. Here we are able to see an intellect grappling with itself and with the strictures of its chosen art form, and emerging bloodied but stronger. There are traces of the voice of the mature Wallace here: in the words of the New Yorker, "written in language that shows that it's possible to be serious without being sanctimonious, funny without being sophomoric, erudite without being pretentious, and these chapters unfold, beguilingly, from the particular to the philosophical, from small case studies to larger, zeitgeisty ruminations." Here he is simply too inexperienced to pull off the lofty deconstructions he'd intended. The Broom of the System may not be brilliant, but it is both essential and necessary. I probably would not recommend it to you, unless you are, like me, enraptured with Wallace's thought, but I am very glad I read it, and since we are to suffer the cruel fate of no more words from the late, great David Foster Wallace, I am glad I was able to enjoy this last bit of time with him.

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