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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace: A Book Review

The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace

What the hell did I just read?


The Broom of the System is the first novel of American author David Foster Wallace, published in 1987 when he was just 24 years old. When Wallace was about to graduate Amherst University, he submitted two philosophy theses: one was a long paper about fatalism, and the other was the first draft of what became The Broom of the System two years later.

The book is 467 pages, split into 21 chapters which are split further into mini-chapters entitled with descending letters of the alphabet. Some of these mini-chapter are a paragraph long, others lasting over five pages, which made for an interesting read.


The story revolves around 24-year-old Lenore Beadsman, a girl working at a malfunctioning call center for a publishing company in early nineties' Cleveland, Ohio who is dealing with a number of unfortunate circumstances: complicated family problems, a possessive, slightly neurotic, impotent 41-year-old boyfriend, a 91-year-old great-grandmother who has escaped from her senior home with twenty-four other residents and staff members, and also a pet cockatiel who cannot seem to stop reeling off obscenities, and later divine proclamations. But on top of that, Lenore is stricken with an anxiety that she and the world in which she lives is possibly completely false, an unreality, possibly even a piece of fiction.

Lenore sets off to track down her lost great-grandmother, a woman, also named Lenore. This journey proves quite difficult; the employees at her the nursing home are incompetent, and also Lenore is a bit at odds with most of her family, her father seemingly having flown of to Corfu and cannot be contacted. She with her boyfriend Rick Vigorous who runs the publishing house called Frequent and Vigorous that Lenore works at, end up traveling to Amherst University, where Lenore’s brother LaVache is a student (coincidentally also Rick’s alma mater–he runs into another alumnus there, and a quirky series of event ensue). LaVache, also called Antichrist, is the younger, genius, stoner brother of Lenore who lost his leg at birth, and who now treats his prosthetic leg as a sentient entity–he supports his leg, rather than the leg supports him, weird right? Oh, also he uses the term lymph node to refer to his phone, yeah.

Upon their return to Ohio, Lenore and Rick’s relationship grows more strained, certainly fomented by the musings of their incessantly pedantic and overzealous therapist, Dr. Jay. Remember that talking cockatiel, yeah now it’s a religious talk show star. Also back with them is Rick’s alumnus friend, Andrew Lang (who has some interesting ties to Lenore) who has run away from his wife, Mindy, and begins working for Rick. Well Mindy shows up looking for Lang and some things happen, mainly Lenore and Lang hook up, and Mindy and Rick hook up, all of which is kept on the down low. Lenore and Rick then go to the Great Ohio Desert (a gnarly, conspiratorial side-story that connects a ton of characters) to go searching for Lenore’s great-grandmother, but unbeknownst to them, Lang and a fellow colleague are secretively following them, in hopes to learn sensitive information, and of course, an interesting series events ensue as the books draws to a close.


Book reviewer Tori Schacht in a post for The Rumpus published back in 2011 summed it up pretty well: “Broom is a journey into the metaphysics of discourse–the stuff we communicate to our lovers; the crap we invent about our family; the way we use language to be in the world–or in Lenore’s case, to escape it.”

The “metaphysics of discourse” lays the interweaving, underlying, torrential, and at times, absurd foundation that supports this story–Lenore, the protagonist, is unable to discern if she is, in fact, real, and thus reality is real and definite or if she is, in fact, unreal (possibly a character in a story), and thus reality is also unreal and indefinite (possibly a piece of fiction). But the WILD thing is that that notion–real vs unreal, reality vs fiction–gets unbelievably and increasingly ambiguous. As the story unfolds, the notion of if she is real (and, therefore, reality is real) becomes seemingly less likely, and the notion that she is, in fact, unreal (and, therefore, reality is fiction) becomes seemingly more likely; however, as we learn from DFW’s undeniably complex and uncontested prose working in conjunction with an absurdly imaginative mind, those two notions are somewhat synonymous.

*cough cough – smells like postmodernism*

How does he do this?

So, the story revolves around young Lenore and every section that is about Lenore is written in the 3rd-person present: Lenore does this, Lenore does that. Many other sections of the book are written in the first-person point of view of other characters, lesser characters. And many of these characters are SUPER weird, like wild and unrealistic–for instance, the landlord of her office building is trying to eat so much so that he becomes infinitely large so as to spatially occupy the universe i.e. “more self, less other.” Wallace, by making all the characters around her so emphatic and absurd and unrealistic, makes Lenore look, act, think, seem much more realistic (which of course, is totally ironic–a fictional character in a book is made more realistic by other unrealistic fictional characters while she fictionally struggles to determine if she is real or not).

Also, while a huge portion of the book is made of dialogue, the way that Wallace formats his prose jumps around very frequently. There are pages of straight scenes of action in present tense, there are off-tangent short stories told by Lenore’s boyfriend (which are seriously some of my FAVORITE parts by the way! And further strengthens this notion of fiction vs reality–wherein these stories within stories, the characters are also wildly absurd [like literally, one is about a woman who has an interesting relationship with a toad that lives inside her neck!]), there are transcripts of therapy sessions, there are stream of consciousness one-sided phone calls, there are transcribed medical notes, there are logged accounts of radio transmissions, there are tiny sections of first-draft, poorly-written publishing submissions, etc. It’s quite unbelievable, and while, at parts, a bit difficult to understand at first read, they are nonetheless wildly entertaining. Wallace is playing with language to a degree that it certainly beyond anything I’ve ever read. Funny, too, because the novel itself is literally about language.

Language, and how it relates to an individual’s perception of reality, is the essence of the book. Words, letters, and the relationships, constructions, dynamics between them; the arrival of an idea and its return a hundred pages later, the recapitulation of descriptions within differing contexts; all the while such words, letters, descriptions slowly break down (à la Derrida’s deconstruction) to reveal a buried, invisible system that seemingly alludes to a puppeteer playing with the strings of reality, in particular Lenore’s life.

This notion is largely played out in one of my favorite scenes: at Amherst, the dialogue between Lenore and her brother, LaVache. They contemplate an antimony that their grandmother had drawn: a man climbing up a hill. But LaVache makes the case that it could also be that the man is sliding down the hill; what is it that leads us to believe in either case? [Wittgenstein’s ladder/picture theory of meaning, etc.]. He applies this concept to Lenore’s search for her grandmother, and also the relationship with their father, saying, “maybe Lenore’s [sr.] isn’t gone at all. Maybe you’re who’s gone, when all is said and done…maybe Dad’s gone, spiraled into the industrial void. Maybe he’s taken us with him. Maybe Lenore’s found. Maybe instead of her sliding away from you, you’ve slid away from her. Or climbed away from her. Maybe is all a sliding-and-climbing game! Chutes and Ladders risen from the dead!” (I left a lot of there, by the way; it’s way more in-depth than that). That simple exchange defines one of the largest undercurrents of the novel, and yet is still a fraction of the deeper nuances that drift just below the surface.

The conversations between Dr. Jay and Rick and Dr. Jay and Lenore also dive deep into philosophical concepts, mainly that of self vs other, on which Dr. Jay bases his entire psychological analyses for both Rick and Lenore. The transcripts of their sessions are works of philosophical art, in my opinion, that reach pedagogical esteem, not only in the translation of the most complex topics into comprehensive language which then transforms into total convolution which in turn reflects the meaning of such musings, but all the while, sprinkled into the dialogue are allusions to the quirky nature of Dr. Jay which makes for an even more entertaining experience.

Lastly, the entire story of Lenore’s talking cockatiel (initially named Vlad the Impaler, later Ulogino the Magnificent) is a complete commentary on this whole notion of language as a barrier to the truth and deconstruction of language. Everything that this little bird spews out is pretty much completely misconstrued, and more often than not, taken in wildly different contexts–hint, hint, people hear what they want to hear–hint, hint, how does language affect you? Oh yeah, and Wallace throws all of this against a backdrop of religion, which may be saying something, hint, hint.

Truth be told, this is a book worthy of a long-winded, academic paper and literary critique. The Broom of the System has a plethora of philosophical avenues to run down, not limited to simply real vs fiction or language as an obstruction to truth, but also subjects such as consumerism, religion, status quo, and free will. And, second truth to be told, I am positive that some aspects soared over my head while reading, which not only drives me to read it again and again, but also to dive deeper into the philosophies of Wittgenstein and Derrida, also not to mention, Lacan and Descartes as well.

Regardless of the philosophical nuances, this book was HIGHLY entertaining, a cinematic roller coaster of outrageous characters, awkward sequences, and ridiculous dialogue, all of which works together to build a truly thought-provoking piece of fiction that will leave any reader with an overwhelming sense of what the hell did I just read?


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