"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles,
Books of The Times
Life in Cleveland, 1990
The New York Times
Date: December 27, 1986, Saturday, Late City Final
Edition Section 1; Page 14, Column 3; Cultural Desk
Byline: By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM. By David Foster Wallace. 467
pages. Viking. Cloth, $18.95; paper, $7.95.
This novel, chosen by Viking to kick off its new series
of contemporary American fiction, was written by a
24-year-old graduate of Amherst College who is working
for his M.F.A. at the University of Arizona. It's an
unwieldy, uneven work -- by turns, hilarious and
stultifying, daring and derivative -- but at the same
time, it's a novel that attests to the publishers's
committment to risky new fiction and its young author's
rich reserves of ambition and imagination.
From its opening pages onward through its enigmatic
ending, ''The Broom of the System'' will remind readers
of ''The Crying of Lot 49'' by Thomas Pynchon. Like
''Lot,'' it attempts to give us a portrait, through a
combination of Joycean word games, literary parody and
zany picaresque adventure, of a contemporary America run
amok. Like ''Lot,'' it features comic and willfully
symbolic characters with odd, cutesy names -- a publisher
named Rick Vigorous; a roommate named Candy Mandible, an
Amherst student named Stonecipher Beadsman (also known
as the Antichrist), and a talking cockateel named Vlad
the Impaler. Like ''Lot,'' it uses stories within
stories to examine the relationship between real life
and fiction, language and perception. And like ''Lot,''
it focuses on a woman's quest for knowledge and
As her name might indicate, Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman
is engaged in an effort to decipher the mysteries of the
world about her, and she's also trying to figure out
exactly who she is. At the same time, she's trying to
find her namesake and great-grandmother, who's
mysteriously disppeared from a nursing home. This first
Lenore Beadsman was a student of Wittgenstein (a
circumstance that gives Mr. Wallace plenty of
opportunities to hold forth on the nature of reality and
language), and she'd set herself up -- in a somewhat
sinister way -- as her great-granddaughter's spiritual
and intellectual mentor.
''She is a hard woman,'' observes a character, ''a cold
woman, a querulous and thoroughly selfish woman, one
with vast intellectual pretensions and, I suppose,
probably commensurate gifts. She indoctrinates Lenore.
She and Lenore 'talk for hours.' Rather Lenore listens.
There is something sour and unsavory about it. Lenore
Beadsman will not tell me anything important about her
relationship with Lenore Beadsman.''
The one clue to the elder Lenore's whereabouts is a
baby-food label on which she's scrawled a bizarre
drawing of a person holding a razor and a can of shaving
cream -- described cryptically as ''the barber who shaves
all and only those who do not shave themselves.''
In addition to worrying about her great-grandmother's
disappearance, Lenore the younger is also busy
contending with an anorexic brother, a pet bird who's
begun to parrot all manner of distressing obscenities
and a noisy menagerie of suitors. In the first place,
there's her boss, Rick Vigorous -- head of the publishing
firm of Frequent and Vigorous -- who has problems
demonstrating his love for her in bed. Then there's a
conniving entrepenuer known as Wang-Dang Lang and a
monstrously fat man named Norman Bombardini who's
determined to ''fill the universe with Self'' and is
trying to make himself as large as possible.
Although much of the world in ''Broom'' seems familiar --
its backdrop is more or less Cleveland, the language
employed by its characters more or less contemporary
American slang -- Mr. Wallace has set his story in the
very near future (1990 to be exact) and in doing so, has
allowed himself certain imaginative liberties. The
result is a wonderfully odd, new world -- recognizable
but funny and perplexing at the same time. It's a world
where state officials commission the construction of a
desert (the Great Ohio Desert, otherwise known as
G.O.D.) to give residents a vacationland with all the
symbolic value of a wilderness-frontier; a world where
television has become the dominant cultural touchstone.
College students play a game called ''Hi Bob,'' inspired
by ''The Bob Newhart Show,'' and neighbors hang out at a
bar called Gilligan's Isle that takes its entire motif
from the old television show.
Many of Mr. Wallace's conceits are amusing, and some are
genuinely daring -- the reader intermittently feels that
the author wants to use Lenore's story as a Nabokovian
armature on which to drape serious philosophical and
literary discussions. The problem is that pretension
often substitutes for real intelligence, wordiness for
eloquence. Indeed ''The Broom of the System'' is
pock-marked with superfluous verbal riffs (on things
like geriatric acne), repetitious digressions, and
nonsensical babbling that reads like out-takes from a
stoned, late-night dormitory exchange. What are we to
make, for instance, of the following: ''No matter,''
says one character. ''Meaning as fundamentalness.
Fundamentalness as use. Meaning as use. Meaning as use.
Clearly Mr. Wallace possesses a wealth of talents -- a
finely-tuned ear for contemporary idioms; an
old-fashioned story-telling gift (as evidenced, in
particular, by the stories within stories contained in
this novel); a seemingly endless capacity for invention
and an energetic refusal to compromise. For all its
problems, ''Broom'' is no mean achievement -- and yet only
a shadow of what the author might accomplish given the
application of some narrative discipline and the
exchange of other writers's voices for a more original