really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so
does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden."
was with this opening line from his first published
book that the 26-year-old David Foster Wallace burst
upon the literary scene, not long out of Amherst
College in Massachusetts, and almost ten years before
his epic novel Infinite Jest would
win Time's book of the year and send
most critics into spasms of ecstasy. "Wallace...
demonstrates powers of split-screen vision and information
processing that should be measured in megabytes
rather than IQ points," said Time's
R.Z. Sheppard, who included Wallace as one voice
in an impressive quartet of American fiction's "most
promising works in progress," along with Rick
Moody (Purple America), Jonathan Franzen
(The Twenty-Seventh City) and Donald
Antrim (The Hundred Brothers).
his forbearers Don DeLillo (White Noise, Underworld)
and Thomas Pynchon (The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity's
Rainbow), Wallace spins tales that border
on science fiction and tinker with the absurd without
actually crossing over into it completely. In The
Broom of the System (Viking Penguin, 1987),
Wallace's first work, the characters live in Ohio,
but an altogether different Ohio than the one you
and I know. Here, the state's primary feature is
a 100-square mile artificial desert known as GOD,
or the Great Ohio Desert, allegedly constructed
in 1972 to give Ohioans a taste of their hardscrabble
roots and a chance to "hew" away at the
wilderness just like the pioneers once did.
in DeLillo's White Noise, a lingering
cloud of doom hangs over the book's ensemble—but
not from nuclear annihilation. It's a psychological
apocalypse that they're concerned with. Wallace
leans toward disorders like obsessive shower-taking
and overly expansive senses of self (one man deals
with loneliness by attempting to fill his personal
universe literally with himself by becoming so obese
that he has no more room for friends or acquaintances).
He tops off the cast with a talking cockatiel, Vlad
the Impaler, a bird so eloquent it becomes a guest
on a televangelist show, spouting a potpourri of
religious and psychiatric gibberish interlaced with
vaguely sexual references and double entendres.
you've probably guessed, The Broom of the System
doesn't necessarily follow a linear plot line. This
is definitely not John Grisham. The skeleton of
the story involves Lenore Beadsman, a cotton-shift
and black-hightop-wearing ingenue, who despite sporting
a degree from a prestigious Eastern university works
as a receptionist for the Cleveland-based publishing
house Frequent & Vigorous. The mysterious abduction
of her grandmother kicks off the story which also
involves Lenore's love affair with her boss, Richard
Vigorous, who publishes virtually nothing other
than a quarterly literary review and whose business
is apparently a money-laundering front for its founder,
Mr. Frequent. We meet various relatives of Lenore's,
her family being extremely wealthy and influential
due to its baby-food empire—which also relates
to the story, since there's a subplot about a certain
food additive which makes toddlers into prodigies
that's being fought over by rival baby food companies.
Broom, Wallace exhibits two of his
most consistent obsessions: a fondness for environmental
engineering on an extreme scale and an affair with
television, the baby-sitter of his generation. The
environmental extremism is displayed in the aforementioned
Great Ohio Desert. An expanse of black sand complete
with scorpions and centipedes, the GOD, for those
familiar with Ohio's geography, covers the area
around Caldwell. Wallace gives readers a transcript
(One of his literary tricks, he loves to substitute
attributed transcripts for conventional dialogue)
of the Governor's meeting that led to the creation
of this expanse:
Lungberg: You're really sold on this, aren't you,
Governor: Joe, I've never been more sold on anything.
It's what this state needs. I can feel it.
Mr. Obstate: You'll go down in history, Chief. You'll
Governor: Thanks, Neil. I just feel it's right,
and after conferring with Mr. Yancey, I'm just sold.
A hundred miles of blinding white sandy nothingness.
'Course there'll be some fishing lakes, at the edges,
for people to fish in...
Mr. Lungberg: Why white sand, Chief? Why not, say,
black sand?... If the whole idea is supposed to
be contrast, otherness, blastedness, should I say
sinisterness? Sinisterness is the sense I get.
Governor: Sinisterness fits, that's good.
Mr. Lungberg: Well, Ohio is a pretty white state:
the roads are white, the people tend to be on the
whole white, the sun's pretty bright here.... What
better contrast than a hundred miles of black sand?
Talk about sinister. And the black would soak up
the heat a lot better, too. Be really hot, enhance
the blastedness aspect.
Governor: I like it.
Readers can find more of Wallace's obsession with
habitats in Infinite Jest, where he turns
the entire northeastern United States into an uninhabitable
feral zone—a virtual tropical jungle caused
by dumping toxic waste in the area. In this instance,
the U.S. has graciously given this land to Canada
after ruining it for future civilizations that come
along anytime before the half-life of uranium is
does it all mean? Most significantly, manipulating
the landscape in such extreme fashion—turning
the snowbelt of Ohio into a desert, or transfiguring
the picturesque Northeast into a tropical hot zone—is
distinctly modern. Never before in history has mankind
been able to so radically alter his habitat both
quickly and intentionally. And while no project
quite on the scale Wallace envisions has yet occurred,
we read his material without blinking. It seems
obvious that a civilization which blows a hole in
the ozone layer, stops mighty rivers in their tracks,
and regularly reclaims arid land through progressive
irrigation techniques can do whatever it feels like
to Mother Nature. She, after all, is encroaching
on our personal space. In Wallace's mind, it's just
another example of the surrealness of the modern
world, an era in which the Earth seems no more mysterious
or grand than a Chia Pet.
other major obsession, television, only peeks up
here and there in Broom. It's much
more evident in his other works, such as Girl
With Curious Hair, a collection of short
stories—one of which deals with an autistic
girl's years-long reign on the game-show Jeopardy—and
Jest, whose plot revolves around a
VCR tape so entertaining that people are quite literally
glued to their television sets and inevitably die
of starvation (an ironic twist on the popular couch
potato image of ever pudgier Americans wearing grooves
into their recliners). But in Broom,
Wallace does take his first nip from the cathode-ray
flask by mocking money-grubbing televangelists of
the late-'80s variety through Vlad the Impaler,
the talking cockatiel who ends up starring on the
pseudo-show, Partners With God, for
which appearance his name is changed to Ugolino
TV? Wallace himself answers the question in an essay
titled "E Unibus Plurum: television and U.S.
fiction." Here's what he says: