The Broom of the System and David Foster Wallace's Wacky World
By Johan Conrod

From Gadfly August 1998


"Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden."

It 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).

Like 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.

As 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.

As 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.

In 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:

Mr. Lungberg: You're really sold on this, aren't you, Chief?
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 be immortal.
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 over.

What 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.

Wallace's 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 the Significant.

Why TV? Wallace himself answers the question in an essay titled "E Unibus Plurum: television and U.S. fiction." Here's what he says:

If the postmodern church fathers found pop images valid referents and symbols in fiction and if in the '70s and early '80s this appeal to the features of mass culture shifted from use to mention—i.e. certain avant-gardists starting to treat of pop and TV watching as themselves fertile subjects—the new Fiction of Image uses the transient received myths of popular culture as a world in which to imagine fictions about "real," albeit pop-meditated, characters.

In other words, not only do Wallace and his "Image Fiction" (his term) friends feel comfortable using TV images to help describe a scene, they actually use the TV references as the scene itself. Which is to say that, to them at least—and more and more to every two-car-garaged American—TV is as much reality as the Ford in the driveway. Which is, of course, the height of postmodernism's irony in that while these writers may be treating TV as real we all know that it isn't—or do we?

The thing about The Broom of the System then which is fundamentally Wallace and can be empirically traced throughout his later writing, is this fiddling with the increasingly gray line that separates reality from fiction in today's world. He blends humor and absurdity with an astoundingly creative voice to poke into the recesses of America's psyche and show us just how screwed up our society can be—while at the same time crafting characters that cope with the wackiness by developing new definitions of happiness and fulfillment; in fact, by carving out an existence, a Self, in the shadow of the only GOD they know.