[i think there’s going to be a hiatus on this blog, or at least a drastic decrease in what was already a lax update schedule. Productivity in all areas of my life is slowing way down, my energy level is almost nil; it feels like my mental bandwidth has narrowed so much that i cant think straight on anything and yet everything i want to read and write about is logjamming somewhere behind my frontal lobes. Anyway, im just gonna ride this out and see if things get better.]
At this rate ill be getting through DFW’s three novels within nine months of each other, since the philosophy dept. book club plans to hit up THE PALE KING immediately after the JEST. How do i feel about this work? Not overwhelmed like with IJ, but certainly not underwhelmed, either. Just whelmed. It’s a romp. And it’s a dry run for a few ideas that show up again in the JEST, like the need to escape the System. There are at least three dimensions to this System to which this Broom belongs that i can identify: the family, technology, and language. But they are all mixed together in the novel, especially technology and people, human bodies — an important sub-plot involves the telephone lines getting messed up underneath the building Lenore works in because the temperature in the phone line tunnels has increased to that of a human body’s. The repairman goes on about the cable network being analogous to a nervous system.
These notes will include spoilers, but, you know, it’s Wallace. If folks come to this novel for the mystery they will be sorely disappointed, as you can see in the Goodreads reviews. It’s a shaggy story — the text ends mid-sentence, and the missing word is “word.” i read this for my philosophy elective class, which has a classmate who’s also part of the writing program, and she was dissatisfied with the novel until the ending saved it for her.
You may have already heard that BROOM is like an entertaining dramatization of Wittgenstein’s later ideas, the ones in the INVESTIGATIONS. Linguistic philosophy is out of my way (im more of a French continental and post-structuralist fellow), but we’ll see about this later.
We follow Lenore Beadsman, a woman in her twenties who finds that her great grandma, also named Lenore Beadsman, hereafter Gramma, has disappeared from her nursing home which is owned by Lenore’s sociopathic asshole dad, who runs a baby food corporation in competition w/ Gerber. The goofy mysteries proliferate, and we also see her relationship with her boss Richard Vigorous (Dick Vigorous, ahyuk hyuk) who runs a mediocre publishing company. Actually the highlights of the novel for me are the scenes in which Vigorous tells Lenore the stories he’s had submitted, which are all weird and often depressing. Vigorous himself is neurotic, obsessed with his inadequate penis, has strange dreams. Both characters share a shrink named Dr. Jay, who is a fraud in every conceivable way.
So there’s a lot of material and it kind of fans out. The core issue raised is how to escape the system (Lenore has paranoid feelings not only that she is a linguistic construct in a text, but that everyone in her life is subtly manipulating her in a vast conspiracy, and this is not unfounded). Gramma is present despite her absence, as she has been inflicting the teachings of Wittgenstein on other family members for a long time, admonishing them to escape the linguistic prison. INFINITE JEST also involves an older member of the family (James Incandenza) coaching a younger one (Hal) to break free through manipulative strategies (the professional conversationalist), but isn’t it still a coercive act to drag people out of coercive situations?
The first chapter is a like a haiku of the rest of the novel. It’s set in 1981 while the rest of the story’s action is in 1990: Lenore is visiting her older sister Clarice at Mt Holyoke college. She and her roomates talk about, among other things, a campus rape incident, with off-putting callousness. Lenore is curious about the mixer going on downstairs, which her sister and her roommates are above attending, but they decide to go for Lenore’s sake and because they have the munchies. But then two frat brats from Amherst barge into their room, block the entrance, and refuse to leave until the women sign their ass cheeks.
A long run of dialog, and Clarice says:
You shitty bastards…You Amherst guys, and U-Mass too, all of you. Just because you’re bigger, physically just take up more space, you think — do you think? — think you can rule everything, make women do whatever stupid rotten disgusting stuff you say you want just because you’re drunk? Well up yours, sideways. …You come over to our parties, grinning like apes in the bus no doubt, you get smeared in about two minutes, trash us, act like we’re meat, or furniture, think you can just…invade us, our room, for no other reason than that you’re just stronger, that you can block the door and I pound your big greasy stupid heads on it? Screw you. Screw you.
The second frat brat, Biff Diggerance, answers with a classic male ego “She’s asking for it” performance
You have these parties that you advertise out our ears, all this cute teasing bullshit, ‘Come to the Comonawannaleiya party, get lei’d at the door,’ ha. ‘Win a trip to the hot tubs for two,’ blah-blah-blah. You’re just teases of the cockular sort, is what you are. So we come, like you ask and advertise for, and we put on ties, and we come over, and then we find you got security guards at the doors with freaking guns, and we gotta have our hands stamped like fifth-graders for beer, and all the girls look at us like we’re rapists, and plus, besides, all the girls down there look like Richard Nixon, while all the real babes lock themselves up up here–
Lenore’s really the only character who comes out of here well. She breaks out of the room after throwing one of her heels at one the frat brats and threatening to do it again, a miniature breaking out.
The other frat brat, Andy Wang-Dang Lang, ends up married to one of the roommates in that scene, but will turn up again. All of the men in this novel are utter bastards, really. Mr. Bloemker less so, but he’s a creep.
Vigorous’s stories to Lenore are also vaguely disguised control structures. We get to see his private writings and shrink appointments, and he’s obsessed with possessing, absorbing Lenore. There’s a lot of desire discourse here, and it parallels his S/M kinks which Lenore is not keen on fulfilling.
You may be familiar with DFW’s paper on TV culture’s influence on literary fiction, “E Unibus Pluram,” where he argues postmodern self-ware irony is used by TV to absorb any criticisms of its shittiness. Moreover, writers of literary fiction, for the sake of realistically reflecting their society, also have to absorb this self-aware irony in their own work — to embody anti-realism for the sake of realism. The imperative in Strunk and White’s ELEMENTS OF STYLE to avoid dating your work with brand names is too hard to sustain nowadays. Wallace is pessimistic about how well fiction can engage with this problem without letting TV win since writers end up forsaking a sincere standing. He talks about “Image-Fiction,” which captures the madness and irreality of TV’s aura, but makes its own literature vapid and surface-only and crude just like TV. BROOM has Image-Fiction characteristics too, in that is it has a lot of pop culture references and allusions that were dated even at the time Wallace was writing it. There’s a bar themed after Gilligan’s Island, with pratfalls done by the bartenders. And there’s a Cleveland suburb designed to look like Jayne Mansfield’s head.
But it’s not clear what all of this material that’s fanning out has to do with each other. BROOM is a lot like other US pomo novels — it’s hard to imagine this novel without THE CRYING OF LOT 49 — but different in that it isn’t a tight, closed, paranoia-inducing total structure. It’s an open system (which is not the sense i get from INFINITE JEST so far).
But back to Wittgenstein. The novel’s material is in large part given through dialog — phone conversations, transcripts, and the like. You could make a radio play out of it without much difficulty. Both Gramma’s and Wittgenstein’s teachings are imparted indirectly bc of this. Lenore’s dad gives the basic reading in a long phone monologue:
What she did with me — I must have been eight, or twelve, who remembers — was to sit me down in the kitchen and take a straw broom and start furiously sweeping the floor, and she asked me which part of the broom was more elemental, more fundamental, in my opinion, the bristles or the handle. The bristles or the handle. And I hemmed and hawed, and she swept more and more violently, and I got nervous, and finally when I said I supposed the bristles, because you could after a fashion sweep without the handle, by just holding onto the bristles, but couldn’t sweep with just the handle, she tackled me, and knocked me out of my chair, and yelled into my ear something like, ‘Aha, that’s because you want to sweep with the broom, isn’t it? It’s because of what you want the broom for, isn’t it?’ Et cetera. And that if what we wanted a broom for was to break windows, then the handle was clearly the fundamental essence of the broom, and she illustrated with the kitchen window…
In short, use determines essence, as the cliched reading of Wittgenstein goes.
There are other wild riffs on the riddles Gramma leaves behind in the form of drawings. Lenore visits her pothead younger brother at Amherst to hear his take on it. Signs keep pointing her to go to the artificial black sand desert in Ohio, but resists it on account of her suspicions of everyone manipulating her actions.
Lenore ends up with Andy Wang-Dang Lang, the frat brat in the first scene. Actually, as the novel goes on, Lenore becomes less real to me. Is her choice to break off with Vigorous her liberation, her agency? Lang doesn’t seem all that less manipulative, sharing a sob-story about his own grandmother that makes Lenore weep — seems like just another smooth operator, but the novel seems to invite me to take this as a positive step.
There’s little i can make out of the plethora of odd anti-real elements — there’s Vlad the Impaler, Lenore’s pet bird who ends up on a televangelist show, interesting in light of the TV essay; all the pop-culture stuff; the gymnast doing promo work for Gerber; and what other people call Lenore’s foot fetish. But i s’pose the use of the open system is up to you. Eh.