"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles,
WITTGENSTEIN IS DEAD AND LIVING IN OHIO
The New York Times
Date: March 1, 1987, Sunday, Late City Final Edition
Section 7; Page 22, Column 1; Book Review Desk
Byline: By Caryn James; Caryn James is an editor of The
THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM By David Foster Wallace. 467 pp.
New York: Viking. Cloth, $18.95. Penguin. Paper, $7.95.
STANLEY ELKIN, an author never accused of being a
minimalist, once recalled his defense when an editor
advised, ''Stanley, less is more.''
''I had to fight him tooth and nail in the better
restaurants to maintain excess,'' Mr. Elkin said,
''because I don't believe less is more. I believe that
more is more. I believe that less is less, fat fat, thin
thin and enough is enough.'' Today, nearly a dozen years
later, the very mention of a first novel by a
24-year-old barely out of college might make a reader
say, ''enough is enough'' -- enough pared down,
world-weary creative writing projects. So ''The Broom of
the System'' is an enormous surprise, emerging straight
from the excessive tradition of Stanley Elkin's
''Franchiser,'' Thomas Pynchon's ''V,'' John Irving''s
''World According to Garp.'' As in those novels, the
charm and flaws of David Foster Wallace's book are due
to its exuberance -- cartoonish characters, stories
within stories, impossible coincidences, a hip but true
fondness for pop culture and above all the spirit of
playfulness that has slipped away from so much recent
Cleveland in 1990 -- the setting for most of the story -
borders the Great Ohio Desert (or G.O.D.), a man-made
area filled with black sand, meant to restore a sense of
the sinister to Midwestern life. The confused heroine is
24-year-old Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman who, despite her
proximity to the sinister G.O.D., has a ridiculous life.
Her friends hang out at Gilligans Isle, a theme bar; her
grandfather designed a Cleveland suburb in the precise
outline of Jayne Mansfield's body; her brother
Stonecipher Beadsman IV is nicknamed the Antichrist; and
her boyfriend, Rick Vigorous, half of the publishing
firm of Frequent and Vigorous, is insane about Lenore
but impotent when he's with her, so he tells her stories
as a substitute for sex.
Poor Lenore is also under the influence of the
great-grandmother for whom she was named, a woman who
had been Wittgenstein's student and who has taught her
great-granddaughter that words create reality. Gramma
has convinced Lenore: ''All that really exists of my
life is what can be said about it.'' Circumscribed by
what others say, Lenore feels not quite in control of
her own existence.
When Gramma Lenore disappears from her room at the old
folks' home, the search for her provides the book's
flimsy plot. Her precious notebook from Wittgenstein's
class has vanished as well, but Gramma has left other
clues behind, such as the ominous drawing scrawled on a
label from a Stonecipheco Baby Food jar. (The family
business is Gerber's top rival.) It depicts, Lenore
guesses, ''the barber who shaves all and only those who
do not shave themselves. . . . The big killer question .
. . is supposed to be whether the barber shaves himself.
I think that's why his head's exploded, here.'' She also
suspects a connection between Gramma's disappearance and
the way Lenore's pet cockateel, Vlad the Impaler, has a
new, enlarged vocabulary. (''Women need space, too,''
squawks the bird.) The heart of the novel, though, is
its verbal extravagance and formal variations,
reflecting Lenore's belief that language creates and
imprisons her. Beyond the comic narration of her life,
there are excerpts from Rick's journal, transcripts of
Lenore and Rick's individual sessions with their mutual
psychiatrist, the stories Rick tells Lenore. To her,
those stories are the means by which Rick tries to
control her; given Gramma's theories, Lenore might as
well be a character in Rick's thinly veiled
autobiographical tales. What's the difference, Mr.
Wallace seems to ask, between the real Lenore and the
masked version in Rick's stories? And, by extension,
what's the difference between the real-life reader and
Lenore in ''The Broom of the System''?
Though such Chinese boxes are mere staples of
metafiction, Rick's stories have a more interesting
pattern, one Lenore can't see. These weird tales -- of a
woman who has a tree toad living in a small hollow in
her neck, or of children who can die from uncontrollable
crying jags -- depict families in distress. No family is
as stressed out as the inscrutable line of Stonecipher
Beadsmans, of course. With remarkable authorial control,
Mr. Wallace makes Rick's stories suitably awkward and
cliched, yet affecting within the fictional world of the
Mr. Wallace's collection of fragmented set pieces owes a
lot to Wittgenstein's theory of language games - at
least as Gramma demonstrates it. ''Which part of the
broom was more elemental . . . the bristles or the
handle?'' she asks her grandson. When he answers the
bristles, she yells, ''Aha, that's because you want to
sweep with the broom. . . . 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.''
Similarly, Mr. Wallace aims to create his own language
game, a fictional system in which ''something's meaning
is nothing more or less than its function.'' The
philosophical underpinnings of his novel are too weak to
support this, though. There is too much flat-footed
satire of Self and Other, too much reliance on
Philosophy 101. (The Antichrist refers to his phone as a
lymph node, so he can honestly tell his father he
doesn't have a phone.) And the novel falls off
drastically at the end, when a tortured running joke
turns into a contrived explanation and characters we
expect to appear never show up.
But the author's narrative command carries him over the
low spots. This is not, after all, a minimalist
tightrope-walk where a few wrong choices can produce
empty posturing instead of precisely understated
fiction. A saving grace of excessive novels is that a
few missteps hardly matter; ''The Broom of the System''
succeeds as a manic, human, flawed extravaganza.
On television was ''The Bob Newhart Show.'' In the big
social room with LaVache were three boys who all seemed
to look precisely alike. . . . ''Lenore, this is Cat,
this is Heat, this is the Breather,'' LaVache said from
his chair in front of the television. . . .
Heat and the Breather were on a spring-sprung sofa,
sharing what was obviously a joint. Cat was on the
floor, sitting, a bottle of vodka before him, and he
clutched it with his bare toes, staring anxiously at the
''Hi Bob,'' Suzanne Pleshette said to Bob Newhart on the
screen. . . . La Vache looked up from his clipboard at
Lenore. ''We're playing Hi Bob. You want to play Hi Bob
with us?'' He spoke sort of slowly. Lenore made a place
to sit on the luggage. ''What's Hi Bob?'' The Breather
grinned at her from the sofa, where he now held the
bottle of vodka. ''Hi Bob is where, when somebody on
'The Bob Newhart Show' says 'Hi Bob,' you have to take a
''And but if Bill Dailey says 'Hi Bob,' '' said Cat,
tending to the joint with a wet finger, ''that is to
say, if the character Howard Borden on the show says 'Hi
Bob,' it's death, you have to chug the whole bottle.''
''Hi Bob,'' said Bill Dailey on the screen.
- From ''The Broom of the System.''