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Paperback Writers: Brush up on your Wallace

In 'The Broom of the System,' David Foster Wallace ponders the gap between American dreams and reality like a latter-day Fitzgerald.

June 27, 2010|By Richard Rayner | Special to the Los Angeles Times
(Marion Ettlinger )

David Foster Wallace's novel "The Broom of the System" takes place in a Cleveland suburb which has been planned so that, from the air, it resembles the head of Jayne Mansfield. The movie actress and sex symbol died in a car crash in 1967 — decapitated, according to urban legend. So why shouldn't that once-gorgeous head become a model for playful city planners and a future distraction to airline pilots whizzing over the Midwest?

That was the idea that occurred to an aspiring young fiction writer, then still an undergraduate at Amherst College. And so, in this novel, his first, originally published in 1987 and now re-issued in a new edition with French flaps and a jacket by the tattoo artist Duke Riley (Penguin: 480 pp, $16), Wallace laid out the parameters of his outsize and finally tragic talent: He would restructure the world with language and with loving attention to both the mundane, and the extraordinary, in American life.

"Most pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden. They're long and thin and splay-toed, with buttons of yellow callus on the little toes and a thick stair-step of it on the back of the heel, and a few long black hairs are curling out of the skin at the tops of the feet, and the red nail polish is cracking and peeling in curls and candy-striped with decay."

That's the beginning of "Broom," set in 1981, with 15-year-old Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman visiting her sister Clarice, who's a freshman at a women's college. In a room on the second floor of Rumpus Hall, Lenore listens to Cat Stevens and observes the sexy girl with the callused toes. Already, in these gorgeous first sentences, there are shades of Thomas Pynchon (that name — Mindy Metalman), but there are also echoes of John Updike, in the nailed-on specificity of the observation. Even echoes of Nabokov — for Mindy Metalman will operate a little like Lolita in this story, except like a Lolita grown up and hell-bent on sexual control.

"Broom" then hops forward in time to 1990. Lenore is called upon to deal with a triple crisis: Her great-grandmother, along with numerous other oldsters, has disappeared from a nursing home; her middle-aged lover, Rick Vigorous — boss of the publishing house Frequent and Vigorous, which never seems to publish anything and where Lenore, although heiress to a baby-food fortune, works as a lowly telephone operator — seems to be losing his mind, not least with jealousy; and her pet cockatiel, Vlad the Impaler, suddenly becomes very verbal indeed, quoting Auden and the King James Bible.

In addition, Lenore's switchboard weirds out, scrambling and mixing calls, foreshadowing the fragmented story that will then unfold and the multiple narrative techniques that will tell it.

Wallace weaves therapy transcripts, duty logs, the first-person musings of Rick Vigorous (and fiction by Vigorous himself) through more straightforward, hilarious, often beautifully rendered scenes that deal with Lenore's various problems and quests. Lenore sometimes fears that she's a character in somebody else's fiction, and the reader isn't always sure what's real and what's not. Which is a part of what Wallace is getting at. The name of Wittgenstein is often evoked here, and "Broom" wonders, as Wittgenstein himself did, if language might be the only reality.

All of which makes "Broom" sound slightly manic and hard to grasp. And there's an element of that: Wallace was an almost unbelievably smart young man starting to strut his literary stuff. Yet there are lots of other things going on. Listen to Rick Vigorous, recalling early fatherhood:

"I would usually change our baby. I would change his diapers, and often as not, he lay on his back, with little legs of dough kicking, as I removed soggy old hot or ominously heavy diaper and manipulated crinkly new plastic Pamper, he would urinate up onto my hanging necktie, a pale, sweetly thin jet, and there would be smells of powder, and my tie would be heavy at my throat, and would drip, and we would laugh together, toothless he and sad, sleepy I, at my urine-soaked tie. I still own some of those ties, stiff and hard and dull, they hang on little toothed racks and clunk against my closet door when the winds of memory blow through the dark places in my apartment."

Wallace is doing a lot here: The passage, as written by Rick Vigorous, reads like pastiche Updike, packed with details and easy metaphors; yet the sentences pulse, too, with an ominous sadness, a madness almost. Wallace loves the mysteries of the concrete too much to be just the ironist or sorcerer of metaphysics.

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