I’m exhausted. I’m tired. And the fucking Christmas party season still isn’t over yet. Accompanying my frantic essay work, rampant socialising and exchange of semi-skilled professional services for money over the last week has been David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System. His first novel and his first published book, this was (for me) a disappointment of a literary distraction from the demands of actual life.
I read and ADORED Infinite Jest in the Summer*, read and really enjoyed Signifying Rappers in the Autumn, and had hoped to read and love The Broom of the System in the Winter. Sadly, however, this was not to be. As when I read Brief Interviews With Hideous Men a couple of years ago, I felt there were moments of rather exquisite literary beauty, but the overall piece is marred by a smugness and too many topics I don’t find interesting. Infinite Jest (which is loosely about consumerism, the decline of culture, addiction, depression, love, death, hope, loss of hope, self-destruction, class and identity) is the second best book I read this year, and one of the finest I have ever read. But that, I suppose, is because so many of the topics it explores are those which I deeply engage with: in conversation, in behaviour and my (if I can use so crude and self-aggrandising a term) “writings”. The Broom of the System, however, is about the American Middle West, is about jealousy, is about frat boys and religious preachers, is about old people and far too much about telephone switchboard operation. It is also concerned with narrative and with fiction itself.
I suppose this, really, is the crux of the book – Foster Wallace is at his strongest here when he is exploring the ways of telling stories. He uses, of course, various forms within the novel (transcripts, diaries, chapters solely consisting of dialogue…), and includes many short stories as part of the text. One of the characters, the ridiculously named Rick Vigorous**, works as the editor of a literary review, and regularly retells to his lover the fiction submissions he is sent. These passages are strong, these stories are varied and interesting, and are told to the reader in an original way. However, the main plots (because there are several) of the novel are all a bit limp, loosely connected and nothing/very little is tied up at the end. Which I don’t mind in itself, but other readers may.
But, I suppose, across the board it is funny, some of the short stories are very moving, if the overall text itself is not, and as a foreshadowing of probably the best novel of the ’90s it does bear some worth in reading. Not as good as Infinite Jest, not by a long way, but I am perhaps judging The Broom of the System too harshly because of how much I enjoyed Foster Wallace’s second novel and his non-fiction book about hip-hop.
Clearly a first novel, good, but (in my humble opinion) not great. However, in reading Infinite Jest, one irrevocably alters ones belief in what a novel can and should do.
* Flip back through my blog to see several posts about it, I read it whilst travelling.
** There are lots of stupid, Amis-esque, names in this book. I did not find these funny and found the conceit pretty detracting.