Every so often a figure emerges from the relative calm of the cultural establishment to act as the beacon of a given generation, the point of reference against which everything else needs to be measured, the guide that will lead in the direction of the future. These figures tend to be young, unconventional, inspiring—at least that’s the mould from which they have been cast over the past 100 years, itself a sign of the times. When David Foster Wallace irrupted into the North American literary scene with the publication of his first novel, The Broom of the System (1987), he was 25 and had only graduated from Amherst College (majoring in English and Philosophy) two years previously.
Over the following decade Foster Wallace built a corpus of fiction and non-fiction narrative that would secure his place among the most influential writers of the latest fin de siècle, that of the XX century. In the midst of worldwide notoriety, he took his life, tragically adding an element of mystique to his already indelible legacy. Last year would have marked the 50th anniversary of his birth, an occasion that was deftly used by D. T. Max to launch his biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Story Is a Ghost Story. But why is it that, four years after his departure, we are still infatuated by a writer who was often cantankerously critical of his society and deliberately digressive in his literature?
Born in Ithaca, New York, in 1962, David Foster Wallace grew up in Champaign, Illinois, a small city engulfed by the fertile farmland of the profound Midwest that would so dramatically shape his literature. Foster Wallace’s style is itself a paradox, both hard to categorize and at the same time really hard to miss. Part Bukowski, part Pinchon, his writing is eclectic and elusive, simultaneously irreverent and conscious of a rich tradition, but—perhaps most significantly—it is deliberately chaotic in a way that nevertheless leaves the reader with a sense of careful design. In other words, Foster Wallace’s fiction is often unpredictable, but it never crosses onto the whimsical.
The Broom of the System brings together Foster Wallace’s overriding concerns through his formative years closely combining philosophical postulates within his narrative discourse. The novel revolves around the story of Lenore Beadsman, a 24 year-old heiress to a major corporate empire (Stonecipheco) whose identity crisis has led her away from her family bosom and into a struggling publishing house where she acts as receptionist.
Lenore’s troubled existence is further complicated one fine day, when the telephone lines at the switchboard of the building that houses her employer’s offices go wild, flooding her with innumerable calls for all sorts of amusing if improbable companies in the Cleveland area. Additionally, this circumstance prevents her from communicating with the home where her great grandmother (also called Lenore Beadsman) usually resides, and from which she—the great grandmother—has staged an escape of sorts, involving 20-odd octogenarians and a handful of members of staff.
In reality, it is the scandalous list of quirky characters and their relationship to each other which drives The Broom of the System. Attracted by the allure of what she is not supposed to like, Lenore (the young one) has a stable relationship with her boss, a middle-aged, impossibly jealous and amusingly short man with serious control and self-esteem issues. Lenore and her partner, Rick Vigorous, meet at the office of their common psychiatrist, whose ethics are widely amiss given that he is practically in Rick’s payroll. At some point Rick gives Lenore a parrot that is frustratingly unable to speak until he is fed prototype Stonecipheco baby food, which is believed to speed up and develop speech faculties in children. And obviously also in parrots, as the suddenly talkative bird becomes a national celebrity through its exposure to a prominent religious network. The list goes on and on with the likes of Lenore’s brother, who plays a crucial role as the awkward genius at Amherst College, or Wang-Dang Lang, a fringe character diametrically opposed to Rick Vigorous who ultimately comes to save Lenore from herself.
But The Broom of the System moves forward hesitantly and unevenly, alternating seemingly unconnected narrative episodes with long exchanges in which the various characters act as mouthpieces to voice Foster Wallace’s philosophical concerns. Most noticeably, Lenore Beadsman, the old one, becomes a powerful tool to ponder on Wittgenstein’s theory of language, which has young Lenore fearing that she is nothing more than a construct of other people’s words. That great grandmother Lenore only features in the novel through other people’s accounts of her is, of course, a deliberate meta-literary jest from Foster Wallace, who seems to enjoy this sort of irony a bit too much.
Indeed, meta-literary issues, writing about what has already been written elsewhere, abound in much of Foster Wallace’s literature, with various levels of success. For instance, in The Broom of the System, the presence of the psychiatrist and the inclusion of the full transcripts of several sessions with Rick Vigorous and Lenore Beadsman provide us with detailed psychological profiles of the characters. The problem with this is that as readers we often don’t want to be told what characters do, or even why they do it: we want to see them doing it. Foster Wallace’s use of these transcripts allows him to justify Lenore’s actions, to articulate one or two theories of identity and to take a pretty funny swipe at the psychiatric profession at large. Nevertheless, the artifice contributes little to the progress of the narrative and ultimately rather detracts from the overall merits of the novel.
As a matter of fact, Foster Wallace’s next book, the short-story collection Girl with Curious Hair (1989), provides a better example of the acute sensibility he had to identify the critical aspects of postmodern society and the remarkable ability he possessed to reproduce such aspects in original, intriguing and edifying ways. Nine short stories developed against the background of everyday American life are followed by one final novella, “Westward the Course of the Empire Takes Its Way,” which plunges the reader into a world of meta-literary references with copious doses of humor and candor. What is truly good about Girl with Curious Hair, however, is not found so much in any one of the stories, and can hardly be reduced to the 140 characters that form a tweet. Because while Foster Wallace is phenomenally perceptive and genuinely witty, what makes him stand apart as a writer is his capacity to make seemingly random yet effortless connections both within and between the stories that comprise the volume, affording the collection with a unitary sense that is both hard to explain and to deny.
Nowhere is this more evident than in “Lyndon”, perhaps the best of the stories in Girl with Curious Hair. Here Foster Wallace offers a detailed account of the personality of Lyndon Johnson through a variety of voices and perspectives which juxtapose image over image to create a narrative mosaic. Thus, Foster Wallace explores the historical moment in which his tale takes place through the individual stories of highly disparate characters, simultaneously revealing the complexity of any historical moment and demoting the status of History from the inscrutable heights of Great Events to the mundane happenings of everyday life. That he does this with the dexterity and the multiplicity of a ventriloquist is testament to the extent of his talent as a writer.
Unlike so many other writers from the cultural periphery, Foster Wallace does not reduce his trade to an account, however detailed, of life in his natural environment. In The Broom of the System, he describes the Midwest as “both in the middle and in the fringe. The physical heart, and the cultural extremity. Corn, a heavily waning complex of heavy industry, and sport.” And yes, corn and grain and interminable farmland play a role in his narrative. But it is always a minor role; a subordinate role to a larger worldly narrative. And yet, it is in this worldly narrative that the corn truly effect the full extent of its influence, because the prism through which the world is considered in Foster Wallace’s literature is always Midwestern, and therefore rare, fascinating—almost unique.
Foster Wallace’s second collection of short stories, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999) contains some of his most striking work in concise, unpredictable and often shockingly perverse stories. By the time they were published, however, he was already a worldwide hit. Because if there is one work for which he will be remembered in the decades to come, that is his second and last completed novel, Infinite Jest (1996). But at 1076 pages, this mammoth is probably larger than everything I have ever read of Foster Wallace put together, and for all the technical virtues and the deep intellectual concerns that shape his literature, his final products—his books—seem to me to pull in too many different directions at the same time, thus losing the attention, or even the interest, of its readers. However, just in case that I’m depriving myself of his greatest accomplishment (TIME magazine listed Infinite Jest in the 100 most important novels since James Joyce’s Ulysses), I strongly recommend picking it up and giving it a go. After all, the worst thing that could happen is you leave it aside unfinished. And there’s no reason to be afraid of that.