‘The Broom of the System’ by David Foster Wallace

What if David Foster Wallace wrote a super accessible novel without end notes, but still filled with his signature loony characters, absurd situations and hilarious dialogue? Dum-dum-dum. He did! Before his brain got too so super big, while he was still honing voice and construction, DF-Dubs wrote a pleasant little novel that doesn’t require holing up like an agoraphobic and conceding defeat to muscle atrophy.

The Broom of the System only takes a month to read! And every single page of it makes sense as much as this mess of coincidences can possibly make sense.

Lenore Beadsman, always dressed in black Converse and a white dress, comes from the equivalent of Ohio royalty. Her people settled the town where she lives, which is in the shape of Jayne Mansfield’s profile, and next to the Great Ohio Desert — a bit of real estate built in the 1970s and filled with black sand. A bit of savage reference for people who perhaps have things too easy. She is engaged in a relationship with Rick Vigorous, who owns the publishing company she works for, and satiates her with bedtime stories submitted to his rag instead of satiating her the old fashioned way. She’s incredibly close to her great-grandmother, also named Lenore Beadsman, a word-nerd who goes missing with about two dozen other residents from a nursing home.

Lenore Beadsman the younger has a pet bird named Vlad the Impaler who has somehow developed a much more complex vocabulary. She has a brother who has a fake leg with a secret drawer for storing drugs and he refers to said leg as though it is its own being. Her best friend Candy Mandible likes doing it. The man who owns the building where she works is trying to get fat enough to take over the world with his space. Rick Vigorous is obsessed with her, creates flimsily veiled fan fiction about her and plies their mutual therapist for the deets on Lenore.

There are a ton of Infinite Jest-isms in this novel, the seeds that will eventually sprout into DFW’s most-famous work. And like IJ, it is heavy on activity and bare on plot. More incident-based than forward-moving.

Of course, I really dug the experience of reading Infinite Jest, which is like a harrowing event that a person survives as well as a great piece of fiction. The Broom of the System is less of an event, but still wonderful fiction filled with enviable writing in a style I call “the controlled free fall system,” in which it seems like a writer has just cut loose and started riffing and lets things go where they will. Some writers just free fall, which comes off as unfocused and willy nilly; DFW is really good at it. He sets his pen free, but doesn’t dissolve into something that is a dizzying cacophony of clarinets. This is why his stuff is so freaking great.

I think this makes for a nice gateway drug into DFW, for those who are Wallace-curious and don’t want to commit to something that weighs as much as a sack of flour.

This review was originally posted May 2, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace

This might be a bunch of hooey, but I think that reading Infinite Jest made my brain bigger.

It is so massive, the paragraphs so dense, that a reader has no choice but to slow down and chew every word 30 times. It’s like: Sit back, put your feet up, you’re going to be here awhile, you might as well get real comfy-like. Then the end notes are like these speed bumps for when you’re getting a little cocky, finding a groove, picking up speed.

So I read a little slower and pictured everything a little harder. And, in maybe unrelated news, my memory seems to have improved on all things — not just the stuff that dribbled out of David Foster Wallace’s fingertips.

Anyway, as for this novel:

In a few words, it is about kids at a high-level tennis academy and it is about addicts at a halfway house. It is also about a video, created by an obscure filmmaker slash crazy genius alcoholic who makes a film so entertaining that viewers get addicted to it on impact. But enough stuff happens that it is kind of about everything in the entire world.

There are moments where writer envy will rip your guts apart. The sheer detail, the dialects and voices. But most importantly, the reckless amount of fun that DFW seemed to have writing this novel. He goes from complicated math and philosophy and politics, to satire, into absurd black comedy:

A woman is trapped in the bathroom of a bus on some bumpy terrain. She ends up with her ample ass stuck hanging out the window. For her embarrassment, she wins a large settlement. She hires a round the clock personal baker. She gourmet cakes herself to death.

An illicit love scene, as observed by a teen-aged boy, includes a cheerleader costume, a helmet, and jock strap.

A brotherly phone call in which the older interrupts the younger’s zen-like moment of nailing toenail shards into a garbage can a few meters away.

A young character plans to anonymously attend an AA meeting, and ends up in a room full of men holding teddy bears, talking about their inner infant.

Whatever. DFW does with this book what sci/fi writers have always done, and that is erase the constraints. Why couldn’t people become so addicted to a piece of film that they rotted away in a La-Z Boy, soiling themselves and moaning with withdrawal symptoms while it was rewinding? It’s fiction. You can do whatever the hell you want with it. Throw in the ghost of of an oft-talked about character, zip him into a pair of high-wad chinos. Let him balance a Coke can on your prone character’s head. Why the hell not? Sell the rights to naming years to corporations. Why the hell not? Take a pensive tennis player in the wee hours of the morning. Prop his sweaty head against a cold winter window. Get him stuck there for hours, and then let face debris remain after he has gotten painfully free. Why the hell not?

This is not to say that I loved every moment of Infinite Jest. There are great chunks of gray text that I thought were boring, and usually these involved U.S./Canadian relations. Politicians, and whatnot. Stuff that still reads like DFW is having the time O’his life, but which lags and drags and is just a bit mind numbing — even when it is posed as a puppet show filmed by Mario Incandenza. During these parts, I referred to it as “Infinite Gist.”

There is this Elton John-”Candle-in-the-Wind”-ishness about reading this book A.DFW.D. Now that we have DFW’s biography in its entirety to hold up next to his novel. His dislikes and neurosis. The way he stutters sometimes during televised interviews. The reason for the bandana. These bits of bio crop up in Infinite Jest, as scattered bits among the characters. The entire theme of tennis. The mother as a grammarian. And in more serious cases: People kill themselves, or at least try to: A head in an microwave, arms stuck in the garbage disposal, ODing. It’s that whole writer immortality thing. Kinda awesome.

This review was posted on Minnesota Reads on January 23, 2011.

Review: ‘Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself’ by David Lipsky

As I was reading Infinite Jest, I was simultaneously reading Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, a straight up five-day dialogue between the author David Lipsky and DFW, taken from tapes made while D Lips was interviewing DF-Dubs for a piece in Rolling Stone that was eventually killed.

What a treat, this chance to eavesdrop on these two dudes as they kick it at DF-Dubs’ pad, at airports, diners, long car rides, and a book signing at The Hungry Mind bookstore in St. Paul. It is smart, it is funny, it is silly, and at times uncomfortable. And there is a part in the afterword where anyone with a duct will shed real-live tears and mourn the loss even harder.

The thing I keep returning to after reading this is this: David Foster Wallace is so … normal. Here he has just published this massive piece of fiction that continues to give people brain spasms in their pleasure centers, and in his first moments with Lipsky he’s lamenting the fact that it hasn’t gotten him laid on the book tour. He expresses envy at Lipsky’s rental car, which hardly sounds like a sexy piece of machinery. He is a man repeating the same refrain to ticket agents and wait staff: When asked if they are together, DFW will respond “Yes, but not on a date.” He is a guy tucked away for years pounding out this Gen X trophy from start to finish. He is a guy in need of a Styrofoam cup that he can dribble chaw into.

He is a guy who can totally geek out over the movie “True Romance” or the works of David Lynch, and at the same time deliver a pretty valid reason for why Alanis Morissette is attractive.

I was left with four thoughts when I finished:

A) I’d love to see what would Lipsky would have done with all of this material. How he would have crafted that into a feature about this rising star literary hot shot. (He says he kind of did this with the DFW obit that ran in Rolling Stone). There are definite moments where you can just see where the piece might take bloom. If it was my story, I’d open at a part where one of DFW’s students asks:

“Done being famous yet?”

B) It would be super cool to see a staged reading of this book. Two men (or two women) on chairs, facing an audience and having this conversation as the backdrop changes.

C) I wonder if DFW did in fact go on to read Lipsky’s novel The Art Fair, (I know I’m gonna) which he says he is going to do and then send him a note. “I’m gonna be very curious to see how — to see what it’s like being inside your head,” DFW tells him.

D) These two Davids seem to have enough in common, get along well enough, to remain in each other’s orbit, yet they never met up ever again. It must be a strange dichotomy, spending five days with a stranger, for both the interviewer and the interviewee, and then to just walk away from it. Also: It must suck very badly to spend five days with a stranger who a) is recording everything you say; b) must record everything the other stranger says.

There is, admittedly, a cute factor to reading this book, which is really adorable in the same way that it is adorable to watch men play shirts versus skins on a playground basketball court. But with their brains.

This review was posted on Minnesota Reads on January 25, 2011.