The Broom of the System
The novel won the Whiting Writer's Award in 1987.
- "Think of The Broom of the System as the sensitive tale of a sensitive young WASP who's just had this mid-life crisis that's moved him coldly cerebral analytic math to a coldly cerebral take on fiction and Austin-Wittgenstein-Derridean literary theory, which also shifted his existential dread from a fear that he was just a 98.6° calculating machine to a fear that he was nothing but a linguistic construct. This WASP's written a lot of straight humor, and loves gags, so he decides to write a coded autobio that's also a funny little post-structural gag: so you get Lenore, a character in a story who's terribly afraid that she's really nothing more than a character in a story. And, sufficiently hidden under the sex-change and the gags and theoretical allusions, I got to write my sensitive little self-obsessed bildingsroman. The biggest cackle I got when the book came out was the way all the reviews, whether they stomped up and down on the overall book or not, all praised the fact that at least here was a first novel that wasn't yet another sensitive little self-obsessed bildungsroman."
In The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace uses the eponymous broom to illustrate Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion that words do not have meaning in and of themselves. Wittgentstein’s former student Lenore Beadsman asks her granddaughter Lenore Beadsman Jr. “which part of the broom [is] more elemental, more fundamental, in my opinion, the bristles or the handle” (149). When Lenore Jr. chooses the bristles, Beadsman sagely exclaims: “’Aha, that’s because you want to sweep with the broom… And that if what we wanted a broom for was to break windows, then the handle was clearly the fundamental essence of the broom… Meaning as fundamentalness. Fundamentalness as use. Meaning as Use. Meaning as use” (150). The meaning of the broom depends entirely upon what its function is in a given context.
- Lenore Beadsman
- Gramma Beadsman
- Stonecipher Beadsman
- Stonecipher Beadsman II
- Clarice Spaniard nee Beadsman
- Rick Vigorous
- Andrew "Wang-Dang" Lang
- Mindy Metalman
- Candy Mandible
- Norman Bombardini
- Vlad The Impaler
- Sue Shaw
- Dr. Jay
Meaning of Language/Words
In Wallace's freshman novel, he introduces what will later become one of his most recurring themes: communication. More specifically, Wallace addresses the difficult line people walk between trying to express who they are in words while simultaneously trying to reconcile with the rest of themselves that which cannot be put into words. In Lenore Beadsman, Wallace created a character who is so aware of the problem of communication that she is unable to separate who she is from what she says and what is said about her. On her feeling about language and communication:
"Well see, it seems like it's not really like a life that's told not lived; it's just that the living is the telling, that there's nothing going on with me that isn't either told or tellable, and if so, what's the difference, why live at all?" (The Broom of the System 119).
The context of this quote is when Lenore is expressing her fear to Dr. Jay that if she is nothing more than what is said about her, then what makes her different than the people in the stories told to her by Rick? In other words, if she is only the product of words, then in a sense, she is no longer in control of who exactly she is. This concept is one that is revisited by Wallace in stories and essays, most notable Good Old Neon, where the impossibility of communicated fully what is inside a person draws great conflict. With Lenore, this problem is especially problematic as the reader knows that in reality, Lenore is a product of one man's creation.
Lenore's fear of the power of language also draws out another common theme in Wallace's writing, and that is the feeling of being alone. Due to Lenore's inability to surrender herself to language, she is left living a life where she can't tell people important things, because she fears those words will own her. In the case where she won't tell Rick Vigorous that she loves him (pps 286-287) it becomes clear that Lenore lives in a world alone because she is unable or unwilling to express herself in words.
The reader can see characters failing to communicate in the overarching events of the crossed phone lines that make up much of the plot of the novel. This example is far less abstract, and it is clear exactly how this relates to the theme.
The difficulties in cross-gender communication are briefly touched on when the boys invade the Mt. Holyoke dorm. Clarice snaps, saying “just because you’re bigger, physically just take up more space, you think—do you think?—think you can rule everything, make women do whatever stupid rotten disgusting stuff you say” (18). Biff who, we remember, “got real screwed up, at school” (410), responds with a description of the hoops they jump through to meet girls who “look at us like we’re rapists” (19). Clarice thinks that men abuse the power provided by their strength, and Biff believes she’s being too hard on him/them. The men invade, but only in search of some non-Nixon lookalikes.
In The Broom of the System, Wallace investigated very thoroughly the theme of Self and Other. He touched on the issue with the very obvious words and actions of Norman Bombardini, but also in a more serious and subtle way regarding Lenore Beadsman and her struggle to identify and define herself. Throughout the novel, Lenore is concerned that she is being defined by the words and actions of others, and that she needs to determine where Other stops and Self begins.
We see different characters work in different fashions to reconcile Self and Other in TBOTS. Rick Vigorous, for instance, consistently and openly attempts to possess Lenore. It is never enough for them to be together. Rather he needs her (Other) to be his and needs to control her. His strategy appears to be one in which the Other is contained within the Self.
Perhaps the most obvious example is that of Norman Bombardini. He intended to eliminate all of Other (with the possible exception of Lenore herself) and simply have the world contained in one monstrous Self by “grow(ing) to infinite size” (91). This is just a destruction of Other altogether.
In the end, Wallace utilizes the relationship between Lenore and Andy "Wang-Dang" Lang to perhaps suggest that the proper way to reconcile Self and Other is not through consumption or destruction, but rather through an elimination of the barriers between the two entities. The quote, "Now I didn’t mean to make you sad…. That’s my sad, it’s not your sad” (417) seems to suggest that Lenore, and perhaps Lang also, has transcended, at least momentarily the wall dividing the Self and Other through love. In loving Andy, if only for that moment, the Self and Other may have become one and the same, solving the Self and Other puzzle.
Another clear example of the Self-Other theme is the very literal creation of a desert (which later in the book is revealed to be a tourist attraction). This desert is made with "black sand" in order to contrast with the whiteness (racial and literal) of the surrounding town.
Identity and Control
In an attempt to determine where Other stops and Self beings, Lenore doesn’t seem to have much luck. As we learn from Gramma Lenore, “something’s meaning is nothing more or less and its function” (149). In applying this philosophy to young Lenore Beadsman’s life, it is possible to see why Lenore has such fears of a lack of identity and lack of control in her life. Lenore’s function in her life is not her own. She feels as though her life is being told for her, and she is rightly justified in that claim. Lenore’s father, Gramma Lenore, and Rick all assign Lenore a different function specific to their needs. For her father, Lenore is “the family” and also the “‘Company’” (249). She is the only one left of the family for her father to rely on and control, and so he does. Gramma Lenore also assigns Lenore her very own function: one of a disciple—someone to whom she can pass on her (somewhat debilitating) view of the world. Several times throughout the novel, Gramma Lenore is described as “indoctrinating” Lenore. But Rick is the one who needs and uses Lenore the most. For Rick, Lenore is used as a way to try to bring the absolute Other inside of his personal Self. Though he continually fails at this objective, Lenore continues to serve as a counterpoint to his Self.
In her relationship with all three characters, Lenore’s function clearly resides outside of her Self. She has produced no function self-consciously, so she allows others to ascribe her function for her. If “meaning is use” then Lenore’s meaning comes from outside of herself, as well. Just as Gramma Lenore in the nursing home “perceived loss of identity without function” (151), Lenore is subject to the same fate in her everyday life. Though a question does arise about whether Lenore has no identity, or if her identity is solely defined by others, does one’s identity have to be self-defined?
In attempting to connect this idea to the title of the novel, Mr. Bloemker is helpful in introducing the idea of the system:
How to begin to come to some understanding of one’s place in a system, when one is a part of an area that exists in such a troubling relation to the rest of the world, a world that is itself stripped of any static, understandable character by the fact that it changes, radically, all the time? (143)
The changeability of the system is the key here. With Gramma Lenore’s broom, the broom was constantly given different meanings based on the constantly changing idea of its function. At any given point, the function of the broom could be different based on what one wanted to do with it. Lenore is the broom of the system. She is not able to understand her place in the system (in the world) because her function changes radically all the time. All of the Others in her life ascribe her different functions which change depending on which Other she is with. So, just as you give meaning to a broom based on whether you want to sweep with it or if you want to break a window with it, every person in Lenore’s life, in the system, gives Lenore a meaning based on what they want to do with her. She is, indeed, left with no self-control nor with any personal meaning.
In close relation to the dichotomy of Self and Other is pretending, because it relates so closely to identity. In an overt example, Dr. Jay asks Lenore to act like he is actually her, to test her security in boundaries and “membranes.” She argues that that will completely dissolve such boundaries, which is not at all what she wishes to do. However, he says, “Only the secure can truly pretend, Lenore” (330). Dr. Jay is right, actually. If Lenore was able to pretend such a thing, it would mean she was secure in the idea of where she stopped and Dr. Jay began, and thus had the ability to know this and also imagine it otherwise at the same time. It is much like acting; only those people secure in themselves can pretend to be someone else, because they know how to get back to their own identity.
The idea of pretending surrounds language as well. While Lenore reads a story to her grandmother in Shaker Heights, Concarnadine repeatedly says the word “roughage.” Mr. Bloemker gives a plausible explanation, that Concarnadine stuck on a word someone else spoke to her, but Lenore says, stating the obvious, “Except she probably doesn’t have any idea what the word stands for” (368). The reader is fairly certain that neither Concarnadine nor Vlad the Impaler, the cockatiel who starts spouting Bible verses and crude language, understands what she or he is saying when saying such things; but one is forced to ask, do any of the characters? Are they all simply pretending they understand the meaning of a word when they use it? Language is only a set of symbols, really; in a way, the words themselves have no meaning outside of referral to something else. Of course, this relates back to the problems of communication discussed above.
Norman Bombardini's solution to the loneliness caused by the self/other divide is to consume everything, expanding to infinite size and eliminating "other." Gorging on a nine-steak dinner, Bombardini explains his actions and the reasons thereof. “Rather than diminishing Self to entice Other to fill our universe, we may also of course obviously choose to fill the universe with Self”(91). In a literalization of this idea, Bombardini plans to “grow and grow and grow, and fill the absence that surrounds me with the horror of my own gelatinous presence”(83). Bombardini plans to expand to infinite size, maximizing self, abolishing other, and killing any possibility of loneliness.
Rick Vigorous' relationship with Lenore also illustrates the theme of consumption. Rick wants to eliminate his angst at Lenore’s otherness not by trying to connect with her, but by consuming her and making her a part of himself. Rick’s desires are made clear when he tries to usurp Lenore’s will by making her say she loves him. Rick, trying desperately to get her to say the words, says to Lenore: “I need to know (you love me), so that… I can have you inside myself, for all time” (286). Rick’s aggressive desire to own Lenore reaches a peak in the final pages of the novel when he actually handcuffs her to himself, attempting to “have” her as part of him forever.
Lavache Beadsman II, or the Antichrist, also engages in ridiculous consumptive practices to overcome loneliness. He does others’ schoolwork in order to acquire drugs, which he “feeds” to a drawer in his prosthetic leg and subsequently consumes. In his words: “As the Antichrist I have a thing, and it’s gloriously clear where I leave off and others start, and no one expects me to be anything other than what I am, which is a waste-product, slaving endlessly to support his leg”(250). Lavache’s purpose, rather than to forge tangible connections with human beings, is basically to stay high enough to feign human connection with his prosthetic leg.
Conceptions of Time (Self in the past and the present)
Many of the characters in The Broom of the System are impossibly Self-aware, and not only do they wrestle with the reconciliation of Self and Other, but past Self versus present Self as well. This allows Wallace to address questions about the past, like whether it is in fact changeable, and the effect that the past may have on present affairs.
Mostly we talked about this through the lens of Self versus Other, but Wallace allows for other types of discourse. Both Rick Vigorous and Wang-Dang Lang closely examine their pasts, trying to reconnect, or almost re-write their own stories. Ultimately, it appears that neither can do so, but the experience affords them valuable time to contemplate their own Self and the past’s relation to the present.
On pages 206-212, Rick Vigorous provides the reader with one of his journal entries, detailing his walk through the Amherst campus. He refers to his experience there as, “a devourer of the emotional middle, a maker of psychic canyons” (206). He suggests that this place altered him deeply and then looks to retrace his past, and somehow legitimize it, by rediscovering the impact he had on Amherst. Rick wants to make sure that it’s possible for his own Self to affect some Other. That seems to be part of the reason he looks so desperately for his carved initials, and the reason behind his disappointment in seeing that “SUX” had been written under his own “RV”. He endeavors again to have an impact, adding some more graffiti to the restroom stall, and it seems to placate him at least a little, as he says, “And my present bubbled and frothed in my past, and was borne naturally away” (207). Rick Vigorous looks to the past to try and define his present Self, or even to alter his present Self. Unfortunately, it looks like the massive Other, in this case Amherst College, has continued on through time unaffected by the presence of Rick’s Self. Rick finds out he cannot really change the past, and constantly frets over how that will affect his future. Perhaps this is why he turns his efforts to Lenore, to see if he can affect her. But he can’t get Lenore to say she loves him. Lenore’s project, as we’ve discussed, is to make sure she retains agency, or responsibility for writing her own life, for making her own choices. Rick on the other hand seems more committed to imprinting his Self on some Other, and he examines his past to see if he’s been successful.
Wang-Dang Lang concerns himself with time and his past much like Rick Vigorous does. Except this time it is his wife, Mindy Metalman, that offers a theory about WDL’s motivation for leaving her and moving to Cleveland. Metalman says, “And now Andy sees your little friend Lenore, in the middle of this admittedly bad period, and suddenly feels he’s able to go back to a branch in the tree of his life, the branch started nine years ago, when he met me and fell in love with me and started a relationship with me… and so suddenly Andy feels as if maybe he can go back and just take a different path from the same branch…” (381). Whether or not Mindy’s conception of time makes any sense (Candy sure doesn’t think so), it is important to note that in the face of a relationship problem, Lang takes advantage of connections in his past. Rather than leave, and start a new bond with new people, Lang finds comfort in Lenore’s ability to understand his past, like when she guesses the décor of his college room (394), or when they talk about their first meeting at Mt. Holyoke. WDL’s exercise of Self comes from close examination of his past, and deciding where it happened that his Self stopped satisfying him.
Marshall Boswell contends that Wallace is able to create "an open system of communication… a communal approach to communication… one that operates… between two equal and interactive participants, a dynamic carried over onto the novel’s relationship with its own reader” (22)" “via… allusions to the great Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein” (23).