The Broom of the System

So. The first–and last–time I read something by David Foster Wallace was back in 2009, when I read Infinite Jest as a participant in Infinite Summer (except, for me, it turned into Infinite Year). I liked the book even when I hated it, and I knew I’d be reading more DFW in the future. Even though Oblivion and The Pale King have been sitting on my shelf collecting dust for a really long time, I decided to go the audiobook route for my second DFW encounter and ended up requesting his first novel, The Broom of the System, from the library. And since I know that the descriptions of his books never fully do them justice (because he jumps all over the place plot-wise), I chose the book arbitrarily based on the fact that I liked the cover of the most recent paperback edition. Seriously.

I’m just gonna go ahead and do something I never do here. I’m going to use the publisher’s summary of this book, because…

At the center of The Broom of the System is the betwitching (and also bewildered) heroine, Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman. The year is 1990 and the place is a slightly altered Cleveland, Ohio, which sits on the edge of a suburban wasteland-the Great Ohio Desert. Lenore works as a switchboard attendant at a publishing firm, and in addition to her mind-numbing job, she has a few other problems. Her great-grandmother, a one-time student of Wittgenstein, has disappeared with twenty-five other inmates of the Shaker Heights Nursing Home. Her beau (and boss), editor-in-chief Rick Vigorous, is insanely jealous. And her cockatiel, Vlad the Impaler, has suddenly started spouting a mixture of psychobabble, Auden, and the King James Bible, which may propel him to stardom on a Christian fundamentalist television program.

…yeah. How is anyone supposed to summarize that?

Of course, like I said earlier, there are a bunch of other smaller sub-(non)plots and stories within stories that defy summarization (think along the lines of tree frogs living in people’s throats). Wallace also must have really been enjoying himself thinking up names for some of the secondary characters, whose names included: Wang Dang Lang, Candy Mandible, Peter Abbott, and Judith Prietht. Sometimes it was funny, and sometimes it was hella annoying, but I appreciate how different DWF’s work is from traditional contemporary literature.

I do know that I’m glad I listened to this on audiobook, because when you’re listening, you’re forced to just accept what is being said and move along. Had I been reading, I know I would have kept stopping to stare at the pages and going, “What. the. hell. is this?” It’s a long book, so I probably would have been dismayed. But, since I listened to it on audiobook, I actually really enjoyed it. Robert Petkoff is one of the best audiobook narrators I’ve ever listened to. Seriously, the guy’s amazing: he had to voice everyone from a young woman, to a psychoanalyst wearing a gas mask, to a morbidly obese older man, to a TV evangelist, to a cockatiel. And he did it all very credibly.

I’ve come to the conclusion that 1) I think I like David Foster Wallace better on audiobook, and 2) I need to hit up one of his short story collections next because I suspect–based on the stories-within-the-story–that he’s really good at them. It looks like I might have to dust off Oblivion sooner rather than later.

The Broom of the System was originally published in 1987. It was most recently reprinted by Penguin on June 10, 2010. The audiobook was released by Hachette Audio that same month.

I read it as a(n): audiobook
Source: interlibrary loan
Length: 16 hours and 30 minutes

4 thoughts on “The Broom of the System

  1. Well. I have not yet tackled DFW (which of course reads to me like Dallas-Fort Worth…). But your comment about the audio format helping to hurry you along struck a chord. I’ve just finished Anna Karenina on audio and suspect that it may have been the wrong format for slightly different reasons. Obviously that’s another story. Having read your review I think I’m still intimidated by this guy…

  2. I liked reading DFW’s first two books of essays in print because the footnotes are amusing. But I did listen to this (his first) novel as an audiobook and liked it, as you said. I think the names carried me through a lot of the nonsense with the psychoanalyst, who just about drove me around the bend. It was even funnier to hear those names out loud than it would have been to read them to myself.

  3. @julia: he is a little (or a lot) intimidating…you just have to accept whatever strange thing he’s feeding you and keep moving. 😉 i don’t know if i could have listened to anna karenina on audio. maybe i could do it now that i’ve read the book and know what’s going on, but that seems like it would be a rough one to not be able to follow visually.

    @jeanne: i loved it every time the narrator said “judith prietht”…definitely better to hear that than read it! and i didn’t know his essays came with footnotes! maybe i’ll read those next. i actually liked all the footnotes in Infinite Jest.

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