The Broom of the System BY DAVID FOSTER WALLACE<i> (Viking/Penguin: $18.95, hardcover; $7.95, paperback</i> ;<i> 463 pp.) </i>

Asahina is an editor and writer in New York.

“A story, please.”

“I did read a rather interesting one recently.”

“So let’s hear it.”

“OK, here goes. A man named David Foster Wallace writes a novel called ‘The Broom of the System.’ The man is a 24-year-old graduate of Amherst, who is pursuing an MFA at the University of Arizona. The man certainly can write, but he seems to have a serious problem with the style of fiction now in vogue. Instead of writing one of those minimalist novels that take place somewhere between the K-Mart and the trailer camp, where everyone speaks in monotones and everything is described in short sentences written in the present tense and all the women have Ann in their names somewhere, the man decides to write an incredibly complicated metafiction , if you’ll excuse my French, of the kind not seen since the heyday of John Barth and Donald, not Frederick, Barthelme and William Gass and William Gaddis and, oh yes, Thomas Pynchon.”


“Wait, there’s more. The novel is set in 1990 in Cleveland, Ohio, though it’s not like the Cleveland I know, and I should know, since I’m from Ohio myself. For one thing, most of the state has been turned into the Great Ohio Desert, whose initials, if you’re paying attention, as you must in this kind of metafiction, should suggest the sort of word games the author is playing. For another, the heroine, whose name is Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, works at a publishing house called Frequent and Vigorous, and, as one of the characters asks, ‘Who ever heard of a publishing house in Cleveland?’ Not me, and I should know, since I work in publishing myself.”

“Still, I’m hooked, I admit it.”

“Anyway, the author sometimes writes incredibly long sentences filled with blind references, and sometimes dialogues like this one, where you don’t know who’s speaking to whom, and sometimes first-person journal entries, and sometimes short pieces of fiction within the larger novel, and he even uses the good old-fashioned omniscient third person.”

“That’s a relief.”

“Well, yes and no, because even then it’s hard to know what’s going on, although it’s something about Lenore’s search for her great-grandmother, who’s also named Lenore, which can be confusing, who’s disappeared from the nursing home owned by the conglomerate run by Lenore’s father, which manufactures baby food and is in a market-share struggle with Gerber. Lenore herself is struggling between Rick Vigorous, late of Hunt and Peck and now head of Frequent and Vigorous, though he really isn’t, as far as Lenore is concerned, and Andy Wang-Dang Lang, soon-to-be-ex-husband of Mindy Metalman, who used to live next door to Rick in Scarsdale and was a roommate of Lenore’s father, as well as his rival, Robert Gerber.”


“And that’s just the beginning. There’s also a talking cockateel named Vlad the Impaler, which winds up as the star of the Christian Broadcasting Network; a gymnast who’s been trained by her father with a cattle prod and plenty of snide remarks about suburbia, where a planned community has the shape of Jayne Mansfield, and people don’t connect with one another because they’re locked inside their tract houses. Indeed, connections are a big theme in the novel, seeing as how Leonore is a telephone operator at Frequent and Vigorous, and the switchboard’s always on the blink.”


“Hmmm. But what is the novel really about ?”

“Actually, that’s not the kind of question you’re supposed to ask about metafiction, or any kind of fiction these days, because even the minimalist variety isn’t supposed to mean , it’s just supposed to be , while the art is in the interpretation, since writers have abdicated responsibility for meaning to readers, and isn’t it funny how current academic critical theory and contemporary fiction go pen in hand? Anyway, if I may be so bold, I think the author wants to say something profound about Self and Other, and Inside and Outside, and all those other Philosophy 101 dichotomies, and I should know, since I studied philosophy in graduate school. Or at least he’s always having his characters refer to them, and he’s even made Lenore’s great-grandmother a disciple of Wittgenstein’s, although Russellian and Heideggerian concepts also freely float throughout the texte , if you’ll excuse my French. Of course, with this kind of writing, you never know what to take seriously and what not to, since the tone is so laden with irony, and that’s something else that metafiction and minimalism have in common.”

“Big help. Let me ask something easier: What does the title mean?”

“Oh, you’ll have to read the novel, but here’s a clue: Meaning is use. Look that up in your Philosophical Investigations.”

“Is it my imagination, or are we nearing the end of this review?”

“At last you’re entering into the self-referential spirit of the book and the review. Except that the review is ultimately about the book, whereas the book essentially seems to be about itself, ‘a game consisting of involved attempts to find out the game’s own rules,’ and not about Lenore, whose life is ‘told, not lived,’ or any other character. Now you might find all this wordplay ‘hideously self-conscious. . . . Or, at any rate, consistently, off-puttingly pretentious,’ to quote Lenore against the author, in self-referential retribution, and why can’t a character speak against her own creator? But if by coincidence , which is another persistent motif and an all-too-convenient plot device in ‘The Broom of the System,’ you’re as ‘weird about words’ as the author is, then maybe you’ll regard the novel as a brilliant debut. Which is to say, it’s quasi-Thomas Pynchon for those with a taste for the genre, quasi-Tom Robbins for those without. Obviously, for those who remember Philosophy 101, it can’t be both. But, then again, it could be neither.”