Paperback Writers: Brush up on your Wallace

Special to the Los Angeles Times

David Foster Wallace’s novel “The Broom of the System” takes place in a Cleveland suburb which has been planned so that, from the air, it resembles the head of Jayne Mansfield. The movie actress and sex symbol died in a car crash in 1967 — decapitated, according to urban legend. So why shouldn’t that once-gorgeous head become a model for playful city planners and a future distraction to airline pilots whizzing over the Midwest?

That was the idea that occurred to an aspiring young fiction writer, then still an undergraduate at Amherst College. And so, in this novel, his first, originally published in 1987 and now re-issued in a new edition with French flaps and a jacket by the tattoo artist Duke Riley (Penguin: 480 pp, $16), Wallace laid out the parameters of his outsize and finally tragic talent: He would restructure the world with language and with loving attention to both the mundane, and the extraordinary, in American life.

“Most pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden. They’re long and thin and splay-toed, with buttons of yellow callus on the little toes and a thick stair-step of it on the back of the heel, and a few long black hairs are curling out of the skin at the tops of the feet, and the red nail polish is cracking and peeling in curls and candy-striped with decay.”

That’s the beginning of “Broom,” set in 1981, with 15-year-old Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman visiting her sister Clarice, who’s a freshman at a women’s college. In a room on the second floor of Rumpus Hall, Lenore listens to Cat Stevens and observes the sexy girl with the callused toes. Already, in these gorgeous first sentences, there are shades of Thomas Pynchon (that name — Mindy Metalman), but there are also echoes of John Updike, in the nailed-on specificity of the observation. Even echoes of Nabokov — for Mindy Metalman will operate a little like Lolita in this story, except like a Lolita grown up and hell-bent on sexual control.

“Broom” then hops forward in time to 1990. Lenore is called upon to deal with a triple crisis: Her great-grandmother, along with numerous other oldsters, has disappeared from a nursing home; her middle-aged lover, Rick Vigorous — boss of the publishing house Frequent and Vigorous, which never seems to publish anything and where Lenore, although heiress to a baby-food fortune, works as a lowly telephone operator — seems to be losing his mind, not least with jealousy; and her pet cockatiel, Vlad the Impaler, suddenly becomes very verbal indeed, quoting Auden and the King James Bible.

In addition, Lenore’s switchboard weirds out, scrambling and mixing calls, foreshadowing the fragmented story that will then unfold and the multiple narrative techniques that will tell it.

Wallace weaves therapy transcripts, duty logs, the first-person musings of Rick Vigorous (and fiction by Vigorous himself) through more straightforward, hilarious, often beautifully rendered scenes that deal with Lenore’s various problems and quests. Lenore sometimes fears that she’s a character in somebody else’s fiction, and the reader isn’t always sure what’s real and what’s not. Which is a part of what Wallace is getting at. The name of Wittgenstein is often evoked here, and “Broom” wonders, as Wittgenstein himself did, if language might be the only reality.

All of which makes “Broom” sound slightly manic and hard to grasp. And there’s an element of that: Wallace was an almost unbelievably smart young man starting to strut his literary stuff. Yet there are lots of other things going on. Listen to Rick Vigorous, recalling early fatherhood:

“I would usually change our baby. I would change his diapers, and often as not, he lay on his back, with little legs of dough kicking, as I removed soggy old hot or ominously heavy diaper and manipulated crinkly new plastic Pamper, he would urinate up onto my hanging necktie, a pale, sweetly thin jet, and there would be smells of powder, and my tie would be heavy at my throat, and would drip, and we would laugh together, toothless he and sad, sleepy I, at my urine-soaked tie. I still own some of those ties, stiff and hard and dull, they hang on little toothed racks and clunk against my closet door when the winds of memory blow through the dark places in my apartment.”

Wallace is doing a lot here: The passage, as written by Rick Vigorous, reads like pastiche Updike, packed with details and easy metaphors; yet the sentences pulse, too, with an ominous sadness, a madness almost. Wallace loves the mysteries of the concrete too much to be just the ironist or sorcerer of metaphysics.

“But what of Lenore, of Lenore’s hair? Here is hair that is clearly within and of itself every color—blond and red and jet-black-blue and honeynut — but which effects an outward optical compromise with possibility that consists of appearing simply dull brown, save for the brief teasing glimpses out of the corner of one’s eye. The hair hangs in bangs, and the sides curve down past Lenore’s cheeks and nearly meet in points below her chin, like the brittle jaws of an insect of prey. Oh, the hair can bite. I’ve been bitten by the hair.”

The gut of Wallace’s writing, beyond the fevered intellectual bells and whistles, is romantic. He’s fascinated by stuff, by the warp and woof of reality, and the seeming impossibility of language ever getting at the essence of it. That was the project: to find new ways to unpack the radiance and ache of life, and he continued this through a second novel, the massive (and even more splintered) “Infinite Jest,” through a bunch of marvelous short stories and through the taut yet rambling essays, principally published in Harper’s. Those essays showcased his reportorial gifts, and disgust with, and reverence for, and delight in baton-twirling, porn expos, the life and times of Dostoevsky, cruise ships and much more.

“That’s my sad, it’s not your sad,” a character named “Wang-Dang” Lang says to Lenore at one point towards the end of “Broom,” and by then we already know in Wallace’s world the funny, the erotic and the darkly desperate are only too likely to be corkscrewed together:

“He began kissing at Lenore’s eyes, to get the tears. He did it so gently that Lenore put her arms around his neck. After a minute Lang rolled her towards him and began with one hand to try to unhook the fastener on her bra. Lenore let him, and kept her arms around his neck. Lang played with Lenore’s breasts while she cried and held onto him and thought of a sky in Texas, in November, through tinted glass.”

Any reader’s thinking about Wallace is inevitably confused and saddened by the knowledge that, while in a deep depression, he committed suicide on Sept. 12, 2008. What a shame, what a loss. It seems like not nearly enough to say that the books are still here, but, thankfully, here they still are.

Wallace confessed to being influenced by, not just Pynchon and Updike, but by John Barth, Donald Barthelme and Don DeLillo. Yet the writer who sprang to my mind on re-reading Wallace’s startling and moving first book was someone quite different — F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like Fitzgerald, Wallace tackled the disconnect between what America dreams and what America actually is, and, like Fitzgerald, he did so with the panache of a doomed prince.

Rayner is the author of “A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age.” Paperback Writers appears at