In its own right, especially as a first novel by then 24-year-old MFA student David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System is a clever and entertaining if quirky and meandering read. An arguably excessive (467-page) tale of an underachieving Cleveland telephone operator struggling to make sense of her 20-something life – populated with a cast of peculiar relatives, suitors, and friends – Broom neither disappointed nor swept me away (pun intended).
Now, full disclosure: I set the bar fairly high here for Mr. Wallace, who committed suicide at 46 after being hailed by many as the latest great American novelist. I will admit to having surrendered in some agony less than halfway through his so-called masterpiece, Infinite Jest, when I realized, as with so much modern art, the “jest” was on me for having spent irretrievable time and money on this obscenely excessive, madly footnoted (1,087-page) literary bewilderment.
Nor am I alone in this assessment. Dave Eggers, Wallace’s friend and fellow Wonder Boy, had this to say about Jest: “Besides frequently losing itself in superfluous and wildly tangential flights of lexical diarrhea, the book suffers under the sheer burden of its incredible length.”
After Jest, I was ready to give up on Wallace altogether, until I watched “The End of the Tour.” This highly engaging 2015 film about a Rolling Stones reporter (played by Jesse Eisenberg) who interviews the celebrity writer (played by Jason Segal) for several days during a book tour following the publication of Jest made me wonder if I had jumped off the DFW appreciation bus too early.
So, I decided to go back to the beginning and give Wallace a second chance. While Broom, unlike Jest, does have a recognizable plot and thankfully no footnotes, plus it is original and very funny at times, I was distracted by its numerous sub-plots, oddly drawn and named characters, and Wallace’s need to impress us with his ample creative abilities.
One such ploy I found particularly annoying was his abundant use of the ellipsis between dialogue exchanges, as if to suggest one speaker has paused and is presumably giving the other speaker a thoughtful or curious expression. Cute at first, but alright, we get it.
Or is it?
I’ll let you make up your own mind and curious expression. My advice: definitely rent “The End of the Tour,” consider reading Broom, and should you find yourself helplessly snowbound in a remote log cabin with absolutely nothing to do, or happen to be one of those people who appreciates a large white canvas with a blue dot in the middle, Infinite Jest may be for you.
As for me, David Foster Wallace is unlikely to get a third shot.