David Foster Wallace’s name is often linked with those of other innovative postmodernist authors, such as John Barth, Robert Coover, and Thomas Pynchon; however, his writing incorporates the intricate intellectual hilarity of these authors at the same time it includes a postironic sincerity and a puzzlement with the predicament of living in postmodern America. Throughout his writing, Wallace examines themes of loneliness and desire, detachment and self-awareness, and mass culture and spectacle. Claiming that books are saturated with the uniform sameness of the messages in commercial media, Wallace maintained that fiction’s role for the contemporary reader is “[to make] the familiar strange again.”
Knowledge is learned through language. To this end, Wallace’s work foregrounds narrative as an act that mediates the reader’s experience of the world through language. His short stories are often fragmented and defy simple summary, while his long fiction involves twisting, multidirectional sentences and interconnecting plots that rely heavily on contingency and uncertainty. His work is uncompromising in its use of multiple points of view and disparate plot lines that are often left unresolved, but rather than merely frustrating readers’ expectations, this openness demands that readers collaborate with the author in the experience of taking meaning from the text. One of Wallace’s primary achievements as a writer is his ability to develop creative and experimental structures that serve to reflect the themes interwoven throughout the text. In his story “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” (published in the collection Oblivion), for example, the attention deficit disorder of the narrator is reflected in the story’s dislocated style. Wallace also makes great use of footnotes continuously in works of both fiction and nonfiction; he manages to delve into multiple, parallel narratives and themes simultaneously through footnotes.
The Broom of the System
Wallace’s first novel, published in 1987, employs diverse viewpoints and narrative styles that foreshadow the same techniques used in his later work, from the short story “Order and Flux in Northampton” to the masterfully encyclopedic Infinite Jest. Set in the near future (around 1990), The Broom of the System is a bizarre quest narrative populated by characters with strange names—Biff Diggerence, Candy Mandible, Clint Roxbee-Cox, Rex Metalman, Judith Prietht—and even stranger events, which have encouraged critical comparisons with Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966).
The central character, Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, is emotionally adrift on the edge of the Great Ohio Desert (abbreviated G.O.D.). As Lenore struggles to understand the mysterious disappearance of her grandmother, also named Lenore Beadsman, who has vanished from a Cleveland nursing home with twenty-five other elderly residents, she must also deal with her enigmatic and manipulative family. The elder Lenore and the other patients feel lost in a meaningless, static existence, until Lenore, Sr., manages to persuade the Stonecipheco baby-food company, run by Lenore, Jr.’s father, to develop Infant Accelerant, a drug that is reputed to increase the rate of language acquisition in children. The elder Lenore has learned about the drug from a nurse whose husband researched the product, and she steals the test data from the Stonecipheco corporation, feeding the samples to her granddaughter’s pet cockatiel, Vlad the Impaler. The bird develops enhanced speaking abilities and at the end of the novel seems destined for stardom on the Reverend Hart Lee Sykes’s Partners with God television program.
Lenore’s grandmother was once a student of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) concerns the possibilities and limits of language as a medium for representing things in the world. Significantly, the novel’s linguistic system revolves around the...
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