The Broom of the System Themes
by David Foster Wallace

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The Broom of the System Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As is typical with Wallace's work, The Broom of the System is at once immensely complex, yet extremely simple, though never simplistic. The novel focuses principally on one Lenore Beadsman and her efforts to understand herself in relation to the external world, not experientially but rather existennally. Although from a wealthy family and well-educated herself, Lenore chooses to work as a minimum-wage, receptiondesk phone operator for "Frequent and Vigorous Publishing, Inc." (or "F and V" for short, which potentially translates into "Effin Vee" when read quickly—just one of many puns and gags), operated by Rick Vigorous, who also happens to be Lenore's partner. The primary theme of the novel is that of communication or, more precisely, severed communication. Early on in the novel, F and V's switchboard suffers a malfunction of sorts, or "line trouble," making it impossible for the company's phone operators to receive appropriate incoming calls; that is, they only receive wrong-number calls. A mix-up of the lines in the tunnel of the office building's bowels is the source of the problem, resulting in a shared, single number with establishments that share the communications labyrinth and are close to F and V's phone number. As a result, F and V receives calls from people trying to reach such humorous entities as "Enrique's House of Cheese" and "Bambi's Den of Discipline." This theme merges nicely with Wallace's aesthetic ideas on the sundered relationship between reader and writer in contemporary fiction, and the core existential premise from which he operates, that we are all essentially alone even as we are surrounded by others, and that commercial art only fools us into thinking that we are less alone, when in fact, it re-enforces a sense of entrapment and isolation because these arts only provide the simulacrum of the real thing.

Lenore Beadsman's crisis is purely existential, and she is typically withdrawn and inward throughout the novel. In fact, her defense mechanism when pressed to sincerely express her feelings, or in moments of crisis, is to retreat to the shower: "I would kill for a shower"—she (like Wallace himself, admittedly) is an obsessive bather. The shower itself serves as a fine symbol for society's millennial condition: the retreat to the isolated, warm, and soothing condition of the shower is representative of our own retreat from difficult problems of human existence to easy, consoling commercial art that rewards what Wallace termed "passive spectation" in the McCaffery interview, and never challenges as Wallace says the novel must do. Furthermore, the district of Cleveland that Lenore lives in, from the air, resembles "the profile of Jayne Mansfield"—Lenore's grandfather, Stonecipher II, infatuated with the actress and an "amateur urban planner," designed the Mansfield cityscape plan. What is significant about this is that Lenore's apartment is located in Mansfield's genitals; that is, Lenore literally and figuratively lives in Mansfield's womb (an image that Wallace returns to in Infinite Jest). Like the shower, Lenore's dwelling place then is another place of warm, wet, soothing isolation that she retreats to.

The Broom of the System is part "coded autobio" and part "funny little poststructual gag," as Wallace claims in his conversation with McCaffery. He goes on to assert that hidden beneath the "sex-change" (the writer's) and "gags and theoretical allusions" is a "sensitive little . . . bildungsroman." The Broom of the System emerged from Wallace's own personal existential crisis experienced during his time at Amherst College, where he made the transition from a talented math and logic whiz to an English major. Wallace has remarked that this extremity was brought on by the sudden loss of reward and joy from his sophisticated engagement with math; the discipline, in a sense, became hollow and empty for him. After this "midlife crisis," Wallace devoted himself to letters and revived the special feeling of...

(The entire section is 1,491 words.)