Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Broom of the System

I won an audiobook version of David Foster Wallace's first novel, The Broom of the System (read by Robert Petkoff) over at A Bookworm's World this fall. And I could barely stand to finish it because I was so exasperated by the characters and their situation. I ended up driving around yelling at the sound system in my car, trying to get to the end of the long walk across the desert. I mean that literally, as various narrative threads come together in a fictional manufactured desert near Cleveland (the Great Ohio Desert; note the acronym). Obviously, the situation of the novel is comical, and so a reader's response, however incensed, is going to be commensurately comical.

The character names alone are ample warning that nothing is to be taken seriously in this novel--especially if you hear them out loud, rather than reading them to yourself, silently: Mindy Metalman, Wang-Dang Lang, Biff Diggerence, Rick Vigorous, Candy Mandible, Judith Prietht, and Peter Abbott, just to name a few you're introduced to in the first pages.

Listening to these characters tell stories to one another and become disconcertingly aware that they themselves are in a story while driving around rural Ohio may in fact be the ideal way to experience this peculiar novel. The novel's concern with communication between people and the difficulty of defining the self and the Other comes across well out loud, although the supremely irritating psychiatrist, Dr. Jay, reaches the unbearable level sooner on audio than I think he might on the page. As is my habit, I had to find a library copy of this book after listening to the audio version so I could give you one of Lenore's therapy sessions with Dr Jay:

Jay: Rick knows he must forever remain an Other to you. Rick knows the meaning of membrane. Rick is like a sperm without a tail. An immobilized sperm in the uterus of life. Why do you think Rick is so desperately unhappy? What do you think he means by the Screen Door of Union?....He means membrane! Rick is trapped behind his own membrane. He hasn't the equipment to get out.
Lenore: Hey, you're not supposed to talk about your other patients.
Jay: Why do you think he's so possessive? He wants you in him. He wants to trap you behind the membrane with him. He knows he can never validly permeate the membrane of an Other, so he desires to bring that Other into him, for all time. He's a sick man.
Lenore: Look, stop trying to swim around. You've made your point.
Jay: No, you've made your point. All distinctions are shattered. I am not here. I am the sperm inside you. Remember that you are half sperm, Lenore.
Lenore: Pardon?
Jay: Your father's sperm. It's part of you. Inseparable.
Lenore: What does my father have to do with all this?
Jay: Admit.
Lenore: Admit what?
Jay: That you want someone truly inside you. That your membrane is crying out.
Lenore: Jesus.
Jay: Listen. . . Hear that? The faint cry of a membrane, isn't it? "Let me be an ovum, let--"
Lenore: He loves me.
Jay: He does? The Adonis? The valid Other?
Lenore: Rick, you dingwad. Rick loves me. He's said so.
Jay: Rick cannot give us what we need. Admit it.
Lenore: He loves me.
Jay: It's a sucking love, Lenore. An inherently unclean love. It's the love of a flabby, unclean membrane, sucking at an Other, to dirty. Dirt is on this membrane's mind. It wants to do you dirt.

This is the point where I got completely fed up and started yelling at the sound system in my car. That worsened as Rick continues to tell Lenore stories and she becomes less and less able to play his game. The reader--or listener, in this case--is similarly unable to play the novel's games anymore, and so I drove around aimlessly waiting for the resolution and relieved when the desert was finally traversed and I could put these characters back into their can.

It was an absorbing, if exasperating, journey. The point of it, as one character comes out and says, in the final pages, is to "play the game together. I promise that no player will feel alone." It might put you off of psycho-therapy forever, though.


edj3 said...

See I could never have finished that book. That's the difference between us, I guess. If I dislike something, I put it down.

FreshHell said...

I couldn't finish it either. That passage made me crazy. This might be one of the few books I've thrown across the room. The other two include a Patricia Cornwell and a Don DeLilo.

SFP said...

I've been tempted by this one in the past. Now, not so much.

Thanks, Jeanne!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I couldn't read it either. There is a certain sort of book I can't read, and that's pretty clearly one of that sort. Bleh.

Jenny said...

Nothing can put me off psychotherapy forever -- but this review has put me off David Foster Wallace (more put off than I already was) at least temporarily.

(Also because I forgot David Foster Wallace was dead the last time I was talking about him, and now I feel incredibly embarrassed every time I think of his name.)

Luanne said...

Ha! At least you finished it Jeanne - more than I could or wanted to do. I too tried to listen but seeing that session in print just reinforced why I gave up. Sorry your win wasn't such a winner....

Lenore Appelhans said...

I've always kind of wanted to read this because of the main character's name, but I am intimidated by it too.

Jeanne said...

Elizabeth, I didn't mean to say I disliked it. I'm kind of weird in that I occasionally enjoy disagreeing with novels...or people. I even enjoy yelling!

FreshHell, throwing the physical book across the room would have felt good!

SFP, I really prefer his non-fiction.

ReadersGuide, I don't know if I'd have stuck with it if it hadn't been an audiobook.

Jenny, by all accounts he was kind and wise. He came to the college once and gave a graduation speech that has since become famous ("This is Water"). So I really do like his non-fiction. Try the essay about eating lobsters!

Luanne, oh but I did feel like a winner! As I didn't manage to say well in the post, I kind of enjoy disagreeing with fictional characters. It gets it out of my system, all that saved-up gall I get from standing behind someone in the 15 items or less line who has 20 items....

Lenore, I wouldn't be intimidated; it's not hard to read, and easier to listen to. Also, Lenore is kind of the goddess of beauty and sex appeal, so that part would be very fun for you!