The Broom of the System was the first published novel written by the American author David Foster Wallace. Having committed suicide aged 46, Wallace is largely remembered for his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, which was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize. He had studied philosophy, logic and maths, themes which recur throughout the structure and themes of his books, and taught creative writing.
Set against the backdrop of an alternative and seemingly-grotesque America, The Broom of the System notches up adventures and characters in a clever, funny and satirical way. Set in a rather abstracted 1990s Cleveland, there’s the story of Lenore, who sets out in search of her great-grandmother, a geriatric scholar of the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
She has fled from the Shaker Heights Nursing Home, along with twenty-five of the other residents. Lenore tries to find her, accompanied in the character list by one of her brothers, called LaVache, a little genius with a passion for marijuana. Meanwhile, to add spirit to the humor, there is Vlad the Impaler, a parrot who recites Christian sermons from cable TV, and extracts from W.H. Auden.
A sequence of riddles permeates The Broom of the System, like those Grandmother Lenore leaves after her escape to Lenore-the-protagonist and to LaVache. Lenore herself seems mysterious, as she is only described in a form of detached third-person by other characters, without any first-person narrative point of view of her own. The narrative is like the pendulum of a clock. It alternates between a lilting, regular pace and peaks of surreality, and its tension is increased by the sudden presence and absence of the characters, who are prone to vanish. The last word, mysteriously, is simply not written.
The twenty-one chapters are full of puzzles, which the reader can piece together, and the book enjoys using irony against the reader, while also being self-deprecating. It also mocks the idiosyncrasies of American culture while simultaneously using the work and ideas of Wittgenstein to philosophize language. Foster Wallace tries to squeeze the world into a novel, and naturally fails, but the attempt is scintillating, a book that always sits one step off from reality.