After a few dust-ups, David Foster Wallace and I are making amends. I read his first novel, The Broom of the System. It’s fantastic—hilarious, heady, and bursting with linguistic invention. Read it, if you haven’t already.
Now I will be a dick and talk about the one problem I had with the book.
The first chapter takes place in a college dorm, where four girls are getting ready for a party, changing their clothes, talking about boys, and generally sizing up each other’s bodies. The very first paragraph describes Mindy Metalman’s feet in almost facetious detail:
They’re long and thin and splay-toed, with buttons of yellow callous on the little toes and a thick stair-step of it on the back of the heel, and a few long black hairs are curling out of the skin at the tops of the feet, and the red nail polish is cracking and peeling in curls and candy-striped with decay.
Gradually we are given to understand that Mindy Metalman is sex personified, a man-magnet, an “objectively erotic young thing who undulated her way into my heart in the summer of her thirteenth year,” in the words of our male protagonist, Rick Vigorous. So, men are falling all over themselves to get with Mindy Metalman. Fine.
Soon we learn that Lenore Beadsman, our female protagonist, has the same effect on men, and on Rick in particular. (The writing is better here, even if it’s deliberately sappy.) Rick says:
A kiss with Lenore is a scenario in which I skate with buttered soles over the moist rink of lower lip, sheltered from weathers by the wet warm overhang of upper, finally to crawl between lip and gum and pull the lip to me like a child’s blanket and stare over it with beady, unfriendly eyes out at the world external to Lenore, of which I no longer wish to be a part.
By the time Rick begins to describe, in detail, the third woman to whom he is “overwhelmingly sexually attracted,” he is losing credibility. He basically wants to fuck all women. Which makes sense for Rick’s character, because he’s desperate and insecure. But it’s not just Rick who comes off as a horndog. Often, it seems like every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the novel wants to get inside the pants of every Jane, Liz, and Susie. Here are Andrew Sealander Lang and Neil Obstat fighting over who gets to ogle Lenore:
“How’s that dress doing in all this heat, is what I want to know,” Obstat said eagerly. “She got that little V of sweat at the chest yet? I love that little V.”
“Fuck off,” Lang said.
“Hey now Wanger, you said I could look at the legs, and the V too if there was one!”
“Stop whining goddammit, Neil,” Lang said angrily. He looked at Obstat, who was looking at him as he chewed. Lang rolled his eyes. “Here, then. Just take a fast goddamn look if you have to.” He passed the binoculars over to Obstat and rubbed his face.
They’re getting off on the sight of Lenore while she’s so far away that she can only be seen with binoculars! And what is Lenore doing at this moment? She’s being pleaded with by Rick, who wants another chance with her. The omnivorous lust of DFW’s male characters would be funny, in a slapstick way, if it weren’t also kind of insulting to anyone who understands how to be a functioning heterosexual in our society. It’s not a drooling free-for-all in a candy shop.
Rick is dating Lenore, but he ends up with Mindy. Mindy is married to Andrew, but he leaves her for Candy, before settling with Lenore. In The Broom of the System, these relationships are important to the individuals (Rick and Lenore in particular) as arenas in which to work out their unique psychological needs. But the relationships themselves have little to no character. Lenore is the same old Lenore, whether she’s with Rick or his complete opposite, Andrew. It’s just that Andrew fucks her better.
While the men in the novel—Rick Vigorous, Andrew Sealander Lang, Neil Obstat, Peter Abbot, Norman Bombardini—are characterized by an interchangeable lust, the women—Lenore Beadsman, Mindy Metalman, Candy Mandible—are characterized by a resigned acceptance of their role as sex objects, and by an interchangeable physical attractiveness. Here is DFW’s comparison of Mindy and Candy:
Mindy was staring back, but not really at Candy so much as at Candy’s dress. Her eyes faded a bit, as if she were trying to latch onto an elusive memory. Her eyes were different from Candy’s, too. Very. Where candy’s were light brown and almost perfectly round, giving her face almost too much symmetry, making it an almost triangular face when it would have been nicer and more comforting as a rounder, more vague-at-the-edges face, Mindy’s eyes were so dark they were almost black, and they seemed to spread out far more across the upper ridges of her cheeks, and back at the sides, like the wings of a dark sort of fluttery bird: large, delicate, full of a kind of motion even when still. Really nice eyes. A face very much like Candy’s, but vaguer at the edges, and so really better. Candy smoothed at her dress some more.
DFW tends to dwell on his female characters’ physical qualities. To me they all end up looking the same. Maybe that’s deliberate. Maybe it’s supposed to be quantitative and anatomical in a postmodern, thought-provoking way. But it seems like part of a larger failure—an inability on DFW’s part to make his writing about female bodies come alive. Here is DFW again, switching (as he does quite brilliantly throughout the novel) from the colloquial speech of the previous passage to a high literary mode:
One. Calves. Shall we discuss the persistent habit the light of the sun had of reflecting off Mindy Metalman’s calves. Thus then the calves themselves. An erotic surface being neither dull nor hard. A dull surface equalling no reflection; a hard surface equalling a vulgar, glinting spangle.
But a reflection from soft, smooth—perfectly shaved smooth—perfectly clean suburban skin. Light off the shins of her calves as said calves projected their curves from chairs, or scissored the air above clogs that made solid sounds on the sidewalk… or yes go ahead hung over the edge of the country club pool, pressing, so that the flesh of the calf behind swelled out and made the reflection two ovals of light.
It’s all surface, geometry, information. It divorces Mindy’s character from Mindy’s body, and its only purpose is to repeat what we already know—that she’s attractive. There is nothing compelling or beautiful about this passage, even though it’s meant to evoke someone’s beauty!
The word “battering” comes up in Rick’s sessions with his psychologist, Dr. Jay. It seems appropriate here, too. Rick is battering at Lenore in their relationship, both sexually and emotionally. When DFW attempts to write evocatively or philosophically or insightfully about female beauty, he ends up battering at his female characters, getting nowhere, like Rick. The men in The Broom of the System are preoccupied with possessing the women, either by employing them, controlling them, loving them, merging with them, or (no joke) eating them. To this list we can add DFW’s failed attempts to possess his female characters by describing them. I think it’s a flaw. If it inadvertently echoes one of his themes, we’ll chalk it up to an imitative fallacy. After reading his descriptions of female bodies, I often felt bored and wished I had skipped them.
This is the only consistent problem I found in an otherwise dashing and brilliant novel.
Maybe it’s a symptom of artistic genius that you simply don’t understand how normal people behave in sex and relationships. Like when you’re watching Seinfeld or a Woody Allen movie, and you wonder how anyone expects us to believe that Jerry and Woody are scoring these hot, young dates all the time. These are genius artists. Shouldn’t they be familiar with our basic courting and mating customs?
Or maybe DFW was a perpetual teenager when it comes to women—obsessive, over-analytical, strangely uninformed. If we factor in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, this isn’t just a theme of one book; it’s a theme of his work.