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Audio Book Review: ‘The Broom of the System’ by David Foster Wallace

by Kim on June 7, 2011 · 16 comments

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Title: The Broom of the System
Author: David Foster Wallace
Genre: Fiction
Year: 1987/2010
Acquired: Won in a giveaway, I think.
Rating: ★★★½☆

One Sentence Summary: “The book centers on the emotionally challenged Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, a 24-year-old telephone switchboard operator who has issues about whether or not she’s real.” — Wikipedia.

One Sentence Review: In what I believe is probably typical DFW style, The Broom of the System is laugh-out-loud funny, exasperating, confusing, and thought provoking all at the same time.

Why I Read It: I won the audiobook in a giveaway a long time ago and needed something to listen to on a series of drives to and from Minnesota last month. I was too busy to go to the library, so The Broom of the System made the cut.

Book Review: I think the back of the audio book describes The Broom of the System more concisely and accurately than I ever could myself. It explains:

At the center of The Broom of the System is the bewitching (and also bewildered) heroine, Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman. The year is 1990 and the place is a slightly altered Cleveland, Ohio, which sits on the edge of a suburban wasteland — the Great Ohio Desert. Lenore works as a switchboard attendant at a publishing firm, and in addition to her mind-numbing job, she has a few other problems. Her great-grandmother, a one-time student of Wittgenstein, has disappeared with twenty-five other inmates of the Shaker Heights Nursing Home. Her beau (and boss), editor-in-chief- Rick Vigorous, is insanely jealous. And her cockatiel, Vlad the Impaler, has suddenly started spouting a mixture of psychobabble, Auden, and the King James Bible, which may propel him to stardom on a fundamentalist Christian television program.

Got all that?

In writing about this book, I can’t help comparing it to my experience of reading Infinite Jest a couple of summers ago. As a reader, I just have to let David Foster Wallace wash over me — if I spend too much time puzzling over the thematic or philosophical points he’s trying to make, I get lost. But if I just keep trucking on, eventually the book comes to a sort of coherence in my brain even if I can’t articulate that conclusion to anyone else.

That’s probably why The Broom of the System was such a good choice on audio book. There’s a forced sense of “Keep on moving!” that you just have to go with. If I’d been reading, I’m not entirely sure I’d have liked it as much. Which is so weird because the book doesn’t have much of a forward plot, and jumps between narrators and narrative styles very quickly. It should have been easy to get lost in the book, but somehow I didn’t. I’m not sure why exactly that was.

Perhaps a big part was the narrator, Robert Petkoff, who did a fabulous job. He was dealing with a lot of characters, and yet he was able to make them all seem distinctive in what must have been a challenging text. Sometimes his female characters blended together a bit, but other than that I thought his performance was superb. I’m not sure I would have liked the book as much if the narrator hadn’t been as great.

There were definitely parts of the book that really exasperated me. The characters, especially the protagonist, Lenore, could be really frustrating. They could be so inert, ignoring obvious signs to change their lives or make different decisions. I just wanted to smack them sometimes. And the books preoccupation with communication felt like too much at times, like Foster Wallace was forcing it just a little bit.

But sometimes books thrive in being exasperating, and for some reason this book was that for me. I really liked it, even though there seemed to be more reasons to be annoyed than to be enthralled.

This is the kind of book I wish I’d read when I was back in school. I think it would make a fascinating analytical discussion, and hearing smarter people talk about it would help me understand parts of it better. That said, it’s also a book that leaves a lot open for a re-read (and is of a length that makes a re-read more likely than, say, Infinite Jest).

I can’t say this is a book for everyone, but it’s one that I had a good time listening to.

Other Reviews: Necromancy Never Pays |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Andi June 7, 2011 at 6:39 am

It’s timely that I’m reading this review right after finishing C by Tom McCarthy. He’s a big David Foster Wallace fan and has drawn some comparisons. I haven’t read DFW myself, but I did enjoy the McCarthy experience and feel about this work the way you felt about this book — makes some kind of sense if it washes over, frustration with the characters at times.

Great review, Kim! Looking forward to reading some DFW for myself.

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Kim June 7, 2011 at 6:50 pm

Interesting! I haven’t read McCarthy, but sounds interesting. I really think DFW is best if you just go with him and don’t think too hard on the first read-through.

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Jen - Devourer of Books June 7, 2011 at 8:07 am

You know what, I think you actually might have won this in Audiobook Week last year. Funny!

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Kim June 7, 2011 at 6:50 pm

I think I did! Funny funny :)

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Steph June 7, 2011 at 8:25 am

I read this book last year and it was my first encounter with DFW. I really enjoyed it, but it was definitely very challenging and mentally taxing. It certainly made me wonder whether I’d ever be able to read Infinite Jest, as this was just a smidgen of IJ’s size and yet it still felt like it kind of broke my brain a little bit. It’s kind of ridiculous that this was his honors thesis project from his undergrad!

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Kim June 7, 2011 at 6:51 pm

I think having read IJ made me more inclined to like this one — it’s like IJ lite :) And yes, totally ridiculous. DFW was smarter than I will ever be.

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Stephanie June 7, 2011 at 8:46 am

I got this book for Christmas and your review makes me want to pick it up straight away!

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Kim June 7, 2011 at 6:51 pm

I like it a lot! Quite confusing in places, but also laugh out loud funny in many other places.

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bermudaonion (Kathy) June 7, 2011 at 3:26 pm

I’ve had this one for a little while, but have been rather intimidated to try it. I have a feeling I’m not smart enough for David Foster Wallace.

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Kim June 7, 2011 at 6:53 pm

It’s a little scary at first, but there are so many funny moments in the book I think it’s worth the effort.

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Sheila (Bookjourney) June 7, 2011 at 4:01 pm

I have not heard of this one Kim! Great thoughts on it!

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Kim June 7, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Thanks Sheila!

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Cass June 8, 2011 at 5:49 am

One day soon I will read a book by David Foster Wallace and then I will do a happy dance.

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Kim June 9, 2011 at 8:19 pm

Or, you will become so exasperated you will throw a book. Either reaction, or both, is acceptable :)

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Jeanne June 8, 2011 at 7:37 pm

I was way more exasperated by this audiobook than you were! https://necromancyneverpays.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/the-broom-of-the-system/

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Kim June 9, 2011 at 8:19 pm

I remember reading your review when I was deciding whether to listen to it or not and I got a little nervous. But yeah, I did like it despite some exasperation :)

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