Two years ago I read Infinite Jest, the sprawling cataclysm of a novel that ate my appetite for euphoria and displaced my conscious thoughts for the better part of two months. Now I have seeded myself deep within the chasms of his first novel: The Broom of the System.
David Foster Wallace, the genius behind the agony of my ecstatic reading adventure, hanged himself in 2008. This is the seminal reason, beyond the limits of Jest itself, that I find my relationship to his work so hopelessly unnerving.
It starts as such: Wallace's characters are often frustrating, but surely drawn specimens of three-dimensionality which hold within them the promise of potentials realized and hopes metastasized into clear and sufficiently satisfying denouements. Build on top of that frame, a world that seems to be a mocking, yet complex and perhaps inexhaustible mirror of our own. Both the worlds of System and Jest take place in a parallel North America, where certain deeds have soundly changed the way reality is scoped. For instance, the major fantastical element of Broom is that the landscape of Ohio was altered in the late sixties. You see, the people of that time needed someplace to go that would be, in a word (not my word, of course, but his), sinister. So, a giant desert was imported into Ohio. Although one of the climactic scenes of the story takes place in said desert (in earnest I can't really call it climactic -- just one of the last major scenes, let's say), the desert serves no tangible purpose, I reckon, than to play a little bit further with the notion of other.
This too is where I find myself both nursing and vomiting (out from) the tit of Wallace's milk product.
Most stories, as the likes of Charles Dickens firmly implanted into our collective conscience, wrap themselves up neatly in the end. That is to say... they have an end. That is to say further, an end that is something more than the mere stopping of ink on page after page, but rather, an emotional/artistic end. Wallace denies us this. One may not find this particularly surprising when in one sees the era in which Wallace writes (the nineties, give or take), but I myself felt like I deserved one for my steadfast endurance through Jest. One feels like such a thing is owed after 1200plus pages.
Why is there no ending? Is it merely a matter of the genre, of postmodern literature? I resoundly say no. I will defend my sweet, sweet adulterer!
Wallace gives us no ending because to do so would be to conflate self and other: in this case the other being either him (the writer) or the story itself. THERE CAN BE NO CONFLATING! If there were, his premise would be soundly revoked and he'd appear to be another mere pawn of hypocrisy. No, this cannot be the way.
Consider the most telling of his characters (and non-coincidentally, funniest) in Broom. Norman Bombardini is a grotesquely rich man; rich in wealth and flab. His wife gives him one year to lose 100 pounds. Bombardini does not lose weight -- in fact he gains some. Consequently, the wife leaves. This sets Bombardini on a new target of exploration. With all his wealth, all his money and power, Bombardini couldn't control that which he desired to control: namely, his wife. This, he realizes, is the problem between self and other. He is self. She is other. The self has no control of the other. What then is the solution for one resolved to no compromise and no defeat? -- Answer: the absorption of the other into the self. This is Bombardini's solution and he will stick to it. He will absorb his wife. How? - you ask. --Answer: he will eat himself into the other.
No, Bombardini has not decided to become a cannibal... at least, not initially. He is not planning on simply eating his wife, and thus absorbing her in that manner. No. That would not suffice, for, although he may reconcile himself to her 'other' in that way, he still has loads of other others out there to contend with. His music then, is simply to eat.
Bombardini will eat himself into infinity. He will eat until there is no other to contend with. He will eat until he absorbs everything which isn't yet called himself.
Sure, it's a silly premise, and we naturally rationalize his philosophical altruism away by our understanding that obesity leads (rather quickly, we might add) to death. Furthermore, to seal our case, once one is dead, one cannot continue to eat, and thusly, Bombardini is fated to fail at his inglorious attempt to rid the world of its otherness.
To move forward towards the more specifically relevant, there's the central relationship of Rick Vigorous and Lenore Beadsman. Rick proclaims incessantly to himself and to others that he is irrevocably, absolutely, and eternally in love with Miss Lenore Beadsman. Lenore is his girlfriend, and we understand that they've been going together for sometime, but although Lenore, initially on the surface seems to like being around Rick, she won't ever spew out those three important words, "I love you." Rick is ruined by this. He begins to focus his neuroses on his shortcomings: his small penis, his bald spot, his jealousy etc ad adsurdum infinitum.
Rick sees himself as forever locked aware from Lenore, unable to attain interpenetration into her being: she is forever apart and other from him. This very notion drives him mad. Note: it should be added here that Rick is very likely additionally trapped because his "love" of Lenore seems in and of itself to be something apart from Lenore. He doesn't treat her the way someone who actually loves some other should act: that being the eternal interest and adulation in the actions, thoughts, and mundane movements of the other itself -- rather, Rick seems be engaged with some illusory version of Lenore -- the Platonic Lenore.
This separation between self and other that lies so centrally in The Broom of the System is what both attracts and repulses me to the writing of Wallace himself. He is absolutely wholly other and unapproachably gone. I have no hope of being able to define the man or consolidate (CONFLATE!) him into a tangible, viable, usable philosophy. Nope. Never.
A short word about dichotomy.
Since this notion of self and other has arisen,
I logically think about dichotomies;
the most mysterious of which is that which is presented to us in the Bible.
Manichaeism: that gnostic religion of dichotomy and duality,
is obviously a heresy.
We Christians do not hold to that prognosis of the world.
there's this problem of the Devil.
It's so easy for us to fall into a sensation of:
God v. Satan
Me v. The Devil.
this cannot be true.
The devil is not on equal footing with God or man.
Shucks, I have not the energy to inquire further.
The limits of my body (which in a way is an other outside of myself as well)
have burdened me enough.