Brief Interviews and Broom of the System, DFW

One of the best things about the holidays is always the opportunity to do more reading than usually happens during the semester. This past break, I tackled two books by David Foster Wallace: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and The Broom of the System. Of the two, I greatly preferred Broom.
Brief Interviews is a collection of stories (or vignettes? or “interviews”?) that hang together through themes of relationships, connection, and what it is for people to see or know each other (or not). The titular interviews give the accounts of a number of undescribed subjects of a significant relationship in their life. These were, for me, the most entertaining portion of the book. Interspersed between them were more traditionally structured stories. Even though the book itself is fairly short and the individual stories cannot be considered long, I found myself frequently feeling I like got the point and was ready for the story to end five or ten pages before they actually did. Ultimately, I think the book did a fine job expressing the often painful uncertainty in others that comes with a relationship, but the pain was expressed without the humor I am accustomed to with Wallace that usually cuts the tension.
In contrast, The Broom of the System was closer to what I expect from Wallace’s fiction – a rambling story with bizarre characters suffering surreal experiences that ultimately end up connecting in an unanticipated resolution. Highlights here include a missing great-grandmother who cannot regulate her body temperature and must live in a room at 98.6 degrees, a building owner who has decided to eat the world, a baby food mogul and his rebellious daughter, a mysteriously malfunctioning telephone system and a newly loquacious bird. The characters all suffer from various delusions, paranoia or uncertainty about their own reality. It was thoroughly entertaining – highly recommended if you enjoy ridiculous twisting puzzle-plots.
The books share some major themes – connection, relationship, knowing oneself and others, and the boundaries between people. Both books feature characters mocking the therapeutic process/therapists and their own neuroses – perhaps a bit moreso in Broom. But on the whole, I found Interviews significantly darker and more hopeless. Broom certainly does not end on a hopeful note full of rainbows and unicorns, but while the characters may be filled with despair, somehow it does not feel as if the book is. Interviews (which I read first) left me wondering if I wanted to even bother with Broom – I am certainly glad that I did.

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