“Hi Bob,” David Foster Wallace’s Drinking Game

In David Foster Wallace’s first novel The Broom of the System, protagonist Lenore Beadsman’s brother and his friends play a drinking game based on The Bob Newhart Show. Here are the rules–

On television was ”The Bob Newhart Show.” In the big social room with LaVache were three boys who all seemed to look precisely alike. . . . ”Lenore, this is Cat, this is Heat, this is the Breather,” LaVache said from his chair in front of the television. . . .

Heat and the Breather were on a spring-sprung sofa, sharing what was obviously a joint. Cat was on the floor, sitting, a bottle of vodka before him, and he clutched it with his bare toes, staring anxiously at the television screen.

”Hi Bob,” Suzanne Pleshette said to Bob Newhart on the screen. . . . La Vache looked up from his clipboard at Lenore. ”We’re playing Hi Bob. You want to play Hi Bob with us?” He spoke sort of slowly. Lenore made a place to sit on the luggage. ”What’s Hi Bob?” The Breather grinned at her from the sofa, where he now held the bottle of vodka. ”Hi Bob is where, when somebody on ‘The Bob Newhart Show’ says ‘Hi Bob,’ you have to take a drink.”

”And but if Bill Dailey says ‘Hi Bob,’ ” said Cat, tending to the joint with a wet finger, ”that is to say, if the character Howard Borden on the show says ‘Hi Bob,’ it’s death, you have to chug the whole bottle.”

”Hi Bob,” said Bill Dailey on the screen.

This text was originally cited in Caryn James’s 1987 review of The Broom of the System in The New York Times. Here’s our review.

The Broom of the System — David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace’s first novel The Broom of the System obsesses over language, words, storytelling and what it might mean to have our lives circumscribed in another person’s narrative. Hatchette Audio’s new audiobook version of Broom highlights the strength of Wallace’s dialogue, a feature of his writing perhaps overlooked, or at least overshadowed, by his complex diction and syntax and his innovative narrative structures. The Broom audiobook features the considerable talents of reader Robert Petkoff, who brings life to its many characters like protagonist Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, a switchboard operator looking for her grandmother (and namesake) in the weird nooks and crannies of Wallace’s fictional Cleveland. Gramma Lenore (grammar Lenore; lost Lenore) is a former pupil of Wittgenstein, a conceit that allows Wallace to run wild with his own philosophical-linguistic concerns. I first read Broom as an undergrad–this was almost 15 years ago now–and I was pretty soaked in post-structuralist philosophy at the time, at least enough to think I was getting what many of Wallace’s mouthpieces were saying. There’s an obsession with Self and Other and whatever membrane might keep them separate; there’s the paranoia that language dictates our lives; there’s a sense that the postindustrial landscape has led to the need to engender new means of communion. Politicians create the Great Ohio Desert–or G.O.D. (subtle, I know) as a place for spiritual quests; psychiatrists prescribe bizarre ritual theaters for families to produce in front of a recording of a TV audience; a drugged bird develops speech abilities and is mistaken for a miracle. Broom is a dizzying satire of modernity, or more properly, postmodernity (the book was first published in 1987 but set in 1990).

Journeying through the book years later is a new experience, especially in light of how much Wallace and his literary followers have remapped the terrain of fiction. Many of Broom‘s experimental innovations, like the incorporation of TV transcripts, scholarly articles, medical documents, and other “found footage” are so normalized in contemporary fiction as to be almost clichéd in 2010. While these moments are never glaring or gauche in Broom, their inclusion lacks the finesse that Wallace would later demonstrate in Infinite Jest. Similarly, Wallace’s characters in Broom are too cartoonish to connect with. Read aloud, their punning names become a cavalcade of groans:Wang-Dang Lang, Peter Abbott, Candy Mandible, Judith Prietht, Biff Diggerance, and so on, as if Wallace can’t help himself. The Pynchonesque goofiness gets in the way of the reader-writer relationship that Wallace ultimately wants, the Wittgensteinian language game that would allow for identification beyond words. Purposeful bathos is still bathos. Lenore is an engaging character but, as she frequently worries and suspects, she is just that, a character, never transcending the page like Don Gately of Infinite Jest. But it’s cruel and stupid to fault Broom for not being Infinite Jest, especially when Broom is such a rewarding novel. Published when Wallace was just 24, it shows the grand strains of First Novel Syndrome, of a genius trying to push out too many ideas, too many characters, too many philosophical riffs at once. While Infinite Jest is hardly restrained, it shows Wallace’s powerful control over Too Much; it converts Too Much into Not Enough, into Give Me More.

The highlight of Broom is in its storytelling, in its capacity to explode clichés and expose the truth and energy stored within them. Rick Vigorous, Lenore’s would-be beau with literary aspirations, repeatedly shares stories with Lenore (and us, of course). They can be silly and maudlin and mawkish and downright awful, but also inspiring and sad and horrific, all at the same time, and Wallace engineers and comments on these stories (and the other stories that populate the book) in a way that somehow breaks with or goes past the postmodern tradition he’s otherwise relatively beholden to in Broom. And while Wallace’s first novel never achieves the exquisite sadness of Infinite Jest (although it would clearly like to), it does share the same rap-session humor, the same intimate narrative voice that welcomes the reader to laugh, to ponder, to play the game. Recommended.

In Brief — Adam Langer, William H. Gass, David Foster Wallace, and Frank Meeink

I have terrible writer’s block. It’s not that I have nothing to say, it’s just that I can’t seem to say it. Or that I write sentences like the previous one and shudder at their awkward clunky artless awfulness. But I’m gonna press through it, write through it, and share a few thoughts on what I’ve read this week–

First up: Adam Langer’s new novel, The Thieves of Manhattan, a send-up of the publishing industry that sets its targets directly on the current swath of (faked) memoirs that have done gangbusters for publishers in the past few years. Ian Minot is a broke-assed barista one fuck-up away from an overdue firing, who moves from the Midwest to make it as a writer in the big city. Only he’s not doing so well–in contrast to his gorgeous Romanian girlfriend Anya whose literary star is on the rise. For Minot though, this isn’t the worst–that would be the rampant success of über-poseur Blade Markham, a wanna-be gangsta whose memoir Blade on Blade is a blatant fabrication (albeit a fabrication that no one but savvy schlemiel Minot seems to notice (or, at the least, be bothered by)).  I read the first fifty-odd pages of the Thieves in one sitting–a good sign to be sure. Langer’s Minot’s voice is familiar territory, the boy who loves to mock the literati he would love to be a part of. In one of the signal moves of his patois, the names of famous authors (and characters) regularly replace common nouns–a bed becomes a proust, a full head of hair is a chabon, sex is chinaski and so on. Minot seems to be headed to running his own grift soon with the help of a man he appropriately calls the Confident Man–should be good stuff. Full review forthcoming. The Thieves of Manhattan is available July 13, 2010 from Spiegel & Grau.

I’ve also been reading William H. Gass’s first novel, Omensetter’s Luck. It’s weird, wonderful, Faulknerish in its loose (but somehow layered and constructed) stream of consciousness. Omensetter’s Luck comprises three sections, each progressively longer; I finished the second one today, and so far the novel seems to dance around a description or accounting of its namesake, Brackett Omensetter who carts his family into the small sleepy town of Gilean, Ohio, and immediately perplexes the townsfolk with his amazing luck. As Frederic Morton put it in his contemporary 1966 New York Times review, “It quickly becomes apparent that as other people have green thumbs, [Omensetter] has a green soul. The cosmos and he live in mysterious congruity.” There’s much to commend and unpack in Gass’s writing here, but the pleasure of his musical rhythm are enough for me now (in my writer’s block, I retreat to aesthetic criticism [shudders]). Besides, do I really have to recommend this novel when David Foster Wallace already did so in his semi-famous list “Five Direly Underappreciated U.S. Novels > 1960”? No, I don’t, that’s right. Here’s Wallace on Omensetter’s Luck: “Gass’ first novel, and his least avant-gardeish, and his best. Basically a religious book. Very sad. Contains the immortal line ‘The body of Our Saviour shat but Our Saviour shat not.’ Bleak but gorgeous, like light through ice.”

Speaking of Wallace and début novels, Richard Rayner at The Los Angeles Times has reviewed Wallace’s first book The Broom of the System, which is being republished at the end of this month with a cool new cover by tattoo artist Duke Riley. A considered, well-written review, one which prompted me to dig out (okay, bad verb phrase choice; no unearthing involved, my Wallace volumes are neatly aligned together on a shelf in my living room) my copy of Broom. I remember reading a friend’s copy in the burning humidity of a Gainesville summer, in ’98 or ’99, reading the book in long chunks. I tried to read it again after I finishing Infinite Jest but it seemed kinda sorta goofy (albeit purposely, Pynchonesquely goofy). Anyway, Rayner’s review makes a strong case for a re-reading.

And, speaking of Wallace (again), or at least using him as a crutch–I’ve almost finished Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead by Frank Meeink (“as told to” Jody M. Roy; they’ve sort of got the whole Malcolm X/Alex Haley thing going on there). So, yeah, why the Wallace segue? How to justify it? Well, reading Meeink’s story, the true story of an abused, battered Philadelphia kid who falls into the American neo-Nazi movement and its attendant violent crime and terrorism, who goes to prison and finds redemption and human connection and a new purpose for the nihilistic void of his life, who falls into alcoholism and drug addiction only to be redeemed again–reading Meeink’s story, even knowing its veracity (demonstrable to a point that would satisfy even Langer’s Ian Minot)–I couldn’t help but read his strong, immediate, gritty, and utterly real voice as something not unlike one of the creations in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. It’s not just Meeink’s hideousness, his violence, or the grace that he works toward–all constituents of DFW’s collection–it’s that voice, the realness of the volume, surely the book’s greatest asset. Recovering Skinhead is an engrossing read, fascinating in the same way that an infected wound prompts our attention, our paradoxical compulsion and repulsion, but most of all it’s an exhilarating and exhausting performance of voice, of Meeink’s unrelenting, authentic telling of a tale, a telling that any novelist would thrill to channel. Only Meeink’s voice isn’t a novel creation: it’s real. Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead is available now from Hawthorne Books.

David Foster Wallace Audio Archive Now Up

A kindly dude by the name of Ryan Walsh has launched a site called The David Foster Wallace Archive. The site collects in one place the loose mp3s that’ve been floating around the web, and includes the Brief Interviews with Hideous Men audiobook in its entirety. There are also interviews, profiles, eulogies, and more. A good starting place: an (as-yet) unpublished piece about a do-gooding boy detested by all. It’s hilarious.

So. It’s kinda sorta Book Covers Week at Biblioklept, and, in keeping with that theme, check out this new cover for Wallace’s debut novel, The Broom of the System. The edition is part of the forthcoming Penguin Ink series and should be available this summer. Art by Duke Riley. We love it.