FROM THE STACKS: Black-Hearted Woman – David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System

unnamed-1I read my first piece by David Foster Wallace, a (relatively) short first-person essay about attending a tennis match, when I was a sophomore in college and began buying each and every one of his books at a rapid speed almost immediately. He quickly became my favorite author for the rest of my college years, and still shares the title of favorite author in my mind (the sharing is new, and I think, a good sign of an adult openness to trying new things).

Between his works, I can’t pick a favorite piece of writing. The dark mastery of The Pale King can’t be pitted against the bizzaro-rawness of his short story collection Girl with the Curious Hair. You can’t set aside the fact his (perhaps) magnum opus Infinite Jest annual gets readers to commit to an Infinite Summer, in which they read the 1,079 page masterpiece over the course of three months.

So no, I don’t have a favorite work by Wallace. But, The Broom of the System has become the one of the books most treasured on my shelves.

I loved it instantly. First read in March, my junior year of college, I immediately clung to its protagonist Lenore, a girl who showered multiple times a day and drank ginger-ale above all else. Her apathy at her increasingly neurotic boyfriend depicted exactly the type of no-fucks-given-in-love-or-war attitude I wished I could be able to summon around guys.

I drank ginger ale before all other beverages for almost two years because of that character.

The book I own itself is no special edition. It’s not even hardcover. It does have the deckled edges I love, a favoritism which grew from my childhood consumption of all Lemony Snickett’s A Series of Unfortunate Event books. Reading those dark children’s books, with the first rough edges I’d ever experienced, felt like I’d found a manuscript in some dark alley I wasn’t supposed to walk down, even if I had easily gotten the book from the friendly librarian who knew me by name.

There is no logical reason why THIS copy of The Broom of the System is so important to me. But I won’t give it up. We’ve all loaned books to friends, put it in their hands as a final goodbye, knowing we are never to see that copy again after months of pestering our buddy about whether or not they’ve finished it. I couldn’t do that with this book.

I loaned this copy to a guy I was dating at 21. He was 10 years older than me, but SO. FUCKING. DREAMY. Like, a nerdy comic book type that just happened to be amazingly fit and good-looking in the face. I know, 21/31 sounds wrong, but there was nothing bad about our relationship. It was just that, I was only near him doing a internship at a small-town newspaper over the summer. I had to go back to college in a few weeks. Instead of doing the whole “should we date long distance? Should we break up? Should we try it?” conversation with a guy that didn’t even have a cell phone (this is 2012 and I am 21 – a phoneless guy is DREAM-EEE, I promise), I just broke it off.

I broke it off really badly. We met at a Starbucks, and, never having the experience of dumping someone before, I went the route of just crying into my coffee lid until he guessed what was wrong and was the one to say “So, we’re breaking up?” out loud. I’d never done this before. I was always the dumped. For some reason I cannot godly explain, at this point, I’d only been seriously persued by guys with way-better face shapes than my own, guys who fall in love with my manic-pixie dream-girl-ness, only to discover within a month or two that that stereotype isn’t real, and the girls who get lumped into it will NOT change your life like some movie.

Here’s where you hate me: Less than 5 minutes later, I asked if I could get my copy of the The Broom of the System back. The guy kinda looked at me and was like “um, yeah… It’s at my house, though. I didn’t even think about that.” I agreed to drive over there, in our separate cars, to get it back. I easily could have bought a new copy of the book for $15, could have not done this last painful task in the process of the breakup, but I lied and told him a friend gave me the book and I needed that copy. I don’t even know why I did it.

When he placed it back in my hands, he admitted “I only got like 20 pages in.” Ladies – don’t date guys that don’t read the books that are important to you, which you ask them to read. This is minimal boyfriend effort.

Looking at my book now, it all makes sense why I love this copy so much, something I didn’t put together even then. I’d spent so much time idolizing the cool and confident Lenore of the novel, I didn’t even notice myself becoming cool and confident myself. A year ago, I would have never dumped a cute guy that liked me; would have never stretched myself to think about anything but the immediate “SOMEONE LOVES ME” feelings overwhelming me. I never would have had the balls to ask anything out of a relationship – not even something as small as getting a book back. This books marks the first steps I took to holding my own in a relationship, towards claiming what is mine.

Every time someone touches it on my shelf, I get a sense of pride. I willingly point out: “Yeah, when I was a 21-year-old badass, I loaned that book to a guy and drove to his house to get it back after I dumped him.”

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