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Monday, October 31, 2011

THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM (David Foster Wallace)

1990



“Is this cuddling? Is what we’re doing cuddling?”

“I think this satisfies standard cuddling criteria, yes.”

“I thought so.”

“....”

“You have a really bony pelvis, you know. See how it protrudes?”

“I do have a bony pelvis. My wife used to comment on my pelvis, sometimes.”

“I have a pretty bony pelvis, too, don’t you think? Feel.”

“It is bony. I think women are supposed to have bony pelvises.”

“I think it’s also in my case like a family thing. Both my brothers have bony pelvises. My younger brother has a really mammoth pelvis.”

“....”

“Mmmm.”

“....”

“A story, please.”

“You want a story.”

“Please.”

“Did get a rather interesting one today.”

“Go for it.”

“Depressing, though.”

“I want to hear it.”

“Concerned a man who suffered from second-order vanity.”

“Second-order vanity?”

“Yes.”

“What’s that?”

“You don’t know what second-order vanity is?”

“No.”

“How interesting.”

“So what is it?”

“Well, a second-order vain person is first of all a vain person. He’s vain about his intelligence, and wants people to think he’s smart. Or his appearance, and wants people to think he’s attractive. Or, say, his sense of humor, and wants people to think he’s amusing and witty. Or his talent, and wants people to think he’s talented. Et cetera. You know what a vain person is.”

“Right.”

“A vain person is concerned that people not perceive him as stupid, or dull, or ugly, et cetera et cetera.”

“Gotcha.”

“Now a second-order vain person is a vain person who’s also vain about appearing to have an utter lack of vanity. Who’s enormously afraid that other people will perceive him as vain. A second-order vain person will sit up late learning jokes in order to appear funny and charming, but will deny that he sits up late learning jokes. Or he’ll perhaps even try to give the impression that he doesn’t regard himself as funny at all.”

“....”

“A second-order vain person will be washing his hands in a public restroom, and will be unable to resist the temptation to admire himself in the mirror, to scrutinize himself, but he’ll pretend he’s fixing a contact lens or getting something out of his eye while he does so, so that people won’t perceive him as the sort of person who admires himself in mirrors, but rather as the sort of person who uses mirrors only to attend to reasonable, un-vain business.”

“Oh.”

“This story that came today concerned a man who was second-order vain about his appearance. Vain as hell about his appearance, obsessed with his body, but also obsessed with the desire that no one know of his obsession. He goes to simply enormous lengths to hide his vanity from his girlfriend. Did I mention he lives with a girl, an apparently ravingly beautiful and also very nice girl?”

“No.”

“Well he does, who loves him like mad, and he loves her. And they’re getting along fine, although the man is of course under quite a bit of strain, obsessed and also obsessed with hiding his obsession.”

“Gee.”

“Indeed. And one day in the bathtub the man notices something strange on his leg, a kind of a raised gray spot, and he goes to a doctor and is diagnosed as being in the first stages of a certain nonfatal but quite disfiguring disease, that will eventually leave this apparently very handsome man not a little disfigured.”

“....”

“Unless, that is, he consents to undergo a tremendously complicated and expensive treatment procedure, for which he has to fly all the way to Switzerland, and spend just about his whole life savings, which savings are in a joint bank account and require his lovely girlfriend’s cosignature to withdraw.”

“Wow.”

“....”

“Still, though, if he’s all that vain and anxious not to be disfigured.”

“Well, but you forget he’s also extremely anxious not to be perceived as the sort of man who’s anxious not to be disfigured. The thought of his girlfriend knowing that he is the sort of man who would spend his life savings and fly all the way to Switzerland just to keep from being disfigured horrifies him.”

“What is this disease? Is this supposed to be leprosy?”

“Something like leprosy, was my impression. Maybe not as bad. I think leprosy can kill you. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that the idea of his girlfriend finding out he is vain so horrifies the man that he delays and delays making the decision to fly to Switzerland for the treatment, and in the meantime the spot is growing and the skin on his leg is getting grayer, and flaking off in sheets, and the bones are swelling and getting gnarled, which condition he tries to hide by buying a novelty cast and putting it on his leg and telling his girlfriend his leg’s mysteriously broken, but the condition is meanwhile spreading to his other leg, and up his stomach and back, and also by implication I think we’re to assume his genitals; and so he takes to his bed and keeps himself covered with blankets and tells his girlfriend he’s mysteriously sick, and he also by the way starts making an effort to be really cold and aloof to the girlfriend, to keep her at a distance, even though he really loves her to distraction. And he only gets out of bed when she’s off at work, she sells women’s clothes, and only when she’s gone will he get out of bed and stand in front of the full-length mirror in their bathroom, for hours, gazing at himself in horror, and gently sponging the gray flakes off his increasingly twisted body.”

“Lordy.”

“Yes and days go by and the disease continues to progress, spreading to the man’s upper body and arms and hands, which he tries to hide by claiming he’s mysteriously horribly cold, and wearing heavy sweaters and ski mittens, and he’s also being increasingly cruel and nasty and bitter toward his lovely roommate, and won’t let her come near him, and gives her to understand that she’s done something terrible, and made him angry, but won’t tell her what it is, and the girlfriend begins to sit up at night in the bathroom crying, and the man can hear her, and his heart is breaking because he loves her so, but he’s got this obsession about not being ugly, and of course now if he tells her the truth and shows her everything, not only will she see that he’s all of a sudden ugly, but it will also become clear to her that he has the original obsession about not being ugly, see for instance the cast, sweaters and mittens, and of course he’s doubly obsessed about not revealing that original obsession. So he gets meaner and meaner to this sweet beautiful girl who loves him, and eventually, even though she’s a wonderful girl and deeply in love with him, she’s also only human and eventually becomes pissed off, little by little, simply in self-defense, and starts being cold and distant back, and relations between the two get strained, which is breaking the man’s heart, deep down. And meanwhile of course the disease is still spreading, it’s on his neck, and almost to the height of his highest turtleneck sweater, and also one or two gray flaky gnarls are appearing on the man’s nose, previews of coming attractions, the man sees. And so one morning, on about the last day the man figures he can keep it all hidden from the girlfriend, and also the morning after a really major and disastrous fight that clearly almost broke the girl’s heart, the girl is sitting in the bathroom, crying, and the man quietly gets out of bed and bundles up and goes and takes a cab to see his doctor.”

“....”

“Well, and the doctor’s quite upset, understandably, at the man’s not having called him in so long, what was he to think? And the doctor’s also of course more than a little concerned about the spread of the disease, and he looks the man over and clucks his tongue and says that this is just about the latest the expensive Switzerland-treatment can start and still be effective, and that if they delay any longer the disease will swallow the man completely and become irreversible and he’ll be alive but gray and flaky and gnarled all over for all time. The doctor looks at the man and says he’s going to go out of the office and let him think it over. The doctor clearly thinks the guy’s out of his mind for not being in Switzerland already. And so the man sits in the office, alone, all bundled up, with his mittens on, and has a real crisis, and his heart is breaking, and he’s incredibly horrified, because of the obsession-obsession, but finally he has a breakthrough, which is not too subtly symbolized by a ray of sunlight breaking through the heavy clouds that are in the sky that day and coming through the window of the doctor’s office and hitting the man, but and anyway he sees in this breakthrough that the most important thing is really his wonderful, lovely girlfriend and their love, and that that’s what really matters, and so he decides to call her and tell her everything and get her to come down and co-sign the withdrawal slip for his life savings so he can hop a flight to Switzerland that very day, and to hell with the horror of telling her, even though it will be unbelievably horrifying.”

“Wow.”

“And the way the story ends is with the man sitting at the doctor’s desk, with the phone in his mitten, listening to the phone ring in the apartment, and it’s ringing quite a few times, though not yet a ridiculous number of times, but enough so it’s just becoming by implication unclear whether the girlfriend is even still there or not, whether she’s taken off, maybe for good. And that’s how it ends, with the man there and the phone ringing in his mitten and the patch of sun on him through the doctor’s window.”

“Good Lord. Are you going to use it?”

“No. Too long. It’s a long story, over forty pages. Also poorly typed.”

“....”

“Stop that.”

“....”

“Lenore, stop it. Not even remotely funny.”

“....”

“....”

“Except how did you know so much about it?”

“Know about what?”

“Second-order vanity. You were like really surprised I didn’t know about second-order vanity.”

“What shall I say? Shall I simply say I’m a man of the world?”

“....”

“....”

“Ginger ale?”

“Not right now, thank you though.”