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Broom of the Freedom: A David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen Friendship

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Broom of the System vs. Freedom

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David Foster Wallace once said, "Fiction's about what it is to be a human being," a notion he followed so meticulously while accurately portraying the human condition, through endless dialogue and tangent stories, within the pages of Broom of the System. Twenty years later Jonathan Franzen did the very same within the pages of Freedom, but this time in using lyrical sentences and flushed out character depictions, sharing the journey of a modern family, with all their quirks, scars, and demons far and in between.

David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen have been friends since the early onset of their careers. Pen palls for the duration, their letters have been published and studied by fans and literary aficionados. Post Broom of the System, Wallace wrote to Franzen from a halfway house in the early 90's describing what a toll his depression has taken on his writing, rendering him useless. He shares his pain honestly, "Right now, I am a pathetic and very confused young man, a failed writer at 28 who is so jealous, so sickly searingly envious of you ... and any young man who is right now producing pages with which he can live, and even approving them off some base clause of conviction about the enterprise's meaning and end."

Both Franzen and Wallace used up buckets of ink and callused their fingertips describing the pain and anguish that came hand in hand with being a writer, trying to distinguish some underlying significance. "Depression presents itself as a realism regarding the rottenness of the world in general and the rottenness of your life in particular. But the realism is merely a mask for depression's actual essence, which is an overwhelming estrangement from humanity. The more persuaded you are of your unique access to the rottenness, the more afraid you become of engaging with the world; and the less you engage with the world, the more perfidiously happy-faced the rest of humanity seems for continuing to engage with it." Franzen wrote in his essay collection How to Be Alone

One aspect the two prided themselves on was truly being able to lock out the nagging world that surrounded them when they wrote, diving deep in to the diverse lyricism of their words -- they urge there is simply no other way to write. Whether they knew it or not, through this process, in turn their feelings and philosophical outlooks pour through their main characters within their fictionalized novels, namely Freedom and Broom of the System.

Reading both novels (Freedom first, followed by Broom of the System), which are similar in length, for the first time this year, I was able to form an indistinguishable bond with their main characters, Lenore and Patty. I noticed how these two women were both so heart wrenchingly lonely that they had the ability within themselves to do anything they could to feel alive. While tearing through Broom's pages, and going back for a reread of Freedom, I recognized immense similarities between, not only the main characters, but their counterparts as well. I soon thereafter realized that while reading Broom I pictured Patty for Lenore, Walter for Rick, and Katz for Lang, the three main characters were interchangeable.

Lenore vs. Patty

Although disparate, stylistically, I couldn't help but visualize the same characteristics, mannerisms, and looks for Franzen's Patty while reading Wallace's Lenore. Lenore Beadsmen and Patty Berglund are both lost within themselves, living amongst mere idiots in their Midwestern hometowns. There's a pain that sits so far down inside them that not even their own arm is long enough to reach in to pull it out. They know it's there, but are clueless as to just what this feeling is and how they should go about diminishing it. Lenore and Patty have a terrible time making sense of reality when fantasy has so much more of a meaning to them. Wallace claimed the idea for Broom sprung from something an ex-girfriend said to him, "...she said that she would rather be a character in a piece of fiction than a real person. I got to wondering just what the difference was." Now isn't that just how Lenore and Patty feel?

Both are stuck with "the safe bet," their significant others, Rick and Walter. They ignite when they are introduced to passion, someone they can fall wrongfully fall in love with, Lang and Katz.

Rick vs. Walter

As accurately depicted by Ryan Gosling's character in Blue Valentine, "...girls get to a place where they just kind of pick the best option... 'Oh he's got a good job.' I mean they spend their whole life looking for Prince Charming and then they marry the guy who's got a good job and is going to stick around." Rick Vigurous and Walter Berglund are the guys with good jobs who are going to stick around. We watch both characters go through a midlife crisis, they cheat on their significant other, the women that they are desperately in love with, and in result this turns them in to enraged lunatics. They loose their minds; Rick handcuffs Lenore in the middle of a large body of water, Walter isolates himself in his Minnesota cabin.

In Freedom Walter says, "You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to."

Wang Dang Lang vs. Katz

Prince Charming. The escape. The passion. The carefree bad guy you love and the one you shouldn't be with. These are the men that both make women intensely, drastically, and unusually happy yet drive them completely batshit crazy.

A line within Broom of the System reads "Words and a book and a belief that the world is words..." Wallace was on his way to discovering something even more profound than those thoughts he had already shared with us. If it isn't evident enough through the aforementioned comparisons, I can't help but think Franzen may pick up where Wallace left off, guiding us writers, and the rest of the world, towards a deeper, more philosophical meaning of life by way of characters we can't help but relate to.

In a New York Times article on the memorial service of David Foster Wallace, Franzen shares that the two did indeed come to a conclusion to a meaning they sought after for so long, "Mr. Franzen said he and Mr. Wallace, over years of letters and conversations about the ethical role of the novelist, had come to the joint conclusion that the purpose of writing fiction was "a way out of loneliness."