Several years ago I came to realize that I misunderstood the meaning of the word nonplussed. So I am amused to see David Foster Wallace using the word correctly in his first novel, The Broom of the System (New York: Viking Penguin, 1987). Rick Vigorous (of the publishing firm Frequent and Vigorous) approaches switchboard operator Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman:
I see Lenore looking up to smile at my approach. I see me exhausting the subject of the weather, then asking Lenore if she might perhaps care to have a drink, with me, after work. I see one of the rare occasions I’ve encountered in which the word “nonplussed” might profitably be used in description. I see Lenore momentarily nonplussed.I’m almost a third of the way through the novel and am surprised to see so many elements of Infinite Jest already in place (in a novel written as an undergraduate thesis): non-chronological narrative, sections and subsections identified by year, multiple narrators, exhaustive catalogues, excerpts from other texts, awkward dialogue, long stretches of dialogue without attribution, the use of “‘. . .’” to mark baffled silence, even a reconfigured American landscape (the Great Ohio Desert). I see me finishing this novel in the near future.
“I don’t really drink,” she said, after a moment, looking back down at her book.
I felt a sinking. “You don’t drink liquid of any sort?” I asked her.
Lenore looked up softly at me and gave a slow smile. Her moist lips curved up softly. They really did. I resisted the urge to lunge into disaster right there in the lobby. “I drink liquid,” she admitted, after a moment.
“Splendid. What sort of liquid do you prefer to drink?”
“Ginger ale’s an especially good liquid, I’ve always thought,” she said, laughing.
June 9: My friend Sara McWhorter reports that nonplussed also appears, correctly used, in Infinite Jest (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996). The word comes up on pages 57 and 692: “the guy was to say the least nonplussed”; “Day was nonplussed when he found himself, after a couple long nights, almost missing Lenz.” Thanks, Sara.
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[Lenore’s fellow switchboard operator is named Judith Prietht.]