Tuesday, April 19, 2011

THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM by David Foster Wallace

In a truly creepy coincidence that every reader today will be unable to ignore, David Foster Wallace's 1987 novel The Broom of the System is brought to its pseudo-apocalyptic climax on--of all the 365 days DFW might have chosen--the eleventh of September.

Of course, it's September 11, 1990, in the near-future of the novel's few early readers. But still... tres creepy.

The first hundred pages of The Broom of the System are pretty good, the next two hundred somewhat less so, and the last 167 a major league yawnfest. There are some good scenes throughout, but too many of them are too long, extending several pages past the limit of readerly patience. Among the good stuff, I was especially impressed by the underutilized Norman Bombardini, a grotesquely obese Mr. Creosote-figure (see Monty Python's The Meaning of Life; see it immediately) who personifies the all-consuming gaping maw of corporate capitalism, the force that has transformed the book's Cleveland, Ohio, into a commercialized, corporatized toxic waste dump (Yes, DFW's first novel is set in Cleveland; it's the Not Really Great But Still Pretty Good Postmodern Cleveland Novel.) from which residents escape for weekends in the Great Ohio Desert (G.O.D., bien sur), an artificial wasteland constructed in eastern Ohio at the behest of a maniacal 1970s governor. (DFW's satirical point is solid. Ohio was in fact ruled by a murderer in the '70s: Governor James Rhodes, the butcher of Kent State, who now, in an obscene irony that would've surprised Wallace not at all, has a community college in Lima, Ohio, named after him.) Bombardini is a wonderfully Swiftian invention, but although he haunts the entire novel, he only appears in one brief scene (probably the funniest scene in the book). (To further demonstrate the excellence of DFW's invention, we might note that Bombardini can also be interpreted as a satire of the dialectical movement of Hegel's Phenomenology; Broom of the System is, among other things, very much a philosophy major's book, a Wittgensteinian comedy [but not, alas, a very satisfying one].) Many other potentially interesting narrative strands are left deliberately loose and unexplored (Lenore's mother, her brother John), and overall the book has a decidedly claustrophobic feel. Its ambition is large, but its world is too small. It wants to be epic, a big, sprawling infinitely jesting thing, but it's trapped in a postmodern closet, doing time in the prison house of Mad Ludwig's language--confined to campus, one might say.

In Broom we can see Wallace feeling for his distinctive form but not quite finding it, not here, not yet. This isn't the book in which digressions become central and narrative marginal--that's the other, later, bigger, more famous book, the one a surprisingly large number of people--my own John Self included--actually have read, contrary to the uninformed assertions of all those reverse-elitist philistines who extrapolate from their own lack of experience to insist that no one really reads it. Infinite Jest is indeed being read, but it's not being read critically enough, with an eye to its weaknesses as well as its strengths. I have serious reservations about the book, but I think it's too good to be elevated into an object of cultic devotion. IJ--and everything else--must be read criticallyBroom of the System isn't--as I was saying before that digression into the other book--a completely deconstructed fiction in which digression becomes central and narrative arc marginal, and much of what doesn't work in Broom is narrative machinery, scenes that exist solely to move the story forward. When Wallace isn't digressing, he isn't at his best.

In any other year, The Broom of the System would probably have been the year's most auspicious literary debut, but 1987 also gave us William T. Vollmann's You Bright and Risen Angels, a staggeringly accomplished first novel that's better-written, more imaginative, more original, more reckless, and much, much wilder than Wallace's effort. Wallace readers who aren't yet Vollmann readers should check him out.


Unknown said...

Hello, I've been reading some posts of your blog and I find it most interesting. Keep it up!. Now, could you recommend me any book about "formalist" approaches to literature. In particular, I'm trying to find a how-to book in which I can find how to read literature from a "New Critical" perspective. Up until now I've only found "the classics": Booth's A Rhetoric of Fiction Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity or Richard's Practical Criticism... What I'm looking for is a more step-by-step guide on "New Criticism". Thanks

BRIAN OARD said...


I would suggest the chapter on "New Criticism" in Lois Tyson's textbook Critical Theory Today. It provides a concise overview and an exemplary New Critical essay on The Great Gatsby. (The whole book follows this format for the range of critical schools, from Marxist and Psychoanalytic to Postcolonial and Deconstructionist.) Also, if you haven't yet read it, Cleanth Brooks's The Well-Wrought Urn, is probably the best single primer for New Criticism.

jandh said...

Ditto for "Keep it up!" A most stimulating and illuminating series of essays.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your response, I´ll check them!

Unknown said...

I liked the nonchalant witty tone of your review, but I must admit, I think you miss the point. Your view of the narrative is too teleological here - you're looking for something that wasn't there yet, that wasn't necessary yet when the novel was written (digressive deconstruction of the narrative & such). 'The broom of the system' is a coherently designed critique of language and an amazingly funny deconstruction of psychology as made up of language - much in the manner of a (even-)more-radical-Svevo - it's the DFW prosecution of modernist novel much more than a staggering attempt at a Fully Post-modern Novel still on its way (whatever the label may mean)from how I see it. :)