The Broom of the System

I finished reading David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System today (for the first time), part of my preparation to write the Person Chapter of the diss. The writing of the Hipster Chapter also continues, less apace than I’d prefer, but still. I’m reading a fantastic history of the hugely-important literary journal Kenyon Review (by Marian Janssen) and have just started Arnold Rampersad’s newly-released biography of Ralph Ellison–which also looks very promising. Work on my own novel has begun to compete for brain bandwidth with all of the aforementioned stuff, but I’m in a period of relative calm vis-a-vis Pop Apocalypse. Just turned in a revised draft to my editor.

All of which is to say, when combined with fellowship applications and other projects, that this is one of the busiest times in my writing/thinking life, like ever, but I can’t complain; it’s a very wonderful gift to have this time and these opportunities. Many equally if not more worthy people don’t have chances like these.

But back to DFW:

Reading Broom was a trip–it’ll definitely find its way into the Infinite Jest-centered Person Chapter of the diss. What has begun to obsess me in my critical writing is how very much the educational contexts of a writer’s background shape his or her production. What makes Broom so much of a trip then is the extensiveness and sophistication with which its author comments on the format and content of fiction produced in the MFA and creative-writing classroom circa the mid-to-late ’80s. And also takes on the still-strong theoretical orthodoxies of that paradoxically Reaganesque-cum-poststructuralist moment.

That is, it seems as if DFW was keenly aware of what the dominant and competing strands of literary orthodoxy were at the time that he was writing. How his analysis of and reaction to these orthodoxies launched his career-trajectory and how his fictional and essayistic responses have set an agenda for his contemporaries is the subject of my person chapter–and the Believer Chapter that follows from it.

When discussing Broom, I think I will want to focus these questions through an analysis of how DFW fictionally reimagines the concept of a “person.” Can a talking parrot be a person? How are fictional characters like people–and/or not? Does a notion of communication serve as the logical foundation for personhood or does the logical priority go the other way around (person then communication)?

Based on Wallace’s reading of Wittgenstein, I suspect that he takes communication as the minimal lynch-pin of what it means to be a person. From this, various consequences follow, including of course the notion that irony is destructive to our humanity and personhood.

These are my preliminary thoughts as I try to wrap my mind around Broom, which anticipates Infinite Jest in lots of important ways, though it’s a less-good novel by comparison. Then again, DFW wrote the book when he was in his early twenties, so he can maybe be forgiven for its flaws, I think.