Broom of the System: A Novel (Penguin Ink) (The Penguin Ink Series), The

David Foster Wallace
The "dazzling, exhilarating" (San Francisco Chronicle) debut novel from one of this century's most groundbreaking writers, The Broom of the System is an outlandishly funny and fiercely intelligent exploration of the paradoxes of language, storytelling, and reality.


Reviewed: 2019-06-18

So years ago, I gave this five stars. When I reread it this week, I downgraded it to four and just now changed it back again. Here's why:

A quote from DT Max's biography puts this pretty well. The publisher on the reason they took it:

Broom was different, that it used postmodernism in new ways. He remembers reading the manuscript and thinking he was reading something truly new, “a portent for the future of American fiction,” as he remembered it: “It wasn’t just a style but a feeling he was expressing, one of playful exuberance…tinged with a self-conscious self-consciousness.”

When compared to his later novels, The Broom of the System is clearly earlier work, but compared to books I've read, both recently and back when this was published, by authors who aren't David Foster Wallace, it's a delight and it really doesn't feel like a first novel or a thesis or a get out of grad school novel. We do it a disservice by comparing it to IJ or even The Pale King (though The Pale King reads, at least the parts I've read thus far, much more like this novel than Infinite Jest. I need to start the Pale King again and finish it this time because it was really good, until I put it down and didn't pick it back up - for no reason at all.) Back to Broom: Hilarious wordplay throughout, a decent mysterious plot, no silliness, no dumb gimmicks beyond perhaps the delightfully silly names of pretty much every character including the bird. The family is absurd, the characters are amazing. This is an excellent novel that stands up to any comparison except, perhaps, DFW's essays and Infinite Jest.

I know David Foster Wallce was not happy with it later on - you can find mention of his annoyance at being attached to it in any number of letters, conversations, etc. Apparently, it felt very juvenile to him. It seemed like it was "trying too hard." Perhaps though, it's just buoyant and he remembered that it was harder to write than we get to know on reading it. When we're depressed, it's easy to see absurdist anything as juvenile or trying too hard. I know wonderful musicians who can't listen to their own recordings because they hear only the problems and not the miracles. So when I read The Broom of the System this time, I actively looked for "first book problems" and "workshop writing" and all the other things that make first novels often problematic. I ended up with a list of notes a couple pages long disproving that theory. I think Mr. Foster Wallace was being hard on himself. This is an excellent book, and when I compare it to the books I've read, it gets five stars from me, and a TON of laugh aloud moments too.

Item Posts
@bferrant completed #broomofthesystem... on 2019-08-14
@bferrant began #broomofthesystem... on 2019-08-03
@ellamc began #broomofthesystem... on 2018-05-27