I’ll start with the most ready conclusion of this piece: I don’t like Broom of the System. It isn’t because it’s a bad work, and indeed, the opposite conclusion is true, but what bothers me most about the work is its derivative nature at times. If one was to tear the cover off the book and give it to anyone else with a basic training in 20th-century literature, you could get any number of possible sources for the work. While DFW’s voice, poignancy, and visual brilliance shine through at times, the book is at once a postmodern mish-mash: Crying of Lot 49 for the post-postmodern set.
In his article on Broom, Lance Olsen (seemingly) unwittingly stumbles onto this conclusion. He provides in his analysis of DFW’s avant-pop origins a list of the many sources whom DFW owes some credit, from Thomas Pynchon to Don DeLillo to John Barth. At once, however, he underscores how much of Broom is taken from the postmodernism playbook, from the names of characters to DFW’s writing style (Olsen 202-3). The problem is that these seem to be taken as thematic elements when in reality they serve no use beyond a trite self-referentialism, applauding the reader for having taken his or her college literature course and paid attention. Where they would have before been aimed at creating further meaning, instead this overemphasis on postmodern “style” throws it further into chaos.
Consider the spectrum of postmodernism. At the far end, we have that which is not postmodern at all, or, more specifically, that which is modern (to borrow Olsen’s example, Eliot’s The Waste Land); at the other, that which is most postmodern, a speculative work beyond the reach of even schizophrenic fictions like My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, Mark Leyner’s satire of modern life in tritest form imaginable. In said work, the underlying thematic virtues of postmodernism’s elements are lost to the broad irony the piece lobs at contemporary culture. As DFW illustrated in his work “E Unibus Pluram”, this ironic affectation undermined the meaning of the work at large. As a work takes on more of the affectations of postmodernism, in other words, and approaches that speculative zenith of irony, it becomes the literary equivalent of a one-liner: all joke, no meaning.
At once, however, Broom seems to fall victim to the very follies that DFW would later critique. Its characters, for instance, are given names beyond even Pynchon’s most fantastic nightmares, and the entire work seems to fold in on itself like Barthian origami. At the same time, however, this breeds dysfunction. After the hundredth character with a silly name with an inbred pun, like Biff Diggerance (“oh, I get it, it’s a play on ‘big difference’, how clever”), the characters are reduced to one-dimensional in-jokes for the reader’s amusement; no longer relatable in any traditional (or even nontraditional, modernist or postmodernist) sense, and in the meantime, their very internal issues, such as Biff Diggerance’s extreme agoraphobia hinted at by Wang-Dang Lang on pages 410-411, are lost in a vortex of unknowing laughter. Where in later DFW works, such an issue would have been a defining characteristic, especially in how it tangentially references DFW’s own problems at that stage of life, in Broom it becomes little more than a throwaway gag. The self-reflexiveness of the plot becomes mechanical. Meaning is lost.
Indeed, w/r/t meaning, the Wittgenstein analysis provided by Olsen indicates how destructive the postmodern devices are to Wallace’s work. The broom metaphor, in which the meaning of an object and its significance is defined by its use, is important when considering the problems inherent in Wallace’s inherited postmodern structure – where DFW argues that “meaning is use” (Broom 150), he’s also emphasizing that that without use is meaningless. Once the postmodern device is sublimated to the point it becomes no better than an in-joke, self-referential to the point of referencing nothing, it loses all thematic use, and by Wittgenstein’s principle, all meaning. As DFW himself puts forward in “E Unibus Pluram”, a better course of action is to reject postmodernism for its own sake (a lesson lost on Leyner and his ilk) and take thematic value as an end in and of itself. This is the lesson lost on DFW in Broom: at the point where his need to be clever begins to overwhelm his themes, the book becomes no more than a “two guys walk into a bar” joke, inhabited with nothing but caricatures – a lesson more postmodernists ought to take to heart.