The Broom of the System
|Author||David Foster Wallace|
|January 6, 1987|
|Media type||Hardcover, paperback|
|LC Class||PS3573.A425635 B7 2004|
|Followed by||Girl with Curious Hair|
The Broom of the System is the first novel by the American writer David Foster Wallace, published in 1987.
Wallace submitted the novel as one of two undergraduate honors theses at Amherst College, the other being a paper on Richard Taylor's fatalism. He had begun study in philosophy at Amherst, interested in math and logic, and developed an interest in Ludwig Wittgenstein before beginning the novel. A professor commented that Wallace's philosophy writing tended to have the quality of an unfolding story, leading Wallace to explore literature. Having submitted Broom of the System to the Department of English, he decided to focus his career on fiction. Broom was published in 1987 as Wallace completed a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the University of Arizona. He had also sold his first short-story collection Girl with Curious Hair, leaving him in an enviable position among MFA students.
Wallace stated that the initial idea for the novel sprang from a remark made by an old girlfriend. DT Max reported that, according to Wallace, she said "she would rather be a character in a piece of fiction than a real person. I got to wondering just what the difference was."
Wallace revealed in an interview that the novel was somewhat autobiographical: "the sensitive tale of a sensitive young WASP who's just had this midlife crisis that’s moved him from coldly cerebral analytic math to a coldly cerebral take on fiction... which also shifted his existential dread from a fear that he was just a 98.6°F calculating machine to a fear that he was nothing but a linguistic construct."
The book centers on the emotionally challenged Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, a 24-year-old telephone switchboard operator who questions her own reality. In Wallace's typically offbeat style, Lenore navigates three separate crises: her great-grandmother's escape from a nursing home, a neurotic boyfriend, and a suddenly vocal pet cockatiel. The controlling idea surrounding all of these crises is the use of words and symbols to define a person. To illustrate this idea, Wallace uses different formats to build the story, including transcripts from television recordings and therapy sessions, as well as an accompanying fictional account written by one of the main characters, Rick Vigorous.
The manager of the nursing home, David Bloemker, repeatedly expresses himself in an overly elaborate style, only to have to reduce his own locutions to a much simpler form. For example, he tells Lenore that if they find her great-grandmother (also named Lenore), they will likely also find the other missing residents of the facility. Why? Because, she "enjoyed a status here — with the facility administration, the staff, and, through the force of her personality and her evident gifts, especially with the other residents [such that] it would not be improper to posit the location and retrieval of Lenore as near assurance of retrieving the other misplaced parties." The younger Lenore says that she doesn't understand all of that. Bloemker tries again: "Your great-grandmother was more or less the ringleader around here." This contrast of baroque with simple speech is employed to comic effect, as well as to advance the more serious contemplation of language at the heart of the plot.
A recurring concept in The Broom of the System is psychology as relating to words, and many of the theories discussed involve Ludwig Wittgenstein's ideas and principles. Wallace himself has said that the book can be viewed as a dialogue between Wittgenstein and Derrida.
- David Foster Wallace’s struggle, The New Yorker, Mar 9, 2009.
- Lipsky, David; Wallace, David Foster (2010), Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, New York: Broadway.