While the primary theme in David Foster Wallace’s piece “E Unibus Pluram” is the problems associated with irony in recent literature resulting from television’s influence, DFW also makes a case against the use of literary pyrotechnics, stylistic devices that exist not for developing the theme of the novel but rather so the novelist can show off his chops, in postmodern literature. His critique of My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist serves to illustrate this problem. As he illustrates through repeated examples of Gastroenterologist‘s comedy-club-level critiques, demonstrates an “amphetaminic eagerness to wow the reader…. The book does this by (1) flattering the reader with appeals to [Leyner, the author]’s erudite postmodern weltschmerz and (2) relentlessly reminding the reader that the author is smart and funny” (E Unibus Pluram 79). In essence, rather than, say, using his devices pointedly to help illustrate his view of pop culture, Leyner uses his devices to entertain the reader and reflect well on himself. This self-conscious appeal is taken to an extreme in the last chapter of the book, which is a parody of the about the author page (EUP 77).
In DFW’s view, this is a self-destructive pursuit. He emphasizes how the piece resulting from these literary flairs and the author’s broad use of irony makes the piece “extremely shallow” (EUP 81). While the book may be appealing to audience, it lacks anything to really keep the author coming back to the well, much in the same way that a joke loses its appeal after being told to the same person multiple times. Rather than reflecting anything real, the works (which DFW refers to as Image-Fiction) are grounded only in their pop-cultural pastiche, which lacks grounding; the characters are merely punch lines, lacking any resemblance of real qualities, and thus the reader can’t associate. In this way, irony and stylistic show are intertwined in how they bring the readers in and then drive them away en masse.
McLaughlin, in his article on postmodernism, recognizes what has caused this shift toward pyrotechnics. He argues that “many of hte fiction writers who have come on the scene sine the late 1980s seem to be responding to… a dead end that has been reached because of postmodernism’s detachment from the social world and immersion in a world of nonreferential language” (Post-Postmodern Discontent 55). In essence, while postmodernism’s forebearers – Pynchon, Vonnegut, and company – began by reflecting on their world with detachment, irony, and literary pyrotechnics, over time those three concepts of their work began to overpower the original point of social attachment. In other words, the postmodernists found themselves in a veritable stylistic arms race, which led to books such as Gastroenterologists, fully stylized and lacking any sort of attachment to the real world. This is the school of thought DFW and Jonathan Franzen reject – writing as spectator sport.
What is ironic about this fate, of course, is that DFW’s early (pre-EUP) work could be considered very emblematic of this fate. The Broom of the System, while illustrating the early origins of very Wallacian aspects that would be better represented in his works such as Infinite Jest, also suffers from an overwhelming desire to emulate Thomas Pynchon to death. From a plot seeking to find mystery and conspiracy in the everyday, to names removed from any sense of sensibility, to stylistic choices given over less to thematic meaning and more to show, Broom seems curbed at times from the postmodernist playbook, or, failing that, Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. Indeed, in her review for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani* noted that “pretension often substitutes for real intelligence, wordiness for eloquence.” (Kakutani). While many of the qualities in the book mentioned derisively in the review (digressions, riffs on random subjects) are DFW hallmarks, this criticism is noteworthy because it is applicable to many of the works criticized in “E Unibus Pluram”. It is interesting to see how DFW came around post-Broom to the realization that, ultimately, being clever doesn’t make you smart.
* a woman for whom I will shamelessly admit a certain antipathy at times, especially w/r/t her views of DFW’s works in general.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Book of the Times: The Broom of the System”. NYT. Pub. 27 Dec. 1986. http://www.smallbytes.net/~bobkat/broom1.html