If there is a grim inversion of Don Gately’s exuberant excursion in Pat M.’s mythical Ford coupe, it is Joelle van Dyne’s deliberate downtown walk past Boston Common and into the Back Bay toward her “Very Last Party,” as she carries out her plan to have “Too Much Fun for anyone mortal to hope to endure.” Infinite Atlas includes this as a collected set of locations under a story I’ve simply called “Joelle’s walk”; in this entry we’ll do our best to trace her actual route.
We are introduced to Joelle in media res at Molly Notkin’s apartment—in a scene she intends to be her last. No single location in this entire project gave me fits like this “third floor cooperative apartment on the East Cambridge fringes of the Back Bay.” Just in case anyone isn’t aware, the Back Bay is a neighborhood in Boston. East Cambridge is a neighborhood in Cambridge. While no other neighborhood lies between them, something else does: the Charles River. Nevertheless, a number of clues suggest this is indeed the Back Bay, but narrowing it down any further is a fool’s errand (as this fool discovered). In the end, I placed this dot on Back Street, by the Storrow. I figured it was fringey, and about as close to East Cambridge as anyone in the Back Bay could be.
Chronologically, Joelle’s expedition begins much earlier in the day, at her apartment in Somerville or Cambridge (it’s never specified). From this depature point, she proceeds to Davis Station and then to the unfindable Lady Delphina’s in “Upper Brighton” to buy “serious weight.” The stream-of-consciousness and shuffled timeline makes it difficult to piece together the chronology precisely. Even the third person narration becomes jittery and unreliable, as if affected by her free-associating, freebased mindset.
Sometime after visiting Lady Delphina’s for the “real” last time and the party at Molly Notkin’s, we begin the final walk with her at the Charles/MGH Station, which is simply called the “Red Line’s Downtown stop.” She heads south on Charles Street, which is lightly fictionalized as “East Charles St.,” although it is described accurately enough: “brick sidewalks” lining “sienna-glazed streets and upscale businesses with awnings and wooden signs hung with cute Colonial script.”
Joelle first visits a “discount tobacconist” which I cannot place; I can’t say if there was a tobacco shop along Charles at one time, but there is not now. Here she buys a “quality cigar in a glass tube” and not for the cigar, which she throws away at the nearest opportunity.
As Joelle “approaches Boston Common” the geography becomes jumbled. She is said to move “westward into the territory of the Endless Stem near the end of Charles,” though I haven’t the foggiest idea what the “Endless Stem” is supposed to be—a defunct wine shop, maybe? (Per the comment below, it turns out this is a reference to panhandling, termed “stemming” elsewhere in the story.)
Nor could she really be moving “westward” on the north-south Charles, which if anything leans eastward. Unless, that is, she’s completely overshot the Common, and eventually westward the course of Charles does take its way, although it then becomes Tremont. As we learned in the 412 W. Brainerd and Storrow Drive entries, Wallace often overlooked Boston’s crazy street name changes, either for simplicity, or because he’d forgotten where they changed, or both.
But I don’t think Joelle is truly “near the end” of Charles St., because her walk takes her to a Store 24 to buy a “.473 liter Pepsi Cola”—which equals one pint, whatever that is supposed to mean—and, by consensus, this Store 24 was once at the corner of Charles and Mt. Vernon. Store 24 was acquired by Tedeschi in 2002, and this particular location is now the world’s quaintest 7-11, although when I visited it was unaffiliated.
Joelle next finds herself at Boston Common, a “lush hole Boston’s built itself around,” and continues to the “Common’s south edge” along Boylston Street (true) “with its 24/7 commerce, upscale, cashmere scarves” for sale (close enough).
But now things start to get really screwy. The narrator continues: “Boylston St. east means she passes again the black-bronze equestrian Statue of Boston’s Colonel Shaw and the MA 54th”—which means we’re again quoting from the same passage as the Shaw Memorial entry from earlier this week. The problem here is rather glaring: the Shaw Memorial is actually on the opposite end of the Common, occupying its northwesternmost corner, at Beacon and Park, just north of the Park Street Station.
And though Joelle is said to be moving east, the rest of her trek is obviously in a westerly direction. Soon after, she passes the curiously misspelled “F.A.O. Schwartz”—there is no “T”—which no longer operates in Boston, however at least once was on Boylston, with Berkeley as its cross street, in the Back Bay. From the last mention of Boylston, we lack details to follow Joelle’s peregrination as she moves toward the “cooperative Back Bay-edge brownstone” where her friend-that-she-has-no-more-use-for Molly Notkin lives.
Marching toward her own intended doom, she reminisces about working with the late filmmaker James Incandenza. A cheerleader and the love of Orin Incandenza’s life when they first met, Joelle was one of the few recruits to J.O.I.’s circle who was not then down on her luck. However, by the time we meet her, she has regressed to the addicted mean. Cocaine has compounded deep-rooted problems that Joelle cannot face, and here she is “at the end of her rope and preparing to hang from it.” Not that she is intending to do it by hanging; the contents of her purse give a better indication.
It is a long setup for a scene as mesmerizing as it is heartbreaking, concluding with one of the two or three very best sentences in the entire novel, and plunging the reader alongside the character into the realm of unfathomable despair, a place not findable on any map, though one which Infinite Jest will assuredly visit again.
Infinite Jest makes three stops at Boston Common’s Park Street Station. Two of these take absolutely no more time than is strictly necessary, while the third is troublingly overstayed. The first occurs early on, in which
Michael Pemulis, nobody’s fool at all, rides one necessary bus to Central Square and then an unnecessary bus to Davis Square and a train back to Central. This is to throw off the slightest possible chance of pursuit. At Central he catches the Red Line to Park St. Station, where he’s parked the tow truck in an underground lot he can more than afford.
Pemulis is returning from a clandestine visit to Antitoi Entertainment—make that “Entertainent”—whence he has obtained the hallucinogenic drug DMZ, or “Madame Psychosis,” as it is known in “Boston chemical circles.”
Pemulis’ zig-zagging and backtracking is easy enough to follow, at least until he departs the Park Street Station for the parking garage. The station occupies a wide, clear spot on one of the Common’s two northwestern corners—the Shaw Memorial occupies the other, but more about that tomorrow—and has no parking structure attached. On the other hand, directly across the street begins Boston’s Financial District, where I’m sure underground lots are plentiful. Maybe this was DFW’s surmise as well; readers familiar with the area are invited to share which one is closest. [Update: Albeit not in the comments, I’ve been reliably informed there is in fact a parking garage underneath the Common. This is probably the one.]
The T-stop makes its second appearance when Kate Gompert’s narrator describes her unhappy trek from a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Cambridge back to the Ennet House, where she resides in Enfield:
But from Inman Square back to Ennet House is a ghastly hike — hoof up Prospect to Central Sq. and take the Red Line all the way to Park Street station and then the maddening Green Line B Train forever west on Comm. Ave.
The third and most interesting reference finally closes the loop on a promise back in the entry on St. John’s Seminary to explain what happens to poor Barry Loach in between dropping out of Boston College and finding employment at the Enfield Tennis Academy:
Loach was dangerously close to disappearing forever into the fringes and dregs of metro Boston street life and spending his whole adult life homeless and louse-ridden and stemming in the Boston Common and drinking out of brown paper bags…
Loach takes up residence—maybe “transience” is more appropriate—at the Park Street Station with the other panhandlers. His appeal consists of “begging for one touch of a human hand,” and one day that hand belongs to none other than Mario Incandenza, accompanying his then-living father to the Common for the filming of what appears to be Pre-Nuptial Agreement of Heaven and Hell.
Mario has “no one worldly or adult along with him there to explain to him why the request of men with outstretched hands for a simple handshake or High Five shouldn’t automatically be honored and granted” and, through a series of “convoluted” events, Loach becomes Assistant Trainer and then Head Trainer
when the then-Head Trainer suffered the terrible accident that resulted in all locks being taken off E.T.A. saunas’ doors and the saunas’ maximum temperature being hard-wired down to no more than 50°C.
The overt act of compassion here is Mario’s, but we can also detect, like scientists crashing particles, a significant one by James O. Incandenza. Loach is not unusual in being a societal cast-off taken on by J.O.I. In fact, the opposite is true: nearly all of his recruits, whether to the Enfield Tennis Academy or to his “après-garde” film circle, are lost souls, damaged in some way. Next week, we’ll visit the somewhat more permanent residence of two more.
Today is the fourth anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s passing, and it seems appropriate that this space should offer an observance of some kind. Because I neither met nor corresponded with him, what I have to offer is something a bit more personal, about my experience of encountering his work as a young man.
Like many readers, I was first introduced to David Foster Wallace in college. I don’t recall exactly what it was that I first read, though it was probably either a short story in Girl With Curious Hair or the first essay from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.
I remember being assigned “Everything is Green” in a creative writing class, and joining a college magazine where DFW was perhaps second only to Hunter S. Thompson as inspiration in that cohort. While Hunter’s impossibly drug-fueled antics and lionization of an era before mine held some interest, I was drawn even more to Wallace’s impossibly accomplished prose, what I recognized immediately as—to borrow a phrase from a dimmer star in the same orbit—staggering genius.
This would have been my sophomore year, a time of inchoate goals and uncertain direction—I would eventually graduate with a degree in English that I was sure I only mostly deserved—where I was looking for something without really knowing what. I made a few important discoveries in this period, one of which began when I finally decided to pick up Infinite Jest in summer 1999, and had become fully realized when finished it a few months later, as a matter of fact on Thanksgiving Day.
I spent many hours sitting and reading on the front porch at 1456 E. 19th in Eugene that summer, my first away from home. My experience was probably not significantly different from that of many who read it or, at least, those who finished it. Two bookmarks, marathon reading sessions—it certainly didn’t hurt that I was under-employed and between school terms—alternately delighted and flummoxed. It was no easy task, particularly with no Internet ready to fill in the gaps of my understanding, and at times required a sustained effort I’d never really given anything. I’d like to think that Infinite Jest has made me a better person, but there’s no question it made me a better reader.
The first section to really grab me was the tragicomic introduction to Don Gately, describing his bungled burgling of a home in a “wildly upscale part of Brookline” with sentences and paragraphs so long and yet so precise that it was nothing short of breathtaking. Probably the most likely thing is that I was holding my breath, trying to maintain concentration and straining keep to up with DFW’s astonishing, exhausting thought process.
As a young adult and young reader, I respected very little at all, but two things I respected for sure were ambition and genius. Other favorite writers and artists of this period included: Tom Stoppard, Stanley Kubrick, Thomas Pynchon. What these others have in common is the primacy of intellect before emotion. In this novel and other works from his middle period onward, David Foster Wallace reworked this equation, showing how intellect and emotion could coexist in equal parts, that one need not sacrifice one for the other. I’m still an admirer of all of the names above, but their output seemed a bit stunted in comparison.
Re-reading Infinite Jest again in my late twenties, at a time where, once again, I was trying to figure out my own trajectory, I found it this time not just entertaining and accomplished—it had already opened my eyes once—but an instructive meditation on making wise choices about how and what to be.
D.T. Max’s worthwhile (if occasionally underwhelming) biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, makes clear in a way I hadn’t fully appreciated before how personal the rebalancing of thoughts and feelings was for DFW himself. His career began as a highly gifted imitator of Pynchon and DeLillo, and because of his own struggles had to overcome his own overactive brain and find a center within that his earlier self would not have understood, or at least respected.
While there are certainly universal themes here, they appeal particularly to a recognizable stereotype of a Wallace fan—I’m describing myself here—young, white, educated, middle-class, clever but not as much as one thinks, etc. Additionally, a good number who are drawn to DFW—though I can’t put myself in this group—themselves have struggled with clinical depression or mental illness or twelve-step recovery programs. There is much in Wallace’s own story that is recognizable to his readers, and identification is a key reason why so many are so passionate.
These demographics are all over-represented on the Internet—and are ones I hoped to reach with The Infinite Atlas Project. As I often like to say, the Internet loves David Foster Wallace. There are too many of us who think we see a bit of ourselves in him.
The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial is going to come up again soon, so today we’ll focus on its appearance and unsuspecting role in a very different kind of civil war than the one in which its subject(s) fought. In the first of the statue’s two sightings in Infinite Jest, it is briefly described as a “black-bronze equestrian statue of Boston’s Colonel Shaw and the MA 54th” with a “raised sword.”
This is a pretty spot-on description for a passage that may have been written far away from Boston and in a time before the proliferation of the World Wide Web, let alone Wikipedia. The Shaw Memorial—full name: Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment—is indeed bronze, prominently features Col. Shaw (portrayed by Matthew Broderick in the 1989 film Glory) on a horse leading the all-black 54th down Beacon Street, sword in hand. To nitpick, its pigment is more of a blackish-bronze; black bronze apparently refers to a lost alloy of antiquity, which this surely is not. A less pedantic discrepancy is the positioning of Shaw’s blade: in the text it is held aloft, but in reality it is lowered in front of him.
The discrepancy at first seems less of an oversight than a narrative decision to facilitate the Shaw Memorial’s unwilling involvement in another prank by ex-F.L.Q. operative / Antitoi Entertainment proprietor Bertraund Antitoi. Since the attack on a Canadian official at the Sheraton Commander—and following the untimely demise of the Antitoi cell’s leader, much earlier in the story—Bertraund has apparently set his sights a bit lower. And so Shaw’s sword is
illicitly draped in a large Québecois fleur-de-lis flag with all four irises’ stems altered to red blades, so it’s absurdly now a red white and blue flag…
Or else Bertraund’s “harebrained” plan is, as it is described a few hundred pages later,
hanging a sword-stemmed fleur-de-lis flag from the nose of a U.S.A. Civic War hero’s … statue when it would simply be cut down by bored O.N.A.N.ite chiens-courants gendarmes the next morning…
In which case the raised hand is no longer a necessity, besides it seems apparent that Shaw’s schnoz is not quite prominent enough to hang a flag from. Whether the reshuffling of details was intentional or oversight I can’t say, though it’s at least a fair description of the flag, intentional alteration notwithstanding.
Astute readers will notice that I am leaving out a few details, including the free entertainment cartridges available within the vicinity; this is plot-relevant to be sure, but then again it’s also rather complicated to unpack, and best left alone here. Then there is the matter of the statue’s location itself—which I have purposefully excluded—and that we’ll talk about before the week is out.
The Massachusetts State House Annex is one of the few settings in the novel used for almost entirely satirical purposes. It is the site of a late November meeting between the United States Office of Unspecified Services chief Rod “the God” Tine—think Karl Rove meets J. Edgar Hoover—and representatives from important corporate allies: InterLace TelEntertainment Networks, Glad Flaccid Receptacle Corporation, producers of the children’s television show Mr. Bouncety-Bounce and, of course, Tom Veals of Viney and Veals. Their meeting is one of a few scenes rendered not as straight prose, but as a kind of playlet, in which they discuss using the popular children’s show to warn children not to take entertainment cartridges from strangers.
Although this scene stands alone, our first tentative visit occurs much earlier, in a passage immediately following the one which describes the draining of the pond in the Public Garden, as we look over the shoulder of R. Tine himself,
standing with his hands at the small of his back at a window on the eighth floor of the State House Annex on Beacon and Joy Sts., looking southwest and down at the concentric rings of pond and crowd and trucks…
Of two buildings to be found at the corner of Beacon and Joy, across the street from Boston Common, only the one at right in the first photo above has an eighth floor—its top floor—therefore it stands to reason that this is the building Wallace intended. As far as I know, this particular Beacon Hill building is residential, not governmental (nor commercial, and in the novel’s near future, the two are, familiarly, not separated by much). Although I’m sure a man whose unironic nickname is “the God” can meet just about anywhere he pleases.
However, it’s a considerable distance from the Public Garden, and not at all suited to looking down upon its supposed annual drainage. Enter now an observation from Danielle Dreilinger, the Boston writer whose 2008 Globe piece on Wallace’s Boston was an early influence on this series, in a comment on the Boston Common / Public Garden entry:
DFW seems to conflate elements of the Common and the Garden. For example, the “duck pond” … is indeed in the Garden and the site of the Make Way for Ducklings sculpture, but the Frog Pond in the Common is the one that is regularly drained and cleaned as described in the text.
The Frog Pond is even just southwest of Beacon and Joy, so let’s put this down as another piece of evidence that the physical integrity of Garden and Common have been surrendered to artistic license.
One last note: while I didn’t get any closer to the Massachusetts State House than its front steps, it turns out that it does have an “annex,” however it is much different than the one described here; it is not detached from the main building and not accessible from Beacon Street. From the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website:
Looking back at the building, the yellow brick rear of the State House looks far different in comparison with its older sibling in front, especially in its materials. This is the 1889-1895 Annex, designed in the Italian Renaissance Revival style by Charles Brigham. The exterior is in harmony with the Bulfinch front, but the interior is another style unto itself.
Whether or not DFW knew there really was an Annex on the State House grounds, who’s to say? Even though one really exists, he invented it anyway.
The Boston Public Library, and more specifically its flagship McKim Building in Copley Square, figures in two separate storylines within Infinite Jest. One contains an element of autobiography, while the other is pure fiction. I won’t try to connect them; they share a setting, and that’s about all, so I’ll split this entry into two parts.
The library is alluded to by Hal twice: first in the novel’s opening scene, where he boasts to University of Arizona admissions, “I consume libraries.” Later, in one of his long telephone conversations with semi-estranged older brother Orin, Hal reveals it is the library’s “cutting-edge professional grief- and trauma-therapy section” that he specifically devoured, following the suicide of their father, the brilliant but troubled James “Himself” Incandenza:
‘…I went down and chewed through the Copley Square library’s grief section. Not disk. The actual books. I read Kübler-Ross, Hinton. I slogged through Kastenbaum and Kastenbaum. I read things like Elizabeth Harper Neeld’s Seven Choices: Taking the Steps to New Life After Losing Someone You Love…’
All of these refer to real authors and works, though the subtitle of Neeld’s book has changed in subsequent editions. The most famous of these is the late Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whose five stages of grief has passed into American popular culture (cf. The Simpsons). Likewise Clara Hinton is an author and “resiliency coach.” The only one who confuses me is Kastenbaum and Kastenbaum because, as far as I can tell Death, Society and Human Experience seems to be the authorship of only one Kastenbaum, Robert J.
If this seems like an oddly specific level of detail, then I strongly recommend reading “David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library,” written by Maria Bustillos for The Awl in April 2011. Though Wallace’s struggle with depression was explored by D.T. Max for The New Yorker and David Lipsky for Rolling Stone, Bustillos’ report from the Wallace archive at the University of Texas’ Ransom Center added significantly more detail than was previously known. It’s no easy read, but is all the better for it.
The “Copley Library” also figures into the story of Emil “yrstruly” Minty, Bobby C and Poor Tony Krause. As Minty’s garbled narration explains, they cook up in the restrooms in daytime and, after hours, camp out on the “hot air blowergrate” around back. Having scored from Dr. Wo at Hung Toys on the cold “Xmas Eve” that began in “Harvard Squar,” Minty continues:
were’ cooking up and notice Poor Tony doesnt’ the least bitch when yrstruly and C tie off first in line seeing as were’ the ones that copped it and Poor Tonys’ gotto wait as usal, except I notice he doesnt’ bitch even a little…
Noticing something amiss in Poor Tony’s patience, Minty “purplously [lets] C tie off and boot up first,” and wisely so. C goes into convulsions almost immediately—dying within minutes or even seconds—“in the most fucked up fashions…” And finally we discover why Poor Tony hid from Wo by the China Pearl: a known associate of P.T. Krause had screwed Wo on a “fronted bundle.” Minty concludes:
It might sound fucking low but the reason we had to leave the decesed body C in one of the librarys’ dumsters is the reason is because the Copley Squars’ Finest know it is our personnel hot air blowergrate and if we leave C there its’ a sure pinch for us as known aquaintance and a period of Kicking The Bird in holding in a cell…
I can’t imagine the Boston Public Library was altogether thrilled by the nature of its appearance in this story, but the problem of homelessness around Copley Square was not Wallace’s invention. And though I found dozens of local news articles referencing the heating grates as a regular sleeping spot, I couldn’t find any mention of when the wrought iron fencing was installed; according to this Boston Phoenix story, they remained accessible at least through winter 2003. After that I can’t say, though I’m sure some readers will know the answer.
The fencing off of the “blowergrates” seems in keeping with the general cleanup of Boston that has occurred since the 1990s, not to mention the dramatically declining crime rates nationwide. In the novel, President Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner won with the slogan of a “Tighter, Tidier Nation”—echoing George H.W. Bush’s call for a “kinder, gentler nation”— but here reality seems to have outdone fiction. Whether the real president got his wish is open to debate; that the fictional one got his seems undeniable.
Late in Infinite Jest, the reader is finally granted access to Don Gately’s derelict and dependent pre-sober life, “crewing” on the North Shore for the loan shark Whitey Sorkin. (Sorkin is presumably a nod to Whitey Bulger, who was also inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Departed,” and spent 15 years on the run from authorities, ending in his capture in June 2011.) Despite Gately’s violence against property and, occasionally, persons, it’s made clear that he is not otherwise “inclined toward violent crime,” and has a louder conscience than his fellow criminals. So Gately becomes an endearing figure, and one the reader cares about as he becomes “disastrously involved with one Pamela Hoffman-Jeep”:
Gately got introduced to her by Fackelmann, who one time as he came up through a sports bar called the Pourhouse’s parking lot to dialogue with a Sorkin-debtor Gately saw Fackelmann staggering along carrying this unconscious girl to his ride, one big hand quite a bit farther up her prom-looking taffeta gown than it really needed to be to carry her, and Fackelmann told Gately if Don’d give this gash a ride home he’d stay and do the collection, which Gately’s heart wasn’t in collections anymore and he jumped at the trade … Pamela Hoffman-Jeep called Gately her ‛Night-Errand’ and fell passively in love with his refusal to Take Advantage. Gene Fackelmann, she confided, was not the gentleman Gately was.
Although Pamela Hoffman-Jeep is undeniably a disaster herself—Gately recalls that he never saw her “actually get from one spot to another under her own power”—their relationship is not doomed for the usual reasons one might expect from an alcoholic and an oral narcotics addict. However, “P.H.-J.” knows the details of Gately’s buddy Gene Fackelmann’s epic triple-cross of Whitey and two bettors on a Yale-Brown basketball game, and what transpires thereafter is both disastrous and includes some of Infinite Jest’s finest passages.
Back to the “Pourhouse,” the only details we really have from the story are that it is a sports bar, and it has a parking lot. The real Pour House has the first one covered but, as for the second, I think’s just a bit oversold. In fact, the Pour House is sandwiched between—I promise this is true—two different Irish pubs, McGreevy’s and Lir. If there is a parking lot here, it can be no more than a few spaces in the alley behind it.
Located on Boylston Street in the Back Bay (right around the corner from the Back Bay Hilton), The Pour House looks more tourist-friendly than it sounds in the book. Anecdotally, however, I’m told The Pour House used to be more divey and something of an “old man bar,” and its website still courts this reputation—not the criminal presence, of course—stating it is a “no frills establishment” and “inexpensive watering hole” and a good choice, whether you are in a “casual or rambunctious mood.”
Alas, I was in a “hurried” mood, so The Pour House is yet another bar I passed by without stepping inside (see also: Ryle’s Tavern) and thus can’t say too much about. With the benefit of hindsight, not to mention another chance to thumb through these late pages, I wish I’d walked around back to the public alley to see for myself. Based on what I can tell from Google Maps—wait, I mean, from Infinite Atlas—it still doesn’t look to me like much of a parking lot.
We resume our explorations today with a brief stay at the Back Bay Hilton. This real hotel makes a very early appearance, fewer than 50 pages into Infinite Jest; here we encounter one character known only as the “Near Eastern medical attaché” and learn of his employer, a Saudi prince and government official. Although we do not spend a great deal of time with them, they do help introduce some key themes to the reader:
Wednesday is the U.S.A. weekday on which fresh Töblerone hits Boston, Massachusetts U.S.A.’s Newbury Street’s import-confectioners’ shelves, and the Saudi Minister of Home Entertainment’s inability to control his appetites for Wednesday Töblerone often requires the medical attache to remain in personal attendance all evening on the bulk-rented fourteenth floor of the Back Bay Hilton … rehabilitating the mucous membranes of the dyspeptic and distressed and often (but not always) penitent and appreciative Saudi Prince Q—.
The Saudi minister is one of several characters whose passion for something fairly ordinary becomes debilitating, and all but indistinguishable from chemical dependency—think of Steeply’s father and his obsession with M*A*S*H, or President Gentle’s Howard Hughes-esque fear of germs. Nowhere is this theme writ larger than the central plot point of the novel, with which even non-readers may be familiar. That of course is the existence of a film—and here I quote from the first edition’s book jacket—“said to be so entertaining that anyone who watches it loses all desire to do anything but watch it.”
The world of Infinite Jest is literally one where we are “amusing ourselves to death,” and in fact the late Neil Postman was invoked by more than one reviewer upon the novel’s release. As Wallace told one of them, his inspiration was derived in some part from “watching too much TV.”
It’s interesting that society’s relationship to television has changed so much in the barely-more-than fifteen years since the novel was published. Where once the medium was derided as a “vast wasteland,” in the famous words of FCC commissioner Newton Minow, now the critical consensus is that television offers higher-quality entertainment than the local multiplex. What has changed since publication—at least, what has changed most significantly—is the rapid expansion of the Internet into American households (and now American pockets). And is it so surprising that, in the late 1990s, we started hearing about Internet addiction?
As for the Back Bay Hilton, it’s apparent upon first glance that Prince Q—’s “bulk-rented fourteenth floor” is not quite so impressive as the description might suggest. The floor is only just halfway up the tower, and its footprint is relatively small, as hotels go. Oh sure, nobody without considerable wealth will be bulk-renting it anytime soon, but for a Saudi prince with a job so overwhelmingly important as being the Minister of Home Entertainment, it didn’t necessarily strike me as excessive.
In the introductory post for this series, published in mid-July, I mentioned that my reasons for visiting Boston to investigate its relationship to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest would “become apparent at a later date.” I am pleased to announce that this date has arrived. I am even more excited to tell you about this project, which has been almost exactly two years in the making. As the headline has already given away, I’m calling it The Infinite Atlas Project.
The underlying idea is simple to explain: my goal was to identify, place, and describe every cartographic point I could find in the novel—whether real, fictional, real but fictionalized, defunct or otherwise. This would not have worked with just any novel. As profound a work of imagination as Infinite Jest is, a significant majority (ballpark figures below) of the locations described in its 1,079 pages have some non-trivial basis in reality. And not just in Boston: this holds true across North America, and even the globe.
The manifestation of this research effort turned into something I could not have imagined at the outset: a multi-part collaborative research and art project, of which this website has only been the iceberg’s tip. Today I’m announcing the launch of a limited-edition print series and a free web resource drawn from this research. I am calling them, respectively, Infinite Map and Infinite Atlas.
Infinite Map — A geographic infographic poster depicting the “territorially reconfigured North America” of the novel and identifying 250 of the most interesting locations with a color-coded dot and corresponding footnote. As you can see from the acromegalic thumbnail above, the 24”x36” print includes four telescoping map insets: O.N.A.N.’s North America, Northeast U.S. & Canada, Greater Boston and Metro Boston. The red shading represents my own painstaking, overdetermined conclusions about the most probable outline of the Great Concavity. In the upper right corner is the Great Seal of O.N.A.N., based on the description from page 153, and the map labels throughout include sometimes-obscure references to the novel’s text. This image is the principal result of a long-term collaboration between myself and the Los Angeles-based creative design agency JESS3, whose technical ability and patience with yrstruly knows no bounds.
Yes, it is for available for purchase. Yes, today. You can buy it here. The Great Seal of O.N.A.N. is available as a separate print. Both are available in a limited edition of 1,079. (Because this whole endeavor has a long way to go before breaking even, other items are available here, too.)
Infinite Atlas — Finally, the namesake of the project overall is nothing more or less than a Google Maps-enabled online atlas of Infinite Jest. Unshackled from the limitations of Tumblr, let alone a rectangular sheet of paper, here is the fullest expression of this project’s ambition. With the help of a small research team, I’ve organized and mapped to x-y coordinates approximately 475 locations that appear in some form in David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece. And those are just the ones I could place: the database actually includes more than 650 discrete locations, including the ones I couldn’t so locate. If you spend enough time exploring, I guarantee you will find them.
The locations of Infinite Atlas are searchable, browsable and sortable by characters and stories associated with them. As you can see from the screen shot above, clicking on a specific location brings up a new window, including: an overview of its place in the story, the page on which it first appears (fortunately, the pagination in all English editions of the novel to date are identical), additional commentary as necessary, a link to the most relevant Wikipedia article, plus a list of characters, stories and related locations.
The window is also designed to showcase photographs of specific locations. At launch, approximately 10% of locations include photos. You may be unsurprised to learn that all of these are currently in and around Boston. Readers are invited to upload their own photos, subject to approval. In case you are the sort of person who is inclined to notice these things, the website is published under a Creative Commons license. Programming and design was handled by the Washington, D.C.-based web developers at RedEdge, who made some real Arthur C. Clarke-type magic happen over the last month of hard-core development.
In case you are wondering, Infinite Boston was in fact the last component of the project conceived, even though it was the first released. The idea for this blog grew out of the need to visit Boston and lock down some of the less obvious locations within Allston-Brighton, Cambridge, and their surrounds. Speaking of this website, just because the balance of this project is now live does not mean Infinite Boston is going away anytime soon. Several weeks of posts lie ahead, and tomorrow we’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming, viz., my wanderings around and musings about the real-life counterparts of Infinite Jest’s Boston settings.
The Infinite Atlas Project itself may not quite be infinite, but it is open-ended: as much as I have discovered in the past two years, the deeper I get the more I find there is to know. The incredible feedback from readers on this website has been just one example and, if you are among those who have pointed out my embarrassing oversights, my gratitude is yours. Throughout the twenty-five months of this project to date, I’ve learned quite a bit about the Boston area. Today the scope has expanded considerably.
For further updates, please follow this project on Twitter, which I’ll be keeping at @infiniteboston and “like” us on Facebook. If you’d like to know more, please feel free to send me an email. If you’re remotely curious about who I am, it turns out that I’m this guy named William Beutler, and you can follow me on Twitter at @williambeutler.
The China Pearl is a restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown known for its dim sum and dour waitstaff. And… that’s about all I can say, because Yelp’s reviewers are in agreement on these points and because its website might as well not exist. Restaurant websites are notorious for their poor design, but I promise this one’s Geocities-esque feng shui is something to behold.
This particular restaurant makes a single appearance as a minor landmark in the garbled narration of Emil “yrstruly” Minty, last seen in this series departing the “Bow&Arrow” having mugged Burt F. Smith—leaving him in “no condition to eat cheese”—and looking to score heroin on a cold “Xmas Eve” night.
We pick up the story with Minty, Bobby C and Poor Tony Krause as they make their way from Cambridge’s Harvard Square to Boston’s Chinatown. Specifically, they “Redline down to Chinatown” to see Dr. Wo at Hung Toys Cold Tea Emporium. Although Poor Tony strongly suggests another option, for reasons not given, it is agreed that Wo has the better quality dope and “C is not 2Bdenied.”
I might have preferred to write about Hung Toys (once, “Hung Toy’s”) but, as you might have guessed, there is not one. Its location is therefore impossible to pin down, however my best guess is it would be either on Tyler where the China Pearl is located, or else Beach or Kneeland which bookend it. (As suggested by readers, there is a good chance the name was inspired by Ho Toy Noodle Co., Inc. on Oxford Street.) Anyway, if there was a place called Hung Toys in Boston, I suspect it would be at least as well known as the lurid signage of the Mayflower Poultry Company.
When C’s crew arrives in Chinatown, Poor Tony agrees to wait some distance away from Hung Toys while Minty and C go inside. Wo regards them suspiciously, but they are on the verge of becoming “dopesick” and he is willing to take their “$.” At last they exit Hung Toys with the “skeet” they came for. And here we’ll finally close the loop on the unlikely “lightpoal” we discussed in conjunction with Cheap-O Records:
I admit it yrstruly wanted we should burn Poor Tony and rickytick the fuck out of China town but we go over down more by the China Pearl Place and Poor Tony is sortof hunched behind a lightpoal…
The superfluous third capitalized noun perhaps stands in for “Palace,” which is not part of the real restaurant’s name, but if so it’s a misnomer that is by now entirely explicable, considering it comes from the same narrator who gave us “Harvard Squar.”
There are two possible “lightpoals” outside the China Pearl entrance and, in retrospect, I think the one I did not photograph is the more likely candidate. Minty observes that Poor Tony is “trying to be low profile” and yet surrounded by “subservants of Wo”; the other pole is right next to a parking lot, which seems a more plausible loitering spot for small-time crooks, let alone the “million +” in Minty’s exaggeration.
In my defense, I was racing from location to location at this point, and had only a few moments to get a decent shot of the China Pearl, which I’m not claiming this is.
I’d leapt out of my taxi at Tyler and Kneeland and, complicating matters, I sustained a minor injury while crossing the street. Upon arriving safely on the north side of Tyler, I misjudged the portion of my foot necessary to gain a “foothold” on the curb, so I tried to lift my leg with toes on the curb pointed up and heel remaining planted in the gutter and oh, let me tell you, that is painful. I hobbled up the street, camera attached to monopod, also sort of hunched over and trying to look inconspicuous, and since no one in the photo above is looking at me, at least I did better than Poor Tony.
(click to enlarge panorama)
Up to now, Infinite Boston has not dealt much with the topics of depression or suicide. This has not been intentional, although to leave them out entirely would not be giving Infinite Jest its proper due. These are themes that David Foster Wallace wrestled with for his entire adult life, and informed his writing throughout. Looking ahead to the installments left in this series, these subjects will undoubtedly come up a few times.
On this day of release for D.T. Max’s long-awaited Wallace biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, now is as good a time as any to start. Let’s ease into it by looking at the lighter side of this novel’s treatment of depression and suicide—yes, that’s right—beginning with a character we not only never meet, but whose full name we never even learn.
This is the “Viney” of Viney and Veals, the fictional ad agency discussed in some detail yesterday. As that installment explained, V&V’s greedy machinations bore significant responsibility for the collapse of the “Big Four” TV networks. The toll turns out to have been personally devastating as well, as we find out in this brief aside:
P. Tom Veals — at that time mourning his remorse-tortured partner’s half-gainer off the Tobin Bridge by drinking himself toward pancreatitis in a Beacon Hill brownstone…
Veals’ recovery from depression coincides with a new mission described later in the passage, but of his former partner we hear nothing more. In this way, the late Mr. Viney is a fairly common figure in the book. First, he is a background character with a tragic fate; think of poor old Plasmatron-7 at the Warren Street T-stop.
Second, he is of a particular subgenus of unfortunate souls whose actual or intended self-destruction becomes tragicomedy. Think of the Fresno tennis player whose death by cyanide-laced Quik proves catastrophic to his CPR-trained family; or the “late-stage Valium-addicted Amway distributor from Schenectady” who was suicidal even before encountering the Separarists’ highway mirrors on the “Interstates north of Saratoga”; or Louise B. from the White Flag Group, who jumped off Boston’s Hancock Tower “but got caught in the gust of a rising thermal only six flights off the roof and got blown cartwheeling back up…”
As a storytelling choice, I suspect Wallace’s selection of the Tobin Bridge (also known as the Mystic River Bridge) for Viney’s own “map-eliminating dive” must owe something to the infamous case of Charles Stuart, a Back Bay retail manager who murdered his pregnant wife, and blamed it on an unidentified black male. When turned in to the police by his own brother, Stuart confessed to his lawyer and then plunged off the Tobin Bridge into Boston Harbor.
From the timeline established in “An Ex-Resident’s Story,” this media spectacle occurred just a few months into Wallace’s stay at Granada House, a time when he would have been watching a lot of television. And as he confessed in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S Fiction,” as a fiction writer, “television does a lot of our predatory human research for us.”
My own visits to the Tobin Bridge were far less eventful, and could scarcely be called even that. I stayed in a Chelsea hotel during this Boston visit, and found the opportunity at least twice daily to photograph the bridge from afar, in the backseat of a fast-moving taxi, through its literal window and a figurative one, a few seconds at a time. The above photos show how close I got, which was both not very and good enough.
Let’s extend yesterday’s meditation on the treatment of advertising in Infinite Jest, moving from Kenmore Square with its famous Citgo sign—and stretching our definition of “location” just a bit further—to a place that is more entity than address: the advertising firm of Viney and Veals.
The fictional V&V is the most prominent among a few agencies in the novel—it even has real characters attached, such as the indecisive, marijuana-dependent Ennet House resident Ken Erdedy—as it interacts most significantly with the plot and themes. This is true not just in the realm of advertising but also in matters of statecraft. In this quasi-science fiction tale, two major socio-political shifts have occurred in American life, with Viney and Veals playing a critical role in each.
The scenario perhaps best known to non-readers is the “territorial Reconfiguration” which has placed the U.S. in an E.U.-like alliance with its neighbors to the north and south, and created a vast toxic waste dump in the Northeastern region of the newly created Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.)—the Great Concavity. All of this has happened under the leadership of not-quite-sane President Johnny Gentle, “Famous Crooner.” Viney and Veals is credited as the architect of J.G., “F.C.”’s successful third-party bid to lead a “Tighter, Tidier Nation,” and in the story P. Tom Veals appears primarily as a media adviser in the president’s “kitchen cabinet.”
Second, and perhaps of greater impact on everyday life, the American media landscape has undergone a kind of reconfiguration from traditional broadcasting to narrowcasting via the InterLace TelEntertainment network. Viney and Veals helped to usher in this era in two ways: by attacking the “Big Four” television networks on behalf of the “American Council of Disseminators of Cable”—associating the “Freedom to Choose and the Right to Be Entertained with all that was U.S. and true”—while simultaneously producing television ads so grotesque (including the wildly popular tongue-scrapers of NoCoat Inc.) that people abandoned free television altogether.
These are among the novel’s most unlikely elements (Wheelchair Assassins or no) and together they create an odd illusion of familiar unreality that helps the story work both as satire and as tragedy. Thus the reader is put into a state both heightened and suggestible, constantly adjusting one’s suspension of disbelief while recognizing and empathizing with the underlying fears, impulses and behaviors shaping the novel’s world—one recognizable as our own even as it operates according to its own absurd logic. You know, sort of like advertising.
As for the probable address of Viney and Veals, there’s no reason to believe one is actually intended: the novel only says that it’s “downtown,” which I interpreted as the Financial District. Craning my neck upward for inspiration during a brief stroll around its western precincts, mostly Washington Street, I spied two buildings which seemed to offer competing visions for the brick-and-mortar Viney and Veals.
One, an ornamented brick structure with severe features and a strong jawline, the other a gleaming tower of glass, gently curving away toward no particular shape. One of these reminded me more of the past—call it the “Mad Men” era—and the other toward the future—not quite post-mass media, but getting there, which Wallace aimed to conjure and we now inhabit.
Who’s to say what Wallace really had in mind for V&V’s main digs? The reader looking for visual cues to interpret the story may choose from the above if one prefers to so choose. After all, it’s the American way.
In a novel where not even time itself is free from advertising—the novel’s comic reputation is all but cemented by the intentionally embarrassing-to-admit fact that most of it is set in Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment—it’s only fitting that Boston landmarks which are themselves commercial appear frequently throughout the novel. Chief among them is the giant Citgo sign in Kenmore Square, best known for its televised visibility from Fenway Park during Red Sox home games, and which receives repeated mention in Gately’s epic joyride in Pat M.’s black Aventura:
He likes to make a stately left onto Commonwealth and wait to get out of view of the House’s bay window and then produce what he imagines is a Rebel Yell and open her up down the serpentine tree-lined boulevard of the Ave. as it slithers through bleak parts of Brighton and Allston and past Boston U. and toward the big triangular CITGO neon sign and the Back Bay. …
He passes the hideous Riley’s Roast Beef where the Allston Group gathers to pound coffee before Commitments. The giant distant CITGO sign’s like a triangular star to steer by.
While advertising is a recurring motif in Infinite Jest, one gets the impression its inclusion is more satirical than anything, part of a broader depiction of this age of mass media than any kind of sharp, Naomi Klein-esque criticism of late-stage American capitalism. For Gately, the utility of this giant corporate logo as a guiding force lasts only about until he gets on the Storrow.
This is a far cry from Neal Stephenson’s The Big U—written while he attended Boston University—in which the “Big Wheel” inspired by the real-life sign takes on a religious significance. But in Infinite Jest, a novel about addiction, recovery, and the pursuit of escape from unhappiness, the role of advertising in our culture is at best a minor theme. And in fact there is even some urban legend-y fun to be had:
Below the split on Comm. it’s Boston U., Kenmore and Fenway, Berklee School of Music. The CITGO sign’s still off in the distance ahead. You have to go a shocking long way to actually get to the big sign, which everybody says is hollow and you can get up inside there and stick your head out in a pulsing neon sea but nobody’s ever personally been up in there.
I don’t mean to disappoint one greatly, but on my visit to Kenmore Square I did not make any kind of attempt to climb up inside the Citgo sign and take a look around. And the rumor should be considered with its sources taken into account; the sign indeed used neon tubes until its conversion to LED in 2005 but, as the photos above suggest, it seems to have always been a giant sandwich board and never any kind of hollowed-out enclosure.
I did however take the not-insignificant risk of standing in the middle of the street at Commonwealth and Charlesgate West to get the first view of the sign above. Fortunately, this questionable decision was met without incident, which otherwise describes my brief visit to Kenmore Square more than adequately.
(click to enlarge panorama)
Orin Incandenza, the oldest son of James and Avril, has his pick of universities upon graduation from the Enfield Tennis Academy. Possessed of a preternaturally accomplished “lob,” he’s recruited by schools from the Big Ten to the Pac-10 and in between—the University of New Mexico goes as far as hiring “a mariachi band that established itself under his dorm-room’s window six nights running.” However, for unstated reasons the narrator evidently finds troubling, Orin settles on Boston University, “only just about three clicks down the hill” and, the narrator disdains: “Not a tennis power.”
But that point is moot following a “destiny-grade event” at Nickerson Field, one which sends Orin on an altogether different athletic trajectory, and wins him the affections of Joelle van Dyne, a.k.a. the P.G.O.A.T., i.e. “Prettiest Girl Of All Time.”
In his freshman year at B.U., Orin is furnished with a “lucrative work-study job” turning on “sprinklers that were already on automatic timers” at “historic” Nickerson. One day, about to saunter off the field through the (nonexistent) “south exit-tunnel,” Orin hears the horrific crack of broken bones as the team’s punter is accidentally, season-endingly injured by its top defensive back. The accident sends the ball tumbling down the field toward him and, with no one close by, he simply kicks it back:
Orin, before that seminal moment, had never tried to kick any sort of ball before in his whole life, was the unengineered and kind of vulnerable revelation that ended up moving Joelle van Dyne way more than status or hang-time.
Orin soon finds far greater “success at kicking big egg-shaped balls” compared to “anything he’d accomplished hitting little round ones.” That year, the B.U. Terriers win the “Yankee Conference” and go on to a “non-victorious” appearance opposite Clemson in the “Ken-L-Ration-Magnavox-Kemper-Insurance-Forsythia Bowl”—a non-trivial accomplishment for a Division II team. For Orin, it is a ticket to the NFL, where by the time the novel begins, he is playing for the Arizona Cardinals.
Funny thing, though: not only is B.U. not a football power, by the time Orin would have suited up for the Terriers, there would have been no football to play. Boston University abandoned its football program following a one-win season in 1997, just one year after Infinite Jest was published.
But Nickerson Field is still very much present on the western end of the Boston University campus, between Comm. Ave. and the Storrow 500. From Harry Agganis Way, it’s not difficult to stand just outside the iron gates and look in—while looking back to make sure the campus police aren’t too worried about what you’re up to, since their headquarters is next door—and look back again to survey its expanse of well-trimmed grass.
Here one can easily imagine Orin picking up the ball and discovering a kind of lob he never knew he had in him. Sure, one has to mentally re-orient the field 90 degrees, and pretend there’s a south tunnel under stands I coudn’t adequately photograph from this angle. But with a little imagination it’s possible.
Numerous scenes in Infinite Jest occur in the vicinity of Boston Common and, in the weeks ahead, this series will focus on specific locations around its perimeter. But the park itself plays a somewhat marginal role in the story; for Boston Common qua Boston Common, perhaps its most memorable appearance is as the backdrop for one of the many unsettling short films of après-garde filmmaker James Incandenza (a wearer of many hats) detailed in endnote 24. This one is Every Inch of Disney Leith, the “plot” of which is described as follows:
Miniaturized, endoscopic, and microinvasive cameras traverse entire exterior and interior of one of Incandenza’s technical crew as he sits on a folded scrape in the Boston Common listening to a public forum on uniform North American metricization.
This may put DFW fans in mind of the even more disturbing short story, “Backbone,” posthumously published in The New Yorker and later appearing as §36 in Wallace’s “unfinished novel” The Pale King. For others, it may just put them off their appetite.
Though Boston Common is arguably the second-most famous urban park in the United States, it is the Common’s slightly less heralded next-door neighbor, Boston’s Public Garden, which gets the really good scenes in the novel.
In particular, the Public Garden is the setting for a beautiful digression on the longing for public spectacle as a means to finding a sense of community in an age where shared experiences are not. The fictional near future of the story is much like our present day in that entertainment and communications have become time-shifted, the majority of our interactions mediated by copper wire and satellite wave. Indeed, this is one of David Foster Wallace’s more strikingly prophetic visions:
Hence the new millennium’s passion for standing live witness to things. A whole sub-rosa schedule of public spectation opportunities, ‘spect-ops,’ the priceless chance to be part of a live crowd, watching. … The fellowship and anonymous communion of being part of a watching crowd, a mass of eyes all not at home, all out in the world and pointed the same way. …
One top Back Bay public spect-op every November is watching expressionless men in federal white and municipal cadet-blue drain and scrub the Public Gardens’ man-made duck pond for the upcoming winter. … It’s publicly unannounced; there’s no fixed schedule. … But a massive crowd always collects and thickens in a dense ring along the banks of the Public Gardens’ pond.
The Public Gardens’ man-made pond truly is drained on occasion, although not with the regularity described here, and not necessarily in November (here is a YouTube video showing it empty in March 2008). Another divergence worth noting: this unnamed lagoon is known for swans, not ducks. However, considering that Make Way for Ducklings is name-checked in this passage, I think Wallace knew what he was doing.
This public-minded introspection soon gives way to a plot-oriented action scene involving the comically menacing Wheelchair Assassins—who are only comedic up to the point at which it’s no longer funny—racing down from the top of the hill along Arlington Street to scoop up an unwitting target.
What’s that, you say, everyone who is familiar with the topography of Boston’s Public Garden? No hillside along Arlington Street? You are correct, there is not one. And even though I had stayed near the Public Garden on my lone prior visit to Boston, this had not registered with me at all. Imagine my surprise to find that certain geographic details had been altered—in a work of fiction!
Chalk it up to conditioning: after so many locations had checked out, I was a little disappointed to discover this change in elevation was only imagined.