(click to enlarge panorama)
Starting today, the Infinite Boston series moves from Enfield-Allston-Brighton south of the Charles River to explore locations to the north, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We begin with Harvard Square.
Harvard University itself receives scant mention in the book—which is not inexplicable, considering most of the novel’s characters are lower-class, losers, or high-schoolers (or some combination thereof). Yet its absence from the narrative is remarkable simply because so much of the story takes place in neighborhoods surrounding it.
Harvard Square, or “Harvard Squar” as one unreliable narrator calls it, is the operating territory for some of Infinite Jest’s least seemly characters, including violence-prone heroin addicts such as Emil “yrstruly” Minty, Bobby C. and the most prominent of a few transvestite junkies in the story, “Poor Tony” Krause.
* I arrived at “Harvard Squar” on a blazing hot morning; though the middle of summer, the scene at the Square could might been lifted straight from a University Life pamphlet. The Square was so clean and the off-season crowd so well-groomed that I couldn’t easily picture Poor Tony et. al. “crewing” here. To borrow a phrase from elsewhere in the novel, Harvard Square is “wildly upscale” compared to how it’s described in the novel. Also limiting my imagination: the debilitating heat of late July, whereas the primary action of Infinite Jest occurs in dreary November.
It is along these storefronts where the woman with the “Jarvik IX Exterior Artificial Heart” is “window shopping” when Poor Tony makes off with her purse containing it, which seems plausible—I mean, at least the window shopping. A short walk up Brattle Street, I came across an “honor system” booksale, which put me in mind both of The Unexamined Life’s lenient age verification policy, and the description of the Minty/C/Poor Tony crew “boosting some items at a sidewalk sale.”
I didn’t spend too long here; although other Boston-area locations have changed significantly in the years after Wallace left, it was in Harvard Square that the essential futility of this project seemed most apparent. There is something about any college town or university square that seems so timeless as to be indifferent. It’s a sensation I experience on every return trip to my former haunts in Eugene, Oregon: reminding the past of its utter defeat. It would have done no good to ask anyone here if they were aware of this neighborhood’s role in the book. While I’d be more likely to find people familiar with Infinite Jest here than most other places visited, today’s Harvard undergrads were not yet in short pants during the time time the story describes.
To ask about the neighborhood here—as opposed to a musty library archive or crisp online news database—would be, to borrow from a modern Internet expression, “doing it wrong.” Or, to rework a well-known formulation considered modern in its day: we hold on, aligning ourselves with the current, accelerating ceaselessly toward what’s yet to come.
*I haven’t been making too many midstream corrections, but here’s one worthy: this post originally stated that the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square a) was no longer extant, b) no longer plays host to “70s-era guys in old wool ponchos play[ing] chess against those little clocks they keep hitting,” c) was formerly located where the Crema Cafe is now. I have since been informed that at least two of the three above statements are incorrect, and here is a low-res Google Street View image to verify the fact. Thanks to Aaron Swartz and Lauren Leja for the corrections. Infinite Boston regrets the error.