Of all the real-life Cambridge shops that appear in Infinite Jest, the last one I might have expected to find in operation these many years later is the record store. This is not to say the real-life Cheapo Records is entirely unchanged: although its website proclaims it has been “in Central Square since 1954,” at some point following the novel’s publication, this neighborhood fixture moved across the street and a few doors down. The first two photos above obviously depict its current location, while the third photo is its former address. And of course it is slightly modified from street to page, given the addition of a hyphen and capitalization of the letter “O,” which seems reasonable enough.
The lone appearance of Cheapo Records occurs 177 words into a 288-word sentence in the story’s first third, delivered by the most unreliable of narrators (about whom more later), known in these passages only as “yrstruly”:
at this time we come up and run into Kely Vinoy that was working her corner by the dumster by Cheap-O records in the Squar…
As Tim Bean pointed out in his 2008 Flickr set, the shop’s original location did not abut a dumpster-strewn alley, but its new one does—albeit one without any open-air prostitution, so far as I saw.
I figured if there was any place I might visit on this trip where the proprietors would have any knowledge of their businesses’ cameo role in Infinite Jest, it would be this hipster boutique. After snapping a few photos, I walked in, approached the slightly dazed fellow behind the counter, and asked whether he was aware that Cheapo Records made an appearance in this famous novel. To be fair, it may have been my question that confused him: the clerk didn’t so much give the impression that he knew of this fact, more like someone could have once mentioned it to him, maybe. Most likely, he was just being vaguely agreeable.
A somewhat less agreeable character is the passage’s narrator, whose intentionally illiterate monologue differs significantly from the extended, distended, hyperkinetic “DFW” voice so beloved by his fans. To be sure, the “yrstruly” section has a rat-a-tat energy that is unmistakably the author’s. But along with the infamous “Wardine” section (delivered in a faux-ebonics that’s almost embarrassing) Wallace’s imitative powers fail him somewhat in these experimental chapters. Illiteracy turns out to have something of an uncanny valley aspect to it—the harder he works at mimicking the voice of an uneducated thug, the more inauthentic the prose feels. To wit, the narrator can somehow spell “light” but not “pole,” leaving us with the odd phrase “light poal.” (This “light poal” will come up again.)
Relatedly, the run-on Cheapo sentence continues as follows: “by Cheap-O records in the Squar by the email place,” which strikes me as unintentionally noteworthy. Considering that Wallace referred to the Internet as “InterNet” in five of the word’s seven occurrences in the novel, it’s interesting that our unlettered guide arrived at “email”: not “E-Mail” or even “e-mail”—which Wallace reserves for his own narrative voice—but the way so many of us write it now. Not too many emails are sent in Infinite Jest, and the Internet café is already mostly a historical footnote. But it turns out that “yrstruly” was prescient as well.