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.