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.