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.