In the introductory post for this series, published in mid-July, I mentioned that my reasons for visiting Boston to investigate its relationship to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest would “become apparent at a later date.” I am pleased to announce that this date has arrived. I am even more excited to tell you about this project, which has been almost exactly two years in the making. As the headline has already given away, I’m calling it The Infinite Atlas Project.
The underlying idea is simple to explain: my goal was to identify, place, and describe every cartographic point I could find in the novel—whether real, fictional, real but fictionalized, defunct or otherwise. This would not have worked with just any novel. As profound a work of imagination as Infinite Jest is, a significant majority (ballpark figures below) of the locations described in its 1,079 pages have some non-trivial basis in reality. And not just in Boston: this holds true across North America, and even the globe.
The manifestation of this research effort turned into something I could not have imagined at the outset: a multi-part collaborative research and art project, of which this website has only been the iceberg’s tip. Today I’m announcing the launch of a limited-edition print series and a free web resource drawn from this research. I am calling them, respectively, Infinite Map and Infinite Atlas.
Infinite Map — A geographic infographic poster depicting the “territorially reconfigured North America” of the novel and identifying 250 of the most interesting locations with a color-coded dot and corresponding footnote. As you can see from the acromegalic thumbnail above, the 24”x36” print includes four telescoping map insets: O.N.A.N.’s North America, Northeast U.S. & Canada, Greater Boston and Metro Boston. The red shading represents my own painstaking, overdetermined conclusions about the most probable outline of the Great Concavity. In the upper right corner is the Great Seal of O.N.A.N., based on the description from page 153, and the map labels throughout include sometimes-obscure references to the novel’s text. This image is the principal result of a long-term collaboration between myself and the Los Angeles-based creative design agency JESS3, whose technical ability and patience with yrstruly knows no bounds.
Yes, it is for available for purchase. Yes, today. You can buy it here. The Great Seal of O.N.A.N. is available as a separate print. Both are available in a limited edition of 1,079. (Because this whole endeavor has a long way to go before breaking even, other items are available here, too.)
Infinite Atlas — Finally, the namesake of the project overall is nothing more or less than a Google Maps-enabled online atlas of Infinite Jest. Unshackled from the limitations of Tumblr, let alone a rectangular sheet of paper, here is the fullest expression of this project’s ambition. With the help of a small research team, I’ve organized and mapped to x-y coordinates approximately 475 locations that appear in some form in David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece. And those are just the ones I could place: the database actually includes more than 650 discrete locations, including the ones I couldn’t so locate. If you spend enough time exploring, I guarantee you will find them.
The locations of Infinite Atlas are searchable, browsable and sortable by characters and stories associated with them. As you can see from the screen shot above, clicking on a specific location brings up a new window, including: an overview of its place in the story, the page on which it first appears (fortunately, the pagination in all English editions of the novel to date are identical), additional commentary as necessary, a link to the most relevant Wikipedia article, plus a list of characters, stories and related locations.
The window is also designed to showcase photographs of specific locations. At launch, approximately 10% of locations include photos. You may be unsurprised to learn that all of these are currently in and around Boston. Readers are invited to upload their own photos, subject to approval. In case you are the sort of person who is inclined to notice these things, the website is published under a Creative Commons license. Programming and design was handled by the Washington, D.C.-based web developers at RedEdge, who made some real Arthur C. Clarke-type magic happen over the last month of hard-core development.
In case you are wondering, Infinite Boston was in fact the last component of the project conceived, even though it was the first released. The idea for this blog grew out of the need to visit Boston and lock down some of the less obvious locations within Allston-Brighton, Cambridge, and their surrounds. Speaking of this website, just because the balance of this project is now live does not mean Infinite Boston is going away anytime soon. Several weeks of posts lie ahead, and tomorrow we’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming, viz., my wanderings around and musings about the real-life counterparts of Infinite Jest’s Boston settings.
The Infinite Atlas Project itself may not quite be infinite, but it is open-ended: as much as I have discovered in the past two years, the deeper I get the more I find there is to know. The incredible feedback from readers on this website has been just one example and, if you are among those who have pointed out my embarrassing oversights, my gratitude is yours. Throughout the twenty-five months of this project to date, I’ve learned quite a bit about the Boston area. Today the scope has expanded considerably.
For further updates, please follow this project on Twitter, which I’ll be keeping at @infiniteboston and “like” us on Facebook. If you’d like to know more, please feel free to send me an email. If you’re remotely curious about who I am, it turns out that I’m this guy named William Beutler, and you can follow me on Twitter at @williambeutler.