If there is a grim inversion of Don Gately’s exuberant excursion in Pat M.’s mythical Ford coupe, it is Joelle van Dyne’s deliberate downtown walk past Boston Common and into the Back Bay toward her “Very Last Party,” as she carries out her plan to have “Too Much Fun for anyone mortal to hope to endure.” Infinite Atlas includes this as a collected set of locations under a story I’ve simply called “Joelle’s walk”; in this entry we’ll do our best to trace her actual route.
We are introduced to Joelle in media res at Molly Notkin’s apartment—in a scene she intends to be her last. No single location in this entire project gave me fits like this “third floor cooperative apartment on the East Cambridge fringes of the Back Bay.” Just in case anyone isn’t aware, the Back Bay is a neighborhood in Boston. East Cambridge is a neighborhood in Cambridge. While no other neighborhood lies between them, something else does: the Charles River. Nevertheless, a number of clues suggest this is indeed the Back Bay, but narrowing it down any further is a fool’s errand (as this fool discovered). In the end, I placed this dot on Back Street, by the Storrow. I figured it was fringey, and about as close to East Cambridge as anyone in the Back Bay could be.
Chronologically, Joelle’s expedition begins much earlier in the day, at her apartment in Somerville or Cambridge (it’s never specified). From this depature point, she proceeds to Davis Station and then to the unfindable Lady Delphina’s in “Upper Brighton” to buy “serious weight.” The stream-of-consciousness and shuffled timeline makes it difficult to piece together the chronology precisely. Even the third person narration becomes jittery and unreliable, as if affected by her free-associating, freebased mindset.
Sometime after visiting Lady Delphina’s for the “real” last time and the party at Molly Notkin’s, we begin the final walk with her at the Charles/MGH Station, which is simply called the “Red Line’s Downtown stop.” She heads south on Charles Street, which is lightly fictionalized as “East Charles St.,” although it is described accurately enough: “brick sidewalks” lining “sienna-glazed streets and upscale businesses with awnings and wooden signs hung with cute Colonial script.”
Joelle first visits a “discount tobacconist” which I cannot place; I can’t say if there was a tobacco shop along Charles at one time, but there is not now. Here she buys a “quality cigar in a glass tube” and not for the cigar, which she throws away at the nearest opportunity.
As Joelle “approaches Boston Common” the geography becomes jumbled. She is said to move “westward into the territory of the Endless Stem near the end of Charles,” though I haven’t the foggiest idea what the “Endless Stem” is supposed to be—a defunct wine shop, maybe? (Per the comment below, it turns out this is a reference to panhandling, termed “stemming” elsewhere in the story.)
Nor could she really be moving “westward” on the north-south Charles, which if anything leans eastward. Unless, that is, she’s completely overshot the Common, and eventually westward the course of Charles does take its way, although it then becomes Tremont. As we learned in the 412 W. Brainerd and Storrow Drive entries, Wallace often overlooked Boston’s crazy street name changes, either for simplicity, or because he’d forgotten where they changed, or both.
But I don’t think Joelle is truly “near the end” of Charles St., because her walk takes her to a Store 24 to buy a “.473 liter Pepsi Cola”—which equals one pint, whatever that is supposed to mean—and, by consensus, this Store 24 was once at the corner of Charles and Mt. Vernon. Store 24 was acquired by Tedeschi in 2002, and this particular location is now the world’s quaintest 7-11, although when I visited it was unaffiliated.
Joelle next finds herself at Boston Common, a “lush hole Boston’s built itself around,” and continues to the “Common’s south edge” along Boylston Street (true) “with its 24/7 commerce, upscale, cashmere scarves” for sale (close enough).
But now things start to get really screwy. The narrator continues: “Boylston St. east means she passes again the black-bronze equestrian Statue of Boston’s Colonel Shaw and the MA 54th”—which means we’re again quoting from the same passage as the Shaw Memorial entry from earlier this week. The problem here is rather glaring: the Shaw Memorial is actually on the opposite end of the Common, occupying its northwesternmost corner, at Beacon and Park, just north of the Park Street Station.
And though Joelle is said to be moving east, the rest of her trek is obviously in a westerly direction. Soon after, she passes the curiously misspelled “F.A.O. Schwartz”—there is no “T”—which no longer operates in Boston, however at least once was on Boylston, with Berkeley as its cross street, in the Back Bay. From the last mention of Boylston, we lack details to follow Joelle’s peregrination as she moves toward the “cooperative Back Bay-edge brownstone” where her friend-that-she-has-no-more-use-for Molly Notkin lives.
Marching toward her own intended doom, she reminisces about working with the late filmmaker James Incandenza. A cheerleader and the love of Orin Incandenza’s life when they first met, Joelle was one of the few recruits to J.O.I.’s circle who was not then down on her luck. However, by the time we meet her, she has regressed to the addicted mean. Cocaine has compounded deep-rooted problems that Joelle cannot face, and here she is “at the end of her rope and preparing to hang from it.” Not that she is intending to do it by hanging; the contents of her purse give a better indication.
It is a long setup for a scene as mesmerizing as it is heartbreaking, concluding with one of the two or three very best sentences in the entire novel, and plunging the reader alongside the character into the realm of unfathomable despair, a place not findable on any map, though one which Infinite Jest will assuredly visit again.