Infinite Boston


 Here’s how to read David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page door stop and masterpiece Infinite Jest: it’s a Boston novel the way Ulysses is a Dublin novel, as Les Miserables is a Paris novel. Infinite Jest is a novel about Wallace’s alcohol addiction and recovery on a route through Boston we all walk and drive and manage not to see into: the “clot and snarl of Prospect St in Cambridge,” those “Live” and “Fresh Killed” poultry signs in Inman Square, the clang and squeak of the B-Line trolleys along Comm Ave, Brighton past the halfway houses on the hill for catatonics and drunks where Wallace’s life turned around. Maybe it helps to read Infinite Jest as a tour map of one man’s battlefield.  Re-enactments every day.  We’re talking a walk through DFW’s Infinite Boston this hour.

We got 200-and-some contributions for this conversation posted on Reddit so far.  IJ, as they say, is about addiction, entertainment, compulsive consumption, emotional isolation, TV, the Internet, anxiety, panic attacks,  – and loneliness throughout.  One of the Reddit writers said: “Infinite Jest, it’s still where I go to understand the queer sadnesses of 21st-century life.”

Our guests include Bill Lattanzi, poet, playwright, and the original Infinite Boston tour guide; D.T. Max, staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the acclaimed Wallace biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story; Sven Birkerts, the writer, critic, and editor who was a friend of Wallace’s; and Deb Larson-Venable, executive director of Granada House, where Wallace began his road to recovery, and the extraordinary inspiration for the extraordinary Pat Montesian, a character in the novel.

A reading list, for the insatiably curious.

  • An Interval,” an excerpt from Infinite Jest that was published in The New Yorker in January 1995, including a description of Ennet House director Pat Montesian, the character based on our guest, Deb Larson-Venable,
  • Deb’s Story,” a partial autobiography by Deb Larson-Venable herself, on the Granada House website, and ”An Ex-Resident’s Story“, an anonymous article (credited to Wallace) about Granada House, the Brighton halfway house that became Ennet House in Infinite Jest,
  • The Unfinished,” the article by D.T. Max about Wallace’s biography and career that spawned his book,  Every Love Story is a Ghost Story,
  • The Map and the Territory,” an excellent article by Adam Kelly on Bill Lattanzi’s Infinite Jest tour,
  • Infinite Boston, designer William Beutler’s amazing record of his own whirlwind tour of Wallace’s Boston,

Thanks also to Nick Maniatis, founder of Howling Fantods, who sent us an eloquent audio love letter to DFW (mp3), and Christopher Boucher, the writer and editor teaching his students to walk Infinite Jest at B.C.
Image credit: Janette Beckman/Redferns


11 thoughts on “Infinite Boston

  1. Reading The Pale King now, after reading IJ, and some other shorts. I find myself flagging many pages, so I can go back and read again. Will be reading IJ again. Truly a brilliant writer – so sad there won’t be more from him.

  2. IJ is one of my all time favorite books. I have read it twice, still with a hunger for another round. I consider it the Appalachian Trail of Literature. Difficult at times, arduous and complicated nor for the faint of heart, yet full of some of the most unique, magical wonders to be found in literature; worth the hike!

    Don Gately (I know this is an obvious one) but is by far my favorite character. One of the greatest anti-hero’s and protagonists in modern literature by far. My favorite quote may be a bit obscure and simple but in the context of these two character’s story, and the circumstances surrounding the quote, it always moved me tremendously. It is on p.618.

    “Gately’s down, Madame Psychosis is in charge.”


  3. Hi Chris,

    Have you read Bloom’s take on Wallace and Infinite Jest? He’s rather dismissive. I have yet to read Infinite Jest although I intend to eventually. Your connecting Wallace with Swartz gives me all the more reason to finally do so. Here are Bloom’s comments with a link below:

    Asked about novelist David Foster Wallace, who took his own life in 2008, but who has a new book out, “The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel,” put together from manuscript chapters and files found in his computer, Bloom says, “You know, I don’t want to be offensive. But ‘Infinite Jest’ [regarded by many as Wallace’s masterpiece] is just awful. It seems ridiculous to have to say it. He can’t think, he can’t write. There’s no discernible talent.”
    …Stephen King is Cervantes compared with David Foster Wallace. We have no standards left. [Wallace] seems to have been a very sincere and troubled person, but that doesn’t mean I have to endure reading him. I even resented the use of the term from Shakespeare, when Hamlet calls the king’s jester Yorick, ‘a fellow of infinite jest.’

    Article can be found here:

  4. I read IJ for the first time in the summer of 2007, months before DFW killed himself. I was 19 years old and fell in love with the book and the author almost immediately. It was his way of seeing through everyone, putting into words complex emotions that are so deep you almost don’t realize they’re there. When he died, it was as if I had lost a loved one.

    I’m not a Boston native but I’ve lived here for 6 years, and I love the every day reminders from IJ that I see when I drive around the city: the giant CITGO sign, in particular, reminds me of the book every time I see it.

  5. thanks for gathering such interesting guests but what would our good host suggest that any one person do about the many complex and often interconnected collapses of our times, how does recognizing/illustrating emptiness in what people used to call our “Culture” lead to meaningful action?

  6. Is David Foster Wallace the Patron Saint of nerdism? Your man on the program says: “The thing about Wallace is he didn’t look away, he kept looking.” Well didn’t he in fact look away…forever. Which makes me wonder if he strikes a nihilistic tone that I’m adverse to? Sure I’d like to read this brick of a book but with my limited time on earth, I’m inclined to go spend quality time with my happy niece, instead. I’m still not convinced this isn’t the dungeons and dragons of literature. Which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not my thing. Wallace derides the cleverness, but doesn’t he do it by being the cleverest? If so, wouldn’t that be ironic? And to what end?

    (From “Demons”) Kirilov – “So then, the very laws of the planet are a lie and the vaudeville of devils. What is there to live for?”

    And then there’s this:

  7. Infinitely fascinating….

    Bloom said: “He can’t think, he can’t write. There’s no discernible talent.”
    Isn’t that is where technology is trending? democratization of the web? end of the long form? rise of the personal subjective opinion as absolute?
    Technology is producing the generation that will fulfill technology’s future needs.
    Will this be the next Moby Dick?
    Yes. In world where people don’t have to think, no one will care about Moby Dick.

  8. Wonderful hour.

    I’m an early-20-something reader and latecomer to Wallace, making my way through Consider the Lobster at the moment. I think his writing is great and as far as it speaking to an entire generation, I don’t know what Wallace would say about that, if he did say anything about that, but I would say, How is Wallace not relevant these days, when American life has been defined, at least in part, by a culture of: on-demand, direct-to-your-pocket entertainment and Netflix “binge watching,” highly corporate social networks and search engines, a completely, utterly fragmented news and media world, a weird cult of individualism/innovation/loneliness led by seductive silicon-valley types, the drone of advertising and self-promotion, creepy government-funded mass data collection, etc, etc?

    It’s too easy and kind of tedious to sneer and wag fingers but the point is Wallace’s writing is important these days like never before, I think.

    On a related note, I think the way readers might pin Wallace as difficult or esoteric is misleading — although, full disclosure, I’ve only been reading his non-fiction after scratching my head over the first few chapters of Infinite Jest — because it seems to me, even when he is difficult, Wallace ultimately writes with complete empathy.

    Everyone knows the feeling when it comes to a good voice in writing: this author sounds like a good friend, speaking directly to me. But it’s more than that with Wallace. He loves the reader and also fears for the reader, and he understands and can articulate so well why the reader finds modern life interesting but scary, and it’s all through that special, resonant mix of humor, wisdom, humility, skepticism, sincerity, weirdness, argumentativeness, and so on.

    I hope this is OK to share: Wallace was interviewed twice by WBUR’s The Connection in the early 2000s and the audio can be heard online.

    Wallace was interviewed once in 2001 about English-language usage wars:,%20March%202001.mp3

    Based on DFW’s exceptional essay, Authority and American Usage:

    And then again around 2004 while Wallace was promoting the short story collection, Oblivion:

    Both are must-listen radio pieces.

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