David Foster Wallace’s 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,” that “Fresh Killed” poultry sign 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 of one man’s battlefield, with re-enactments every day.

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.”

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

Guest List
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 at AGNI who was a friend of Wallace's in the 1990s.
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.
Reading List
An Interval
David Foster Wallace
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 Deb Larson-Venable.
Deb's Story / An Ex-Resident's Story
Deb Larson-Venable + David Foster Wallace
A partial autobiography by Deb Larson-Venable herself, on the Granada House website, and "An Ex-Resident's Story", an anonymous article (usually credited to Wallace) about Granada House, the Brighton halfway house that became Ennet House in Infinite Jest.
The Unfinished
D. T. Max
An article that began Max's Wallace biography and career that spawned his book,  Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.
"The Map and the Territory"
Adam Kelly
An excellent article on Bill Lattanzi's Infinite Jest tour, that also mentions Infinite Boston, designer William Beutler's amazing record of his own project on Wallace's Boston.

Related Content

  • Will Kirby

    Excuse me, but can you tell me where I can listen to this? I’m really excited. My favorite author of all time.

  • mary

    Hi Will Kirby, we’re moving this show to the 30th. Feel like leaving a comment here ahead of time and telling us why?

  • Susan

    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.

  • Jonathan

    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.”


  • I love rereading the Eschaton chapter. The chaotic ending of the book, which ends in Gately on the beach, is one of the most affecting passages I have ever read.

  • 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:

  • Sharon

    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.

  • 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?

  • nother

    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: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xgj324_fight-club-being-clever_shortfilms

    • Kunal

      That’s an interesting point, but I think IJ is even better to read knowing that DFW committed suicide 20 years later. It helps you see the sadness in the book instead of just the humor

  • Robert W Peabody III

    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.

  • Conor

    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: http://www.dfwaudioproject.org/wp-content/uploads/interviews-profiles/The%20Usage%20Wars%20-%20The%20Connection,%20March%202001.mp3

    Based on DFW’s exceptional essay, Authority and American Usage: http://wilson.med.harvard.edu/nb204/AuthorityAndAmericanUsage.pdf

    And then again around 2004 while Wallace was promoting the short story collection, Oblivion: http://www.dfwaudioproject.org/wp-content/uploads/interviews-profiles/WBUR-The-Connection.mp3

    Both are must-listen radio pieces.

  • David Lloyd-Jones

    If this had been Wikipedia, the html link “tour” would have told us ” A trip with visits to various places of interest for business, pleasure, or instruction. A group organized for such a trip or for a shorter sightseeing excursion. A brief trip to or through a place for the purpose…” and so on.

    Instead we are told about a specific tour relevant to the book, The Infinite Boston Tour. This is exactly what we want at such a link.

    C’mon. What’s the matter with you people?


    • Kunal

      Glad to be of service 🙂

      • David Lloyd-Jones


        I look forward to taking this tour, possibly a bit at a time over the years and at about the same rate I do the Dublin tour, one Bloomsday at a time.

        I used to commute to Boston from DC, and indeed my then wife, the excellent Susan Schmidt, and I paid off the mortgages on the Eastern Shuttle and the Bird With The Yellow Tail by ourselves. The rest of you were just paying for the terminals maybe. Still, I know almost nothing about Boston but the cab ride to MIT and recognising the words to the The Kingston Trio Song.

        In anticipation!


  • dca

    I just finished reading Infinite Jest, and I am in awe of it. No one seems to recognize, though, that Hal is Prince Harry and Gately is Falstaff (the title is from Shakespeare, after all). This framework explains the whole novel to me, not that it needed explanation. Also, the novel started to make me nervous when I began to suspect that the entire tale was a fabrication of the students at the tennis academy (there are various hints of this beginning in the middle of the novel and continuing to its end), which would have been a horrible sell-out to the post-modernist police. I’m glad Wallace didn’t make this choice ultimately.