Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest Imagery

The Storrow 500

On one of Joelle's first nights at Ennet House, Don has to go on a grocery run to get her some vegetarian-friendly food. He drives down the so-called "Storrow 500" where he has a perfect side-view of the city of Boston. Wallace writes:

You can get on the Storrow 500 202 off Comm. Ave. below Kenmore via this long twiny overpass-shadowed road that cuts across the Fens. Basically the Storrow 500 is an urban express route that runs along the bright-blue Chuck all the way along Cambridge’s spine. The Charles is vivid even under gloomy thundering skies. Gately has decided to buy the newcomers’ omelette stuff at Bread & Circus in Inman Square, Cambridge. It will explain delay, and will be a subtle nonverbal stab at unique dietary requests in general. Bread & Circus is a socially hyperresponsible overpriced grocery full of Cambridge Green Party granola-crunchers, and everything’s like microbiotic and fertilized only with organic genuine llama-shit, etc. The Aventura’s low driver’s seat and huge windshield afford your thinking man maybe a little more view of the sky than he’d like. The sky is low and gray and loose and seems to hang. There’s something baggy about the sky. It’s impossible to tell whether snow is still actually falling or whether just a little snow that’s already fallen is blowing around. To get to Inman Square you veer over three lines to get off the Storrow 500 on Prospect St.’s Ramp of Death and slalom between the sinkholes and go right, north, and take Prospect through Central Square and all the way north through heavy ethnicity up almost into Somerville. (478-479)

Infinite Jest earns comparisons to Joyce's Ulysses not only for its length and linguistic/structural experimentation, but also for how anchored the novel is in the city of Boston. Infinite Jest is certainly not as faithful to an accurate reconstruction of Boston as Ulysses is to Dublin, but Wallace emphasizes the socio-economic landscape of the neighborhoods and the class tensions between Enfield Academy and its neighboring Allston neighborhoods. The above description of Gately's trip to Cambridge communicates the inherent class tension between most residents of Ennet House and the "socially hyperresponsible overpriced grocery full of Cambridge Green Party granola-crunchers."

The "N.A." Meeting

Wallace describes the government building where Hal expects to attend his first sobriety meeting:

After two 90° turns it’s clear the hallway’s run is a perfect square around the cube’s ground level. He’s seen no stairs or entrances to stairways. He empties the NASA glass rather gooily into a potted rubber tree’s dirt. Q.R.S.’s building may be one of those infamous Rubikular cubes that looks topologically undeformed but is actually impossible to negotiate on the inside. But the numbers after the third corner start at 18, and now Hal can hear either very distant or very muffled voices. He carries the NA booklet in front of him like a crucifix. (799)

Hal is intimidated by the government building's labyrinthine quality. Wallace pays special attention to and supplies Kafkaesque descriptions of the absurdities of government buildings and the seemingly intentional obtuseness of the architecture of bureaucracies.

Don Gately's Rebirth

The final image of the novel describes Don Gately returning to consciousness after experiencing his "rock bottom," watching Sorkin's goons torture and murder his friend Fackelmann. Wallace writes, "And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out" (982). The imagery harkens to a rebirth. Gately finds himself totally unmoored and disoriented; wet, cold, and vulnerable on a blank beach with no recollection of how he arrived there.

Commonwealth Avenue

Wallace describes Commonwealth Avenue, a main thoroughfare through Enfield, MA and a frequently referenced road throughout the novel. Wallace writes:

The streets literally bustle. Vendors with carts instead of tubs sell hot pretzels and tonics and those underboiled franks Pemulis likes to have them put the works on. You can see the State House and Common and Courthouse and Public Gardens, and beyond all that the cool smooth facades of Back Bay brownstones. The echoes in the underground Park Pl. garage—PARK—are pleasantly complex. Traffic westward on Commonwealth Avenue is light (meaning things can move) all the way through Kenmore Square and past Boston U. and up the long slow hill into Allston and Enfield. (170)

Commonwealth Ave. serves as a thread through all of the points of interest in Boston and connects all of Infinite Jest's characters like a throughline through their neighborhoods.

Enfield, MA

Enfield, MA, home of Enfield Tennis Academy, hosts at least half of the action of Infinite Jest. Enfield is a fictional district created by Wallace and is thought to be a thinly-disguised imagining of Brighton, MA (which is also an explicitly referenced and explored locale in Infinite Jest). Enfield absorbs qualities of Cambridge and Allston and highlights the class tensions that result from building highly selective, expensive private schools in economically depressed areas. Wallace describes Enfield Academy and its surroundings:

The aerial, inclined at about the angle of a 3-km. cannon, spins in a blurred ellipse—its rotary base is elliptical because that’s the only shape the EM-wienies could rig a mold for. Obstructed on all sides by the tall buildings of East Cambridge and Commercial Drive and serious Downtown, though, only a couple thin pie-slices of signal escape M.I.T. proper, e.g. through the P.E.-Dept. gap of barely used lacrosse and soccer fields between the Philology and Low-Temp Physics complexes on Mem. Dr. and then across the florid-purple nighttime breadth of the historic Charles River, then through the heavy flow of traffic on Storrow Dr. on the Chuck’s other side, so that by the time the signal laps at upper Brighton and Enfield you need almost surveillance-grade antennation to filter it in out of the EM-miasma of cellular and interconsole phone transmissions and TPs’ EM-auras that crowd the FM fringes from every side. Unless, that is, your tuner is lucky enough to be located at the apex of a tall and more or less denuded hill, in Enfield, in which case you find yourself right in YYY’s centrifugal line of fire. (184-185)

Orin's Pool

In a few rare glimpses outside of Boston, Infinite Jest shuttles out to Arizona where Orin Incandenza lives and plays professional football. Wallace describes the pool deck behind his apartment building:

The white iron tables have no umbrellas, and you can tell where the sun is without looking; you can feel right where it is on your body and project from there. The ball moves tentatively back out toward the middle of the pool and then stays there, not even bobbing. The same small breezes make the rotted palms along the condominium complex’s stone walls rustle and click, and a couple of fronds detach and spiral down, hitting the deck with a slap. All the plants out here are malevolent, heavy and sharp. The parts of the palms above the fronds are tufted in sick stuff like coconut-hair. Roaches and other things live in the trees. Rats, maybe. Loathsome high-altitude critters of all kinds. All the plants either spiny or meaty. Cacti in queer tortured shapes. The tops of the palms like Rod Stewart’s hair, from days gone by. (43-44)

Wallace's descriptions sympathize with Orin's disdain for Arizona and the many hostile creatures that live there. Wallace's reference to Rod Stewart's hair builds on the theme of the pervasive presence of celebrity in the U.S. collective consciousness.

The Arizona Desert

In addition to Orin's surroundings, Wallace spends time describing the desert and mountainside of Arizona where Marathe and Steeply discuss freedom and diplomacy from dusk to dawn. Wallace showcases his acute ear for describing weather and the sky in his descriptions of the Arizona landscape:

He sat alone above the desert, redly backlit and framed in shale, watching very yellow payloaders crawl over the beaten dirt of some U.S.A. construction site several km. to the southeast. The outcropping’s height allowed him, Marathe, to look out over most of U.S.A. area code 6026. His shadow did not yet reach the downtown regions of the city Tucson; not yet quite. Of sounds in the arid hush were only a faint and occasional hot wind, the blurred sound of the wings of sometimes an insect, some tentative trickling of loosened grit and small stones moving farther down the upslope behind. (87-88)

Wallace returns to the Arizona desert throughout the novel, revisiting Steeply and Marathe's conversation periodically and describing the progression of the sunset and then eventually night. He continues to describe the sunset in that first mountainside scene:

And as well the sunset over the foothills and mountains behind him: such a difference from the watery and somehow sad spring sunsets of southwestern Québec’s Papineau regions, where his wife had need of care. This (the sunset) more resembled an explosion. It took place above and behind him, and he turned some of the time to regard it: it (the sunset) was swollen and perfectly round, and large, radiating knives of light when he squinted. It hung and trembled slightly like a viscous drop about to fall. It hung just above the peaks of the Tortolita foothills behind him (Marathe), and slowly was sinking. (88)