Interpolation: “Infinite Boston”

I first saw some chatter about this site on Wallace-l a few weeks ago, but in the busyness of my schedule, I didn’t have a chance to take a look despite my curiosity.  With a few spare moments as my kids watch Disney Channel sit-com reruns, I finally have the chance to check it out.

As I am a couple of months into my own “Infinite Summer,” reading IJ for the first time, I love what Bill Beutler has done here.  It’s a wonderful pictorial companion to many of the Boston-area locations described in the novel.  His written descriptions and analysis easily match the aesthetic beauty of the photos.

I am only about a third of the way through the behemoth novel, so I didn’t want to read Bill’s commentary too closely, but I will certainly visit the site to read more carefully once I’ve finished.  For now, I pass it on to you, my readers.  Enjoy this wonderful pictorial project.

Click Here to visit INFINITE BOSTON.


I lived Chapter 25, or I served as an AP exam reader

I have a new deeply felt appreciation for the term “mind-numbing boredom.”

About six months ago, I received word that my application to be an AP exam reader had been accepted, and I shortly thereafter booked my flight and hotel for the weeklong reading in Louisville, Kentucky. Then a few weeks ago, as my school year came to an end and before the ink on the diplomas was even dry, I was on a plane to Louisville.

We began at precisely 0800h in an enormous conference room subdivided into three separate reading rooms. Each reading room went through an extensive calibration process: reviewing the essay rubrics, reading and discussing sample essays, reading and discussing more sample essays until all 3000 readers were on the same page, so to speak, capable of giving an accurate score to each essay they would read. Ready for the task of scoring some 440,000 exams.

Approximately forty tables filled each reading room. Five rows of eight tables each. Eight readers and a Table Leader at each table. Several number two pencils and a College Board-approved eraser at each reader’s spot. Three or four candy dishes in the middle of each table filled with M&M’s or Starbursts or Red Vine Licorice. The Question Leader sat alone at a table on an elevated platform at the front of the room.  No clocks anywhere in the entire room.

E– turned a page. A– raised her folder in the air to get the attention of a aide to bring her a new folder. V– stood to stretch her legs while opening a new test booklet. I bubbled in a score. A– reader at another table coughed loudly.  A yawn proceeds across one row by unconscious influence.  T– flagged a booklet with a sticky note for the Table Leader to double check. F– turned a page. E– turned a page. A– grabbed a handful of M&M’s from the bowl in the middle of the table. F– sniffed loudly, attempting to clear her plugged sinuses. T– turned a page. V– bubbled in a score. I turned a page. The Table Leader brought a booklet back to T– to discuss the essay in question.  Ambient room temperature 62° F. F– put on her sweater and zipped it all the way up.  A– turned a page. V– sat back down.  Most sit up straight but lean forward at the waist, which reduces neck fatigue.  A scooting chair echoed through the room.

The Question Leader sounded his duck call to get our attention. “Good work. Enjoy your break. Be back in 15 minutes.”

Long lines formed at the coffee stations and at the restrooms.

The duck call summoned everybody back to the table to work. T– turned a page. F– turned a page. E– reached down for her water bottle on the floor.  The slow squeak of the cart boy’s cart at the back of the room. V– turned a page. I raised my folder in the air to trade with an aide for a new one. V– cleared her throat.  Some with their chin in their hand.  A– turned a page. T– bubbled in a score. E– turned a page. A sneeze could be heard from some far corner of the room. F– raised her folder.  Exterior temperature/humidity 96°/74%.  The Table Leader took an essay booklet to the Question Leader for a second opinion. F– turned a page. I bubbled in a score.

Every love story is a ghost story.

Seven days, eight hours each day. A fifteen minute break in the morning. An hour for lunch. Another fifteen minute break in the afternoon. Fifty-six hours of reading and scoring essays. Some 900+ essays were placed in front of me.

Nearly eight hours in the air and over two hours of layovers to get home. Screaming children on the plane with over-indulging parents. Congested freeways made the drive home longer than it should have been.

And I eagerly await for my invitation to return next year.

Guest Post: W/R/T DFW

Blogger Here. Andrew Harrell shares his first encounter with David Foster Wallace, reading David Lipsky’s piece in Rolling Stone Magazine, “The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace.”

Mr. Wallace,

I don’t know how the magazine made the trip, but Greg and I got from the Piedmont to the mountains in his brother’s tiny black Honda two-door. The drive was almost perfect.

Out of the eight or so times we thought we were lost, only once had we actually gone the wrong way, ending up in a cramped town with narrow, wavering streets and a terrible pervading smell coming from the paper mill. For half an hour we drove in circles, looking for someone to ask for directions, only to find the town deserted. Eventually we were attracted by bright lights in the distance, and found the entire town leaving a high school football game. At another point in the journey, while searching for a grocery store to purchase s’mores supplies, an Ingles Market seemed to materialize in front of us out of nothing.

We drove in shifts of about two hours. The little thing handled like a dream. Or, at least, it handled like a dream compared to my car, which has inches of dead space to push through if you want to apply the brakes.

As a driver, Greg scared the shit out of me. His mind is never fully on the road, and he always leans on the gas too much, to the tune of, like, 20 mph too much. So I turned the tables while I could, ignoring the decreasing visibility and increasingly winding roads, taking turns too fast and throwing Greg against the passenger side door.

It was October or November and I was a sophomore in college. Greg was a freshman and for fall break we were headed to a family friend’s cabin, where my girlfriend and half a dozen or so others were already playing beer pong and flip cup. Greg and I listened to the new Keane album off of my iPod and edited a speech he had to give for some student organization or another when he returned. When it came to language and writing, this was an insanely exciting and formative time in both our lives. We’d both heard from teachers and peers that we were good with words. But now we were realizing that we wanted to be better. We were realizing that there is power behind words, that they are something you can be passionate about. The speech probably suffered from severe over-editing.

Unmarked from the road, the secluded cabin was nestled at the bottom of a steep hill and accessible only through a subtle gap in the guardrail. Even with all our cars, the front lawn was huge—acceptable ultimate Frisbee space, if that gives you any sense. A trail led to a nearby stream.

The drive there turned out to be the best part of the trip.

I was not much of a partier. At this point in my life I was able to count on my fingers the times I’d been drunk or high. I normally had trouble interacting with others, let alone when one or both of us in an altered state of mind. So when the weed and the booze came out, I was a little uncomfortable. The feeling was compounded over the next few days by cramped living quarters and too little food. I had a fight with my girlfriend, and she went off to get high with some of the others. I was left alone—at least, I felt alone, there might have been others half asleep in armchairs nearby—in the cabin.

A magazine was on the wooden coffee table.

Soon-to-be-president Barack Obama was on the cover, his tie the same red as the Rolling Stone logo. The headline level with Obama’s smiling eyes read: “DEATH OF A GENIUS: The Tragic Last Days Of David Foster Wallace.” I was in the mood for death and tragedy.

Not to mention my curiosity was piqued; what made you such a genius? I’d never heard of you. I expected an article dominated by technical explanations of the work done by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Maybe some small, amateur pictures of guys with pocket protectors in their garage laboratory.

The first picture took up an entire page. You didn’t look like a physicist. You looked like a college slacker. Bangs in your eyes. And is that a Basquiat shirt?[1]

The opposite page called you “the greatest writer of his generation—and also its most tormented.” I was in the mood for torment.

Being in the mood for death, tragedy and torment does not always leave one in the mood for close reading, however. I only skimmed the article, reading enough to glean that you were a great writer, that you liked tennis and you loved dogs, that you committed suicide and that I had never heard of you or your work. The pictures, though, I examined closely.
There was something endearing about your rugged figure that reached out of those glossy pages. The long hair, the stubble with a lopsided shot of gray, the silly bandanna, the kind eyes. Glasses. Full lips like mine. How different you looked from picture to picture, which makes sense now but didn’t right then—it seemed like I was looking at different men, and maybe in a small way I was. You didn’t look like a fiction writer; you looked like a fiction character. It was the fall of 2008, so maybe in a not so small way you already were.

What I did read start to finish was a sidebar about a movie adaptation of one of your books. The blurb caught my eye because it said the actor John Krasinski was directing and producing the film.[2]  I was intrigued, and eventually I bought a paperback copy of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. It wasn’t until summer 2009 that I read the book of short stories at the beach.[3]  It was difficult, funny and strange. And, for the most part, way over my head. I enjoyed the style and I recognized the writing as brilliant. But sometimes I didn’t really know what was going on. And I definitely struggled with the fact that I didn’t know what it meant. Krasinski’s adaptation turned out to be a great thing for me, because it spelled things out with Hollywood simplicity—or, at least, spelled out one interpretation of the stories.

Overall, though, your collection left me impressed but uninspired. The paperback made it onto my shelf of favorite books, partly out of respect and partly because of that cool cover,[4] but, largely, you were put out of my mind. I probably went and reread Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for the fourth time.

Months later, I was in the bookstore with a gift card burning a hole in my pocket. At the time I had no author or book I was itching to read. I was just browsing. A beautiful cover caught my eye, which is enough to make me want a book, even if I know I won’t like it. It was white and textured, with an illustration of a yellow cockatiel reflected upside down in an ornate hand mirror. The name David Foster Wallace was on the cover. I remembered my mixed reaction to reading you the last time, but it was a beautiful book, and the name recognition justified the purchase.

I began reading The Broom of the System as soon as I got home, and even though I knew nothing about Wittgenstein or postmodernism, it made perfect sense. Words had never felt so real to me. I realized you might not be as dead as Rolling Stone claimed.

In some sick way, did your leaving bring you closer to more people than ever before? I guess so.

Did your private struggle turn you into a public figure you didn’t want to be? I don’t know. Would I even be aware of you if you hadn’t ended things on your own terms? I don’t know.

What I do know, Mr. Wallace, is that you wrote and read at least in part to be a little less lonely. Evidently, for you the battle against loneliness didn’t only play out between covers.

The important thing to me isn’t if you won or lost that battle with loneliness. What’s important to me is that you were the only one who figured out what we’re fighting against.

Thanks for letting us know. Thanks for the company.


Andrew Harrell is from North Carolina and has written for sites such as Thought Catalog, Knews Corp and The Daily Heel. He is building a wiki to serve as a reference guide for The Broom of the System.

[1] Do they even make Basquiat shirts? Is it some kind statement on or counter piece to Keith Haring’s commercial stuff?[back]

[2] I had recently watched the entire first four seasons of The Office—which stars Krasinski—in the span of a week. My grades suffered appropriately.[back]

[3] At the beach, in a house looking out onto the sound, not literally on the beach. The combination of suntan lotion and folding chairs and David Foster Wallace is a little absurd.[back]

[4] To me, those black and burgundy horizontal stripes look damn good on a bookshelf.[back]

Guest Post: Poor Tony Krause was on my train.

Blogger Here.  You’re in for a wonderful treat, a reflection by Jenni baker on an event mirroring a moment from Infinite Jest.

Dear Dave,

Poor Tony Krause was on my train.

It was mid-July 2009, and I’d just made the multi-block morning trek from my overpriced one-bedroom apartment in Bethesda, MD[1], to the metro station of the same name.

Thrust out of academia’s comfortable arms just one month prior, I had begrudgingly agreed to give being a professional writer[2] in the ‘real world’ a go for one year before gleefully enroll in a doctoral program that would allow me to return to and remain in school for perpetuity.[3]

You won’t find it altogether surprising that I was eager to prove — no matter what ill-fitting business casual attire I was forced to stuff myself into each day and regardless of how many hours I eked away in a cubicle — that I would still read very smart books.  I joined the Infinite Summer online group and made sure each morning that, along with my keys and my wallet, Infinite Jest found its way into my workbag.[4]

The copious underlining and exclamation marks I’d made leading up to that morning would suggest to any onlooker I saw some parallels between the lives of the books’ motley characters and my own. I never expected, however, to find one in Tony Krause’s heroin withdrawal as I descended into the metro station that morning.

It was clear something was wrong as I boarded the metro car from the dimly lit platform:

a shaking man does, after all, stand out on a morning train.

Unlike Poor Tony, this man was African-American, clearly more than 45 kilos and absent the former’s female accoutrements; however, he was similarly “one of those loathsome urban specimens that respectable persons on trains slide and drift quietly away from without even seeming to notice they’re even there” (304).

He convulsed violently, his mass creating a forward momentum that pulled him further out of his seat with every quake. Within seconds, his body succumbed to gravity, and he tumbled face first onto the floor as the train departed the station. In his new position, his over-sized sweatpants had slid down his waist, exposing the tops of his haunches. At a certain point, he lost control of his bowels, and the carpet darkened underneath him.

I’ve shared various versions of this story in the nearly three years since the incident; in almost all of them, I paint myself as a gape-mouthed Midwesterner,[5] incredulous that my fellow commuters would refuse to look up from their Washington Posts or offer assistance to someone who was clearly so unwell. I, without a doubt, would have done something if I had known about the emergency call button in the metro car and if I wasn’t, in my big city newness, still moderately fearful of never-encountered situations.

You’ve probably already sensed that this is bullshit, of course. Like your Infinite Jest respectables who “quietly retreated as far as possible from the puddles in which [Poor Tony] sat,” I kept my distance, my own pink face no doubt looking stricken (403).

Another unkempt man alone at the end of the car pressed the emergency button, stopping the train at the next station — the “we’re holding for a sick[6] passenger” announcement unleashing audible sighs from those not five feet away from him — until paramedics could descend and extract the man from the car.

When they arrived and lightly dismissed him as passed out from intoxication, I gathered my first words of the morning to say I’d seen him seize – an act the others on the train had either not seen or felt was unworthy of reporting. In the more flattering version of this story, this is — bien sûr — the moment I heroically stand up and advocate for this man whom all others have cast aside.

I have no doubt that those who read your work will see similarities in their own experiences; it seems inevitable that one will, sooner or later, get an odd feeling of déjà vu when a small plot point from Infinite Jest’s 1,079 pages pops up in real life.

I mean my letter more as a confession.[7]

After a morning of recounting the event to coworkers — including excitedly emphasizing to a more literary-minded colleague that this was just like something in a book I’d been reading — I spent my lunch hour re-reading the Poor Tony seizure section.

Looking at those few pages with the morning’s experience under my belt, I considered what I hadn’t once thought about all day: the perspective of the man who shook. I was too focused on what was happening to me on my commute that morning, too eager to tell others what I had experienced, that I’d failed to consider what the same events looked like to the man immobile and alone on floor of the metro car.

I’ll never know if the man on my train was suffering from an addiction, had forgotten to take his seizure medicine that morning or was experiencing a freak event unprecipitated by external cause. I just know that it didn’t occur to me to really care until I was forced inside Poor Tony’s head during his own shake-up until you forced me to consider how I would feel if faced with similar circumstances.

In closing, I’m not a religious person, but it’s my understanding that confessions turn on a need for redemption as well as some sort of promise from the confessor to do better in the future.

It’s tempting to wrap this letter up with a nice bow, swear to you that my eyes have been forever opened, and that I will now always know how to react when faced with atypical individuals and events. I think we both know life’s too ambiguous and messy for that. I also hope you won’t hold it against me when I say I’m not seeking your forgiveness.

What I can say is this: your Poor Tony and the one on my metro car helped drive home one of the tenets of the book — that we are each alone and struggling in our own ways. Some of us have the luxury to do so behind closed doors, when we take off the face we wear to meet the faces that we meet,[8] while others of us are forced to fight our private battles in public. I believe it’s recognizing this shared suffering and letting it govern our behaviors that will help us make much-needed connections and do the right thing in the end.

Jenni B. Baker is the founder and editor-in-chief at The Found Poetry Review and is currently working on a manuscript-length found poetry project called Fest, derived from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. By day, she works as a nonprofit writer and editor in the DC area.

[1]So safely within the Washington Metropolitan Area that I can claim I live in Washington, DC, without the ridicule one might incur for claiming to live in, say, Chicago when one really lives more than 60 miles away in DeKalb.[back]

[2]A career I had purportedly signed up for when I enrolled in the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s MA in Professional Writing program.[back]

[3] As it turns out, once one knows what it’s like to earn money, returning to the in-debt-or-break-even world of graduate school becomes much less appealing.[back]

[4]I, like many twenty- and thirty-somethings I’ve seen in my three years in the city, happily brandished the tome on public transportation not only to distance myself from the Dan Brown and Dean Koontz readers, but also to signal to any eligible bachelors in eyeshot that there was a smart lady in their midst.[back]     

[5]While other children with a parent in the Air Force had the opportunity to move to California or Germany, the Baker family was entrusted to make sure South and North Dakota didn’t get too out of hand.[back]

[6]“Sick” employed broadly to describe anything from a temporarily incapacitated drunk to someone who’s thrown himself onto the track.[back]

[7]Whether you envision yourself as a priest is totally up to you.[back]