Hey Professor! Infinite Jest

Andrew Warren, Assistant Professor of English, has taught English 90we: “David Foster Wallace and Environs,” a class that plays special attention to Wallace’s encyclopedic novel. FM sat down with Warren to learn more about the book’s connection to Cambridge.

“Wallace lived in Inman Square while he was a student at Harvard in the Philosophy program. He was writing ‘Infinite Jest’ probably 1991 to 1995, but it takes place in a near future world around 2009 or 2010, so he’s anticipating what Cambridge will look like. It’s really a pretty accurate description. Cambridge has a juxtaposition of super high culture with homeless shelters and drug recovery centers, and David Foster Wallace would have been familiar with both sides. While he was at Harvard he was friends with famous professors like Stanley Clavel but he was hanging out with people who stole money and did drugs. Cambridge is unique in having social programs but also intellectual heft—the city attracts an urban population dealing with contemporary modern problems like addiction, but also has the institutions that pretend to be disassociated with these problems.

One of the key Cambridge places he mentions in ‘Infinite Jest’ is the student center at MIT, which gets blown up by militant grammarians and then rebuilt somewhere else in the shape of a brain. The Madame Psychosis radio show is taped in the brain and broadcasted out across Boston and many different characters listen to that broadcast. In one scene a radio show engineer nuzzles into the folds of the brain and looks out over Boston.  Aesthetic qualities like these make the book beautiful.”

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