Infinitely Lost: Following David Foster Wallace to Boston’s Back Bay

Standing at the intersection of Boylston St. and Mass. Ave. I realized that I was infinitely lost. Originally, I had...
By Wendy K.X. Chen

Standing at the intersection of Boylston St. and Mass. Ave. I realized that I was infinitely lost. Originally, I had set myself a ridiculous quest: to visit all 100 or so places David Foster Wallace mentions in his novel “Infinite Jest.” Wallace himself was a former Harvard philosophy student, and set “Infinite Jest” in the Boston-Cambridge area.

I had hoped to embark on a local homage of sorts, and I was reasonably equipped to do so. For starters, I had actually read and finished “Infinite Jest” (I assure you, it’s no laughing matter to navigate the tome’s digressions and footnotes), and also regularly explore Boston and Cambridge.

I had not anticipated, however, the volume of Wallace’s allusions to landmarks, or how extremely, infinitely lost I would become in the streets of Back Bay. The Berklee School of Music would be all I could manage in a day.

On page 477 of Infinite Jest, Wallace’s protagonist Don Gately drives past the Berklee School of Music. On a frosty Sunday afternoon, I found my way there by foot. I did get terribly lost but, in the end, I realized that the destination hardly made a difference. It was the quest that mattered.

I am searching for the Berklee School of Music, but what I am really after is something far less substantial—the ghost traces of Don Gately, a phantom trail of his fictional car. Blind gropings into unknown paths and stumblings into strange streets immerse me deeper into spatial dislocation. The zigzag of seemingly random crossings, street signs, and billboards crisscross into a tangled topography. Eventually, I find comfort in the unfamiliarity of these streets, and reassurance in my ignorance of what buildings are ahead, what shops lie in the next corner, what people might cross my path.

Yellowing fall leaves fluttering in the wind, colonial red brick facades, and gleaming window displays promising a confectionary collection of goods for sale all merge into one another. Their colors become less distinct, blurring into a colorless blank in my mind’s eye. The experience of not knowing where I am brings my physical journey closer to the narrative one crafted by Wallace.

When I finally stumble upon the Berklee School of Music, the destination presents itself as a sadness, a regret that the quest has to come to an end.

For The Moment