For the past few years, D.C.-based artist William Beutler has been mapping the real and fictional locations of David Foster Wallace’s giant novel Infinite Jest in a project called Infinite Atlas, a Google Maps-based guide to over 600 locations described in Infinite Jest. Beutler’s project has sprawled (appropriately) to include several dimensions, including Infinite Map (shown above), which identifies and describes 250 locations from the novel and Infinite Boston, a travel blog of sorts that documents and reflects on Beutler’s Wallace-based trip to Boston. Beutler was kind enough to talk to me about his projects over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: How did the Infinite Atlas project start?
William Beutler: I think, like a lot of long-term projects, I’d point to a few different points of inspiration. The first is just going back and reading Infinite Jest for a second time in 2009, after I’d say it went from being a favorite novel to my actual favorite novel. I’d also become interested in infographics, I suppose as a kind of art form based on the expression of data—and what better stockpile of data than a thousand-page, encyclopedic novel? I cycled through a lot of ideas, finding that some of them had already been done before, and then finally deciding to focus on geography.
Biblioklept: How did the geography focus come about?
WB: The geography focus owes to a few different things. One is simply that I wasn’t the first to arrive at the idea of creating an infographic based on Infinite Jest, so I had to take that into consideration. Sam Potts, who is the designer of John Hodgman’s books, had released an elaborate graphic drawing connections between the various characters in the novel. I’d been considering that when his came out, but he did that pretty definitively, so I went with one oft he other. And hey, I just like maps. I started my career in political journalism, where districts are always being redrawn, and maps are always being shaded this much red or this much blue, so it was a natural focus in that regard. And there’s always been something I’ve liked about adding a layer of information to geographic features. I don’t know that I could have credibly called myself a geography enthusiast before this—but I have friends who definitely are, and even some who work with GIS professionally. They helped me figure out what I was doing.
Biblioklept: Did you consciously start using Google Maps? Was Google Maps a starting point in and of itself or just a tool?
WB: Google Maps was probably one of the very last decisions we made. And all the web development was relatively late in the process, starting about early summer of this year. Most of the work before that was simply building the database, which lived in Google Docs for most of this research period. The decision to use Google Maps wasn’t necessarily random, although I had actually made an early conscious decision to not use it. I’d suggested Open Street Maps, partly because I like open source projects, and Foursquare had switched to it, which seemed like a noteworthy endorsement. But my developers said Google Maps was going to be less time-consuming, and less expensive, and I was willing to take this advice.
Biblioklept: Can you talk a bit about how you put the atlas together? What was your approach? How did you start?
WB: In the very early going, it was as simple and painstaking as going page-by-page through the book, scanning each one for proper nouns, and taking notes down in Google Docs. This was myself and another friend who had read the book, Olly Ruff, who is one of the credited editorial advisers. We debated what really counted as a “location”—Orin’s “Norwegian deep-tissue therapist” lives “1100 meters up in the Superstition Mountains,” overlooking Mesa-Scottsdale. So is that one location, or two?And once we realized we had so many locations, this was about the time I realized the original idea, which was just the map, was not going to be the comprehensive accounting for the novel’s locations I had imagined. Once I decided we had to explore an interactive version as well, then we had to decide which locations were just going on the map, and how many. Then we had to figure out where certain locations were actually located, and that was a considerable amount of research as well. Sometimes it was very obvious-—Harvard Square is very easy to find, but some places I didn’t even know were real until I visited Boston. We also had to figure out how to show both the scope of North America alongside the detail of central Boston, and this just took an agonizingly long time. This is where some of my friends who worked with maps for a living proved helpful. The further into this I got, the bigger of a project it kept revealing itself to be. And since the point of no return was never clear, I just kept at it, never entirely sure how long it would all take, until we actually started working with designers.
Biblioklept: How did actually visiting Boston help to inform the project?
WB: About a year into the research, I realized that I was hitting a wall with some of the local details in Boston, which has the greatest concentration of locations of anywhere in the novel. More specifically, the neighborhoods of Allston and Brighton already kind of run together, and then Wallace invented a whole new unincorporated community called Enfield, where most of the primary characters live, and its relationship to Allston-Brighton was very confusing. The trip helped me get a better sense for what was Enfield and what was Brighton, although there’s only textual support for boundary lines to the east and south.Also regarding certain locations, I knew the Brighton Marine hospital complex was the basis for Enfield Marine, and I knew that the hill behind it was where the Enfield Tennis Academy would be, if it existed, but Google Maps and Google Street View have some pretty obvious limitations. So putting boots on the ground was really the only way to be sure about some of these places. I was surprised by some things I found: there’s a “Professional Building” mentioned as being at one intersection when it’s really another, which I had no idea until I walked right up to it. And the Infinite Boston Tumblr simply couldn’t have existed without the trip, but the trip was also absolutely necessary for getting a lot of details right for Infinite Atlas and Infinite Map.
Biblioklept: How long have you been working on the Infinite Boston blog?
WB: The Boston trip was in July 2011, and the notion of doing a Tumblr travelogue to the project was probably in the back of my head at the time, but I didn’t really start thinking about seriously doing it until earlier this year. I’d been sifting through the photos—I came back with about 4,000—since then, and in the spring I started making decisions about what I had acceptable photos of, and what I had enough to write about, then I started planning the sequence in June, and putting together notes in early July. And though I had quite a few entries planned out weeks in advance to begin with, these days I’m finishing them the night before, or up to the last few minutes before publishing.
Biblioklept: The Infinite projects clearly will resonate with fans of Wallace’s novel. What do you hope they take away from your work?
WB: I can’t begin to tell you the number of people who’ve told me they started Infinite Jest, and gave up after making it a surprisingly long way through it. One friend of mine spent the better part of a decade having read to at least page 600 before finally finishing it earlier this year. (He ended up helping out as a backup researcher.) I’ve heard it said that the book doesn’t really start coming together until about 400 pages, and it’s been much too long since I first read it for me to remember, but I know the feeling of hopelessness that goes along with struggling early in a long novel (I’m still working myself back up to revisiting Gravity’s Rainbow and Europe Central…). I think a project like this can serve as a kind of promise to the uninitiated that there really is something here that people feel very strongly about, that it rewards the effort one must put into it. There’s much more to it than just being a hipster status symbol. And then I think it can help those who are reading it, both to confirm details they may have misread the first time or—better still—to make connections they might never have made without this kind of tool. And of course to visualize it as David Foster Wallace surely did, if they’re so inclined. That said, I’m not sure the Atlas is a resource I would have consulted when I first read the book. I tend to be very spoiler-sensitive, oftentimes purposefully going into a novel or a film or television series trying to know as little as possible. Of course, I know now that Infinite Jest can’t be “ruined” by knowing about a particular story arc, and I’m sure that others so wracked with fear over knowing that two storylines connect, so I hope they’ll find this a useful resource.
Biblioklept: I’m curious if you’ve read Houellebecq’s novel The Map and the Territory?
WB: I have not actually read any Houellebecq; I’m primarily familiar with him for various controversies, and I do remember the allegations that he had plagiarized Wikipedia for The Map and the Territory, and the possibility then that his book would be judged a Creative Commons-licensed work. Anyhow, I am familiar with the map-territory relationship as described by Alfred Korzybski, and Infinite Jest was my introduction to it. I think it’s very relevant here, not that anyone would necessarily mistake the atlas as anything but a supplement to the novel. Actually, one of my early working titles for the project was “Map / Territory,” and the website includes a kind of epigraph, taken from the Eschaton section: “The real world’s what the map here stands for!”
Biblioklept: I figured the Eschaton episode clearly resonated with your project. What sections or characters of IJ stand out as favorites to you?
WB: Believe it or not, Eschaton was one of the last location segments that I added to the Atlas. Early on we’d focused on real places where scenes actually took place, or references to North American locations that fell inside the confines of the map. And Chris Ayers of Poor Yorick Entertainment had already made a pretty nifty Eschaton infographic, so I was hesitant to do too much with that. But it became clear that we were going to take a maximalist approach, and really locate absolutely everything that could be located, so then I went through and included everything from Eschaton as best I could.If I had to name a favorite section, it might be the very last, with Gately and Fackelman holed up with Mt. Dilaudid, avoiding the wrath of Whitey Sorkin. It’s just beautifully written, and for whatever criticisms anyone might still make about the novel lacking a proper ending plot-wise, it makes perfect sense emotionally. In close contention, though, is Gately’s first chapter, about the disastrous burglary in a “wildly upscale part of Brookline” that turns his life around. It’s the first section in the story really that took my breath away—that or I was holding my breath waiting in vain for a paragraph break to exhale. Anyway, the unsurprising answer regarding my favorite character is Don Gately. He’s maybe DFW’s single greatest creation.
Biblioklept: I agree with you on Gately being Wallace’s greatest achievement—I love the sections you mention as well. I think many people who can’t get into IJ probably don’t get to that burglary/toothbrush episode quick enough.
WB: I don’t know, the number of people who have made it to halfway or further and then still give up, just speaking anecdotally, is staggering. I’ve personally given up on much shorter books, which is probably every book I’ve given up on, considering I haven’t bothered to try Imperial or some of Vollmann’s other longer stuff. Plus, it’s not like there isn’t grabby material early on: the “where was the woman who said she’d come” scene with Erdedy is very dense, but I think immediately rewarding in a way some of the Hal and Orin material up front is not. And there’s no way around the fact it’s just a months-long project in a way few novels are.
Biblioklept: Have you had any response from Wallace’s estate about your project?
WB: I haven’t, nor have I solicited any. In development on the project, I had considered reaching out to Bonnie Nadell, but I didn’t really know what I’d be asking. This wasn’t going to be the first infographic project or fan art based on the book, so I didn’t think permission was an issue. A friend had offered to put me in contact with D.T. Max, if I needed, but I didn’t want to bother him, either. The most response I’ve had is two retweets and one reblog from whomever’s running social media for Little, Brown, and it’s more than I would have asked for.
Biblioklept: Do you have another project on the horizon after this one?
WB: To be honest, I’m not even sure I’m totally done with Infinite Jest yet. I’m still writing Infinite Boston on a daily basis through the end of this month, and we’re actually putting in some further refinements on the Infinite Atlas website. Besides that, I’d been editing a very short film when I turned to focus on this, so I’d like to complete that now. And I’m sure this isn’t my last map, either.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
WB: Haha, that’s a great question. And the answer is yes. One that comes to mind in particular I found in a teacher’s lounge in the j-school at the University of Oregon, where I worked and never quite completed my journalism double major. And I don’t have it handy—I’m afraid I’ve left stolen property on a shelf at my parents’ house—but it was called something like The Declining American Newspaper and its publication date could have been no later than 1965. Even when I found it, this was still early days of the Internet. I wasn’t sure whether it was prophetic or preposterous, which is basically why I pocketed it. Less a book, more a conversation piece. Next visit, I’ll try to make partial amends by actually reading it.