Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

4 minute read


Infinite Atlas: A Location-Based Visualization Of A Literary Masterpiece

William Beutler’s painstakingly detailed "Infinite Atlas" provides yet another layer to David Foster Wallace’s famously dense work.

Infinite Atlas: A Location-Based Visualization Of A Literary Masterpiece

David Foster Wallace fans: Put down your copy of D.T. Max’s newly released biography of the writer, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story and click immediately on Infinite Atlas. Non-fans, stop whatever it is you’re doing and do the same.

Infinite Atlas is, in the simplest terms, "an independent research and art project seeking to identify, place and describe every possible location in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest." In broader terms, it’s an infinitely absorbing marriage of literature and rich location-based data.

The map is the work of Washington-based writer, and dedicated Infinite Jest fan, William Beutler.

Beutler actually launched the project earlier this year in the form of Infinite Boston, a blog-based photographic tour of locations that figure into DFW’s complex study of life, addiction, depression, failed entertainment, and tennis. At the time Beutler wrote: "In July of what might have been Year of Glad, one year ago this week, I traveled to Boston, Massachusetts with the express purpose of visiting as many of the landmarks and lesser known precincts that appear in, or provide inspiration for, the late David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest as I could manage on a Thursday-Sunday trip. My reasons for doing so will become apparent at a later date, but for now I am pleased to present what I am calling Infinite Boston: a ruminative travelogue and photographic tour of some fifty or so of these locations, comprising one entry each non-holiday weekday, from now until sometime in early autumn."

That later date has arrived and we now have the Infinite Atlas, a mind-bendingly detailed Google Maps-based compendium of over 600 IJ locations. Visitors can click on the map to reveal details about each location from the novel, in many cases including quotes, as well as where the site appears in the book and which characters are associated with it (and Beutler hasn’t just covered off your A-list places, like Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennet House. To wit: the listing for Marty’s Liquors, "Which Gately drives past in Pat Montesian’s black 1964 Ford Aventura"). Locations can also be discovered via search, and through a comprehensive lists of characters (again, we’re not just talking about Hal Incandenza and Michael Pemulis—the list includes everyone down to "the Watertown, NY boy who owned Ward and June, progenitors of the Concavity’s feral hamsters") and story threads. Fans are also encouraged to submit photographs of the locations.

The project also includes a poster version of IJ sites, the Infinite Map, available for purchase here. The map depicts the novel’s "territorially reconfigured North America" and features 250 of its most interesting locations (as well as the Great Seal of O.N.A.N., pictured above).

Beutler, who had worked as a political journalist and is now a communications consultant, says the project has been four years in the making. "I re-read Infinite Jest after Wallace’s passing, and became obsessed with the idea that there was a way to treat Infinite Jest as a very large data set," he says. "It turned out that others had done so previously, the designer Sam Potts in particular, but with a primary focus on the relationship between characters. So I didn’t want to retrace that route. Meanwhile, I was influenced by friends involved in cartography, and I’ve always found maps to be fascinating, so both of these things pushed me in this direction."

At first, a map of locations was just one of many ideas, he says. "At one point I was going to include box scores for the Enfield Tennis Academy players, but the further I got into research, the more I realized how much more there was to do with geography."

The scope of the project meant Beutler brought in a number of creative partners, including agency JESS3 and DC web development company RedEdge, which helped bring the interactive map to life.

When it came to compiling the project’s staggering volume of data, Beutler had additional help. "A lot of the early research was compiled by a friend from back to college, named Olly Ruff, who had also first read Infinite Jest years ago," he says. "We each spent dozens of hours combing through the book, page-by-page, in late 2010 to make sure that we missed nothing, and to argue about what was where and what was the significance. We had those conversations right up to the point where we had to send it off to the printer. The early information architecture was done by another friend, Lyzi Diamond, who had recently earned a degree in Geography from the University of Oregon. Our eventual cartographer was Derek Watkins, who is now a graphics editor at the New York Times."

As for Beutler’s plans for the project, he says, "I’m really hoping to get readers to upload photographs of locations that I haven’t visited—and considering the scope of the project is global, that’s still most places. Otherwise, there are still some details to correct—our database is very good, but not free of noise—so that will take me some time to iron out the details. Even as I say that, I think the site is about 95% correct. It always takes a lot more effort to improve from there, but I’m just enough perfectionist, and just enough a fan of Infinite Jest to stick with it."