Infinite Jest! Live! On Stage! One Entire Day Only!
Twenty-four hours watching the Berlin theatrical adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus.
And lo: It’s five in the morning, and I’m sitting in a Boston AA meeting. The caffeine powder I ingested shortly after midnight has long worn off. I’m clutching a cranberry Red Bull in one jittery hand and a god-awful cup of AA coffee in the other. But I’m fading fast.
Nineteen hours of the play have elapsed. Five remain.
The play is Infinite Jest. Yes, the 1,079-page[i] David Foster Wallace novel. Germany’s leading experimental theater, Hebbel am Ufer, had the gall not only to stage the world theatrical premiere of an Infinite Jest adaptation, but to play it on the grandest stage possible: the city of Berlin itself. Over the course of 24 hours, the shell-shocked and increasingly substance-dependent audience is transported to eight of the city’s iconic settings, which serve as analogs for the venues to which the discursive novel continually returns.
But so we’re at this AA meeting in a Boston school cafeteria, which in this case is the cultural center of a city quarter that was drawn up from scratch in the 1960s in the far, far north of Berlin, like practically halfway to the Baltic, this sticks-of-the-sticks-type section of town.[ii] And the actor sharing his history of teen addiction to Quaaludes and Hefenreffer-brand beer is droning on far too long and starting to give me the howling fantods.
True to the novel, quite a few of the play’s scenes have gone on far too long. But length is half the point. This isn’t entertainment in the traditional sense. It’s Wallace-style capital-E Entertainment, whose primary purpose isn’t to bring enjoyment—though it can be enjoyable—but to captivate, to incapacitate, like the novel’s deadly eponymous film whose viewers are so thoroughly entertained that they cease to eat, drink, sleep and, eventually, live. There weren’t, as far as I could tell, any casualties the day[iii] I took this infinite theater tour, though a good number of my 150 fellow travelers dropped out before the sun came up. As with the novel, the play was very much a test of endurance.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Taking it back to the start, then: The apprehensive masses gathered at the Rot-Weiss tennis club in far-west Berlin, a stone’s throw from the great concavity of the Grunewald forest, at 9:30 in the morning.[iv] We were told little. Wear sturdy shoes. The play will let out at 10 on Thursday morning in the Kreuzberg district. The performance will be in English and German. A care package with stimulants will be provided.
And so there we found ourselves, at one of the world’s oldest tennis clubs, meticulously converted into the novel’s principal venue, the Enfield Tennis Academy. Students in ETA uniforms drilled in what on other days would be Steffi Graf Stadium but was now plastered with ETA banners and logos and mottos.
The highlight of the play is not its script, a joint effort by 12 artists and companies with ties to Hebbel am Ufer. There is, quite simply, no way to convert a strange and all-encompassing novel most audience members haven’t read into a coherent piece of theater. Some of the attempts, like the meta-tennis match in which the players whacked existential criticisms at each other rather than fuzzy yellow balls, were creative, if overwrought. Others simply tried the audience’s patience.[v]
But Berlin offers several advantages to a theater director of infinite ambition—like, it seemed, Matthias Lilienthal, whose brainchild Infinite Jest was, or the international roster of directors (including Richard Maxwell, Anna-Sophie Mahler, and Jeremy Wade) who brought individual sections of the novel to life. This production simply could not have happened in Wallace’s homeland. First, generous city/state funding and Berlin’s extremely low costs allow for a production of enormous scope without break-the-bank ticket prices.[vi] Second, Berliners have a high threshold for weirdness. And, perhaps most important for the work at hand, the city is full of bizarre buildings—many of them abandoned—alluring enough to counterbalance the occasional bits of tedium or pretension.
Which takes us to our second scene. This one requires some historical background. Adolf Hitler hoped, after he won the Second World War, to convert Berlin into the “world capital” of Germania. Obviously, things didn’t quite go according to plan for him. And so his signature military engineering center in the west of the city was demolished and piled high with rubble from Berlin’s many wartime ruins. Thus was born the manmade Teufelsberg (Devil’s Mountain), the flat city’s highest point, upon which the Americans built a spy station to intercept Soviet-bloc radio signals. Post-Cold War, the station’s five looming radar domes stand abandoned, save for the occasional daring trespasser and the even-more-occasional sanctioned avant-garde theatergoer.[vii]
And so up we trekked, an intrepid audience of all shapes and sizes, from a one-month-old infant to an elderly man walking with two canes. Atop the graffiti-coated central building of the spy complex, the scene was already set: An American spy in drag, the novel’s Hugh/Helen Steeply, clung to the inner wall of one of the radar domes, pistol in hand, as the wheelchair-bound Québécois separatist-cum-quadruple-agent Rémy Marathe sat in the dome’s center.
The subsequent dialogue was excruciatingly slow and surely incomprehensible to those not already familiar with the strangest thread of the novel’s broadly weird plot. But it hardly mattered. The setting was enough to captivate: The rocky outcropping overlooking Tucson, on which Steeply and Marathe secretly meet in the book, had become a dilapidated spy station overlooking Berlin. It was perfect.
Nearly 12 hours later, Steeply and Marathe met again, this time surreptitiously rowing two canoes—Marathe’s barely wide enough to hold his wheelchair—through an underground canal beneath perhaps the city’s most peculiar building, a house propped up by an enormous circular pink pipe. (It must be seen to be believed.)
And here's where a live play can breathe new life into a novel that mostly defies visual representation. The slapsticky Steeply/Marathe scenes are the novel’s weakest; thanks to dramatic locales that underscore the humor, they’re the play’s strongest. The cross-dressing, the awkward pauses, and the implausibly trite expressions of patriotism were finally made funny in a way that hundreds of printed pages couldn't achieve.
The play likewise takes advantage of its medium—essentially, a metropolis and all of its topography, architecture and inhabitants—but adds components outside of the novel to enhance the audience's understanding of what Infinite Jest is all about. Most noteworthy is a Q&A with a different DFW expert for each performance, in a microbiology institute that's been transformed into the “David Foster Wallace Center.” My compatriots and I were treated to a en-masse Skype chat with the book’s German translator[viii], who explored some of the novel's ambiguities and described the most difficult passage to translate (a long garble of Irish slang, which in the German version became an inscrutable Swiss dialect).
And there was so much more: a conceptual representation of clinical depression in a defunct hospital cafeteria, converted into the novel’s drug rehabilitation center, that nearly brought me to the point of institutionalization myself; an interactive jaunt through a trippy apartment with a paranoid addict, whom I helped into a giant insect costume; a musical performance by drug-addled transvestite Poor Tony Krause in the utterly befuddling American Western Saloon out in the aforementioned sticks.
At a certain point, it stopped mattering exactly what spectacle was appearing before our increasingly droopy eyes. The exhaustion was at least as relevant to the experience as the 3 a.m. woman playing whoopee cushions like castanets. You can’t turn Infinite Jest into a two-hour play. You can’t put it on a conventional stage. And you can’t send your audience away without at least a small dose of pain.
The novel’s title is playfully ironic, a dig at an America addicted to entertainment. But in the considerably more downer-type play, “Infinite Jest” becomes almost a taunt, or at least a dare to adventurous theatergoers. It seems unending, and the joke just may be on you.
[i] Including 97 pages of endnotes, a distracting and inadvisable practice that drew criticism even from Dave Eggers in his otherwise-laudatory 2006 foreword to the book.* (Return.)
[ii] Syntax sic, in the model of Wallace’s pseudo-conversational writing style, which, like endnotes, really has no role in a piece of journalism. Except that after reading 1,000-plus pages of Infinite Jest and then sitting/traveling through 24 hours of it, these things begin to infect one’s mental processes. Oh, and that whole “and lo” bit was lifted from the novel’s Madame Psychosis, whose sesquipedalian word vomit on the radio for some reason holds half the Boston metro area in a rapturous trance. (Return.)
[iii] June 13, Year of the Berlin-Brandenburg Flughafen Willy Brandt GmbH. (Return.)
[iv] Or convexity, to the forest-dwellers. (The alternative future of Infinite Jest envisions the annexation of a chunk of New England to Canada, used by the United States as a dumping ground for sometimes-radioactive waste, shot over the border by catapult. To Americans, the region is the Great Concavity; to Canadians, the Great Convexity.) (Return.)
[v] cf. Madame Psychosis’ hour-long monologue, delivered into a deep-register voice changer seemingly designed to lull a midnight audience to sleep. (Return.)
[vi] In this case, 50 euros for 24 hours (€2.08/hour), or 35 for discounted admission. Snacks, drinks, Red Bull, and caffeine powder included. (Return.)
[vii] I fell into the former category, climbing through a hole in the barbed-wire fence and eventually being escorted out by security, just three weeks before I fell into the latter. If only I’d known. (Return.)
[viii] The irony of this was pointed out by the translator himself: Writing in the 1990s, Wallace envisioned a future society (in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, thought by Wallace devotees to be 2009) driven to vanity by the invention of video telephony. And here we were. (Return.)
Correction, June 19, 2012: This article originally stated that Infinite Jest is 1,079 pages plus endnotes. In fact it is 1,079 pages including endnotes.
Aaron Wiener is a freelance journalist and special correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, in Berlin on a yearlong Fulbright reporting grant.