Berlin Event

An Old-Fashioned 'Infinite Jest' Invades Berlin

American novelist David Foster Wallace has been posthumously resurrected in Berlin's former walled-off West. Some 200 theatregoers were shuttled from the Steffi-Graf-Stadion on two double-decker buses throughout Berlin—including Teufelsberg above, to watch performances of Wallace's most well-known novel, Infinite Jest. i i

American novelist David Foster Wallace has been posthumously resurrected in Berlin's former walled-off West. Some 200 theatregoers were shuttled from the Steffi-Graf-Stadion on two double-decker buses throughout Berlin—including Teufelsberg above, to watch performances of Wallace's most well-known novel, Infinite Jest. Roland Anton Laub hide caption

itoggle caption Roland Anton Laub
American novelist David Foster Wallace has been posthumously resurrected in Berlin's former walled-off West. Some 200 theatregoers were shuttled from the Steffi-Graf-Stadion on two double-decker buses throughout Berlin—including Teufelsberg above, to watch performances of Wallace's most well-known novel, Infinite Jest.

American novelist David Foster Wallace has been posthumously resurrected in Berlin's former walled-off West. Some 200 theatregoers were shuttled from the Steffi-Graf-Stadion on two double-decker buses throughout Berlin—including Teufelsberg above, to watch performances of Wallace's most well-known novel, Infinite Jest.

Roland Anton Laub

By any account, Infinite Jest was American novelist David Foster Wallace's magnum opus.

Published in 1996 when Wallace was only 33 years-old, the action of the 1,079-page, postmodern tome depicts a dystopic near future in which ineluctable depression and individual isolation rule the day—fueled by a North American culture rooted in pleasure and consumerism that Wallace renders in kaleidoscopic excess.

The novel's structure complements its breathless narrative voice: the body text of Infinite Jest is accompanied by nearly 400 endnotes (plus the odd, additional footnote to further explicate certain, more nuanced endnotes).

Set primarily in two locales, an elite tennis academy populated with overtaxed young athletes and a rehabilitation center for downtrodden drug addicts, criminals, and the chronically depressed, Infinite Jest is a deeply personal existential excursion.

The novel's fulcrum is a unique "entertainment" developed by a glum avant-garde filmmaker who, before his suicide, founded the tennis academy where much of the book's action takes place.

His short film, "Infinite Jest," is said to be so entertaining that anyone who lays eyes on it will die of amusement. Many of the novel's characters are on a quest to get their hands on the film. Some want to view it, others to destroy it, still others to weaponize it.

Wallace himself was no stranger to depression; for 20 years, he took medication to temper its debilitating effects.

In 2008, after his doctors recommended he switch to a newer anti-depressant with fewer side effects, Wallace slid into a deep depression. When, in desperation, he reverted to his old medication, he found it was no longer effective, and his condition worsened until he eventually committed suicide.

His death sent shock waves throughout the international literary world. For better or worse, untimely death has a strange way of guaranteeing a genius' posthumous legacy. Wallace's mark on arts and letters is indelible and enduring.

It wasn't until August 2009 that Infinite Jest found its way into the German-translation canon—a staggering achievement given the book's non-normative narrative complexity. Unendlicher Spaß required six years of intensive labor by translator Ulrich Blumenbach.

German intellectual culture has an historical penchant for esoteric, even labyrinthine, literature, and it's only fitting that Berlin, as one of the world's leading creative capitals, is the source-origin for ratcheting up the textual gamut even further.

Berlin's Hebbel am Ufer (HAU), an international avant-garde theater amalgamation funded in part with a four million Euro endowment from the state of Berlin, premiered a daring adaptation of Unendlicher Spaß this June.

As the grand finale production by HAU's Artistic Director Matthias Lilienthal, "24 Stunden durch den Utopischen Westen" (24 Hours through the Utopian West), boldly reinterpreted Wallace's original work, trading the book's Massachusetts location for the walled-off West Berlin of the 1960's and 70's.

Hardly a shy flower enslaved to the proscenium stage, Lilienthal broke through every trapping of conventional theater. In consultation with Berlin architectural art historian Thomas Steigenberger, eight futuristic Late Modern buildings constructed during the East-West race to out develop and out design the other were selected as immersive performance sites.

Twelve different international theater groups (both German and native English-speaking) offered audiences brave, spatially inventive stagings of scenes from Infinite Jest.

On eight separate occasions throughout the month, approximately 200 theatergoers gathered at 10 am at the Steffi-Graf-Stadion, and over the course of 24 were shuttled on two double-decker buses throughout Berlin—including Teufelsberg, which is the highest point in the city and actually a man-made hill formed from 25 million cubic meters of debris from the bombed-out, post-WWII metropolis.

Five radar domes distinguish the site, constructed by avant-garde American architect R. Buckminster Fuller and used as a monitoring station by the CIA during the U.S. occupation.

The selected architectural landmarks all give expression to a German society still reeling from two world wars and the unique, isolating effects of the Berlin Wall. At the same time, these buildings usher into existence an optimistic, forward-looking cityscape that shrugs off its collective 20th-century trauma with a version of the future that is as poetically defiant as it is impractical and unrealistic.

How art history will ultimately regard these grandiose late modern structures remains unclear, but their appropriateness as backdrops for Wallace's fictional world of social fatigue and delusions of grandeur is unquestionable: the novelist's 1996 stab at science fiction seems technologically antiquated to contemporary audiences. In the same way, the impressive (although aesthetically questionable) architecture of 1960's and 70's Berlin lays bare an historically unique utopia, the imprints of which directly, physically shape the contemporary experience of the city.

Kevin Greenberg contributed to this article.

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