If I had a Luger pointed at me and were under compulsion to try to pick my favorite section of Infinite Jest, I’d choose the Eschaton game. I know it greatly annoys some readers, but I think it’s some of the funniest, most brutal, most skillfully written stuff in the book. That may sound incongruous, with AMNAT and SOVWAR and IRLIBSYR and SPASEX and SUFDDIR and so on, but then there’s this:
Uninitiated adults who might be parked in a nearby mint-green advertorial Ford sedan or might stroll casually past E.T.A.’s four easternmost tennis courts and see an atavistic global-nuclear-conflict game played by tanned and energetic little kids and so this might naturally expect to see fuzzless green warheads getting whacked indiscriminately skyward all over the place as everybody gets blackly drunk with thanatoptic fury in the crisp November air — these adults would more likely find an actual game of Eschaton strangely subdued, almost narcotized-looking. Your standard round of Eschaton moves at about the pace of chess between adepts. For these devotees become, on court, almost parodically adult — staid, sober, humane, and judicious twelve-year-old world leaders, trying their best not to let the awesome weight of their responsibilities — responsibilities to nation, globe, rationality, ideology, conscience and history, to both the living and the unborn — not to let the terrible agony they feel at the arrival of this day — this dark day the leaders’ve prayed would never come and have taken every conceivable measure rationally consistent with national strategic interest to avoid, to prevent — not to let the agonizing weight of responsibility compromise their resolve to do what they must to preserve their people’s way of life. So they play, logically, cautiously, so earnest and deliberate in their calculations they appear thoroughly and queerly adult, almost Talmudic, from a distance. A couple gulls fly overhead. (327)
That’s intelligent, empathetic, supple writing, with some birds practically borrowed from Elizabeth Bishop at the end (and “blackly drunk with thanatoptic fury in the crisp November air” is something special), and it’s just one sample. The rhythmic juxtaposition of long segments on Cold War geopolitical simulation and little punctuations of other business—including repeated reminders that these are, after all, children (“A couple ostensible world leaders run here and there in a rather unstatesmanlike fashion with their open mouths directed at the sky, trying to catch bits of the fall’s first snow”)—is powerfully effective. The plot of this section (for a clear breakdown, see infinitedetox’s “Eschaton in Bullet Points”), based as it is on a children’s game about nuclear apocalypse and (repeated phrase!) “the remorseless logic of game theory,” has an inexorability to it that is apparent from the beginning: 12-year-olds playing a game that can finish with massive nuclear exchange and global annihilation will always finish that way. The end is predetermined; the suspense, then, is in how that end comes. The extended technical passages and small interruptions increase this suspense by hanging the development of the plot over your head just a little longer, which in turn heightens the payoff when the situation devolves past the promised in-game conflagration to a vicious real-life brawl. (For me, the bottom of 335 is where events go irreversibly into motion: “Hal can almost visualize a dark lightbulb going on above Ingersoll’s head.”) Reading just for appreciation of craft, rather than for plot or metatext, I’m amazed by DFW’s adeptness at managing so many characters—and the characters they play in their game—and so much incident in such a finely constructed manner.
But let’s read for metatext! There were some great readings of this section when it came up on the Infinite Summer schedule: Gerry Canavan made an imposingly deep connection between Ingersoll and postmodernism (and exposed to me my own impatience with Baudrillard); infinitedetox keyed Eschaton to Yeats’s “The Second Coming” and looked at collapsing boundaries between reality and fiction; Chris Forster considered the merging of reality and that which represents reality (and speculated on the identity of IJ’s narrator); and Daryl Houston contemplated the blurring of referential frames generally. These are all insightful constructions of the text, and they catch on to the feeling that this section is about something, that it’s dramatizing some literary or philosophical argument. I want to build from Chris’s idea and suggest that the argument is over engagement with “reality,” the world—everything that is the case.
Eschaton is fundamentally a representational game. Everything about it is intended as abstraction from actual fact: The courts stand for a map (which represents the Earth), shoes symbolize subs, all-caps acronyms signify either nation-states and their alliances (whose leaders are impersonated by the players) or military equivocations (which encode more direct expressions of truth). We’re even told flat-out in the first graf that the game’s appeal comes from, among other factors, “a complete disassociation from the realities of the present.” It’s the breach of this abstraction that so enrages Pemulis:
Players themselves can’t be valid targets. Players aren’t inside the goddamn game. Players are part of the apparatus of the game. They’re part of the map. It’s snowing on the players but not on the territory. They’re part of the map, not the cluster-fucking territory. You can only launch against the territory. Not against the map. It’s like the one ground-rule boundary that keeps Eschaton from degenerating into chaos. Eschaton gentlemen is about logic and axiom and mathematical probity and discipline and verity and order.
. . . . .
[T]he reason players aren’t explicitly exempted in the ESCHAX.DIR is that their exemption is what makes Eschaton and its axioms fucking possible in the first place. . . . [B]ecause use your heads otherwise nonstrategic emotions would get aroused and Combatants would be whacking balls at each other’s physical persons all the time and Eschaton wouldn’t even be possible in its icily elegant game-theoretical form. . . . Players’ exemption from strikes goes without saying, Pemulis says; it’s like preaxiomatic. (338)
For Pemulis, Eschaton is a totalizing abstraction that rejects all of the messiness of real life (which, from what we know about his household, is an understandable longing) and replaces it with math.
(Tangent here that began as a mere parenthetical but blossomed. Remember that in n. 324, Pemulis gives Postal Weight a pep talk about how, when the loving father has failed you, math will always be there and will always be true. This is Pemulis’s consolation for a childhood that the narrator refuses, on 154, to even tell us about, but that we know of from Matty Pemulis’s memories starting on 682—no wonder he tells Postal Weight to “never trust the father you can see.” So that’s what Pemulis has riding on the permanence of Eschaton’s icy elegance and discipline and order: the belief that there is, after all, anything in the world that can be trusted. Of course he gets so upset to see that all melted. And now I’m terribly, terribly sad for him that that was taken, and mildly menaced by the specific form his abandonment of the Eschaton players “to let them all lie in their own bed” takes.)
And but so Pemulis sees Eschaton as a complete system of abstractions that permit play within their limits (like the lines of a tennis court, maybe, only more so). But I think his point about the players only being part of the map, not of the territory, is wrong. It gets confusing, because the representation seems to go in the wrong direction: The map in this case is real objects in a particular configuration, and the territory (the signified) represented by the map is fictional. But look at it this way: The map is a physical representation of the game state. (O. Lord, as God, spends some of his time “removing vaporized articles of clothing from sites of devastating hits and just woppsing them up or folding them over at the sites of near-hits and fizzle yields,” 328.) Changes to the map are only meaningful to the game state in terms of what already completed changes of the game state they reflect; changes made to the map cannot initiate changes of the game state. (This is why snow on the map wouldn’t matter to the territory.)
Except in the case of players attacking. That is the one time in the game (as it is explained) that changes of the game state—the territory—are effected by interaction with the map. In fact, interactions with map and with territory become united; it’s not a change to one reflecting a change to the other, but instead changing both in one action. It’s a special case that amounts to an inversion of the rules, which is my explanation for why it’s not mentioned in the rules at all. The way I read this setup, Eschaton is presented as a complete abstraction of physical engagement that is fundamentally dependent on (wait for it) physical engagement with the apparatus of the abstraction. At the heart of Eschaton’s icy elegance is the whacking of a ball, powered by the lived systems of highly trained athletic human bodies. The rules can’t take cognizance of this fact, because it negates them. To admit that the game’s abstraction is built on this physical effort is to reveal that abstraction as a sham.
So this rigid differentiation that infinitetasks sees as fiction from reality, Chris sees as representation from reality, and Daryl sees as one referential frame from another—it can’t be done. Taken as a symbol of this effort to differentiate the one from the other (which I think it is), Eschaton shows that the effort must fail. It can’t be accomplished in the first place (the rules can’t be complete), and the pretense that it can be accomplished will ultimately drop. That’s what we see when the game veers into mayhem that actually hospitalizes at least one child. [UPDATE: To see the argument that underpins this declaration, go here.] For me, the distinction that this scene argues can’t be made is that of the self from the world. I take the abstraction of Eschaton to stand for a withdrawal from the facts of the world—exactly the way Pemulis (the main spokesperson for Eschaton in the text) uses it. This understanding of the game puts it in a panoply of escapist and disengaging strategies in IJ: drug use, irony, compulsive sex, emotional detachment, entertainment consumption. (I could probably go on.) Like all of those strategies, this abstraction is unsustainable, and leads eventually to bad, bad trouble.
The solution? Exactly the same one the book offers over and over again, in various forms: Engage. Connect. Communicate. Deal with the facts of the world as they are, not as you wish them to be. Real life is messy and often unkind, but withdrawing from that mess and unkindness will not fix it. As Gately learns on 446, “the way it gets better and you get better is through pain. Not around pain, or in spite of it.”