(Cross-posted from Infinite Zombies.)

“A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.”

William Blake.

Ah, “The Doubloon.” This is my kind of chapter (ch. 99). It’s all about interpretation, or the search for (and imposition of) meaning. It explicitly dramatizes the process we all go through every day, where we take notice of part of the world (something that is the case) and create a way of understanding it as it relates to our lives. This is a very normal part of the way human beings interact with our surroundings, and is in fact necessary to formulating the narratives we recognize as our selves and our lives.

Note that this is not the argument Ishmael makes in favor of interpretation. He says, “And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher.” In his view, what gives the world worth is the significance in it that can be divined by human beings; the world has meaning insofar as it means something to people, but no intrinsic value. This seems to me an extreme anthropocentric view, but not necessarily an uncommon one. Just an unreflective one.

So in the course of this dramatization of interpretation, we see eight different characters all try their hand at “reading” the doubloon that Ahab nailed to the mast at the beginning of their voyage as a guaranty to the sailor who first raises Moby Dick. (Other than the obvious meaning, of course, which is the one they all drank to during that weird ceremony.) Ahab’s interpretation, while dramatic and almost mythologically Norse in its pessimism, is also kind of funny: Looking at the various devices on the coin—mountains with fire, a tower, and a crowing rooster, and a segment of the zodiac—he sees Lucifer, Ahab, Ahab, Ahab, and the unrelieved misery of life, which begins in pains and ends in pangs. But also, it’s not for nothing that Ishmael keeps calling Ahab “monomaniacal.” This is very nearly solipsism in action.

Starbuck starts out as a foil to Ahab in his reading—he sees the mountains as a symbol of the Trinity, so that even when he passes through the dark valley between them, God still strengthens him and the “sun of Righteousness” still shines down on him—but then he remembers that the sun is only up about half the time, on average, which leaves human beings looking for hope and comfort much of the time (wait for it) in the dark. So even though he finds some devotional meaning in the doubloon, it is on the whole a somewhat depressing exegesis for Starbuck. Nonetheless, it’s a pretty clear application of the hermeneutic method involved in reading the Book of Nature, whereby everything created has a theological lesson within it, if you can just find the key.

Then Stubb gets up and sneaks in two interpretations. In the first one, he sees the doubloon as a piece of money, just as good for spending in commerce as any other piece of money. It’s a wonderful puncturing of the portentous mode Ahab and Starbuck both operate in, but it’s also a welcome nod to the fact that objects and experiences are embedded in the world and entangled with other people and places. Both Ahab and Starbuck find insular, self-centered meanings in the doubloon, but Stubb instead immediately recognizes how the doubloon is enmeshed with the rest of the world. Then he looks more carefully, convinced by Ahab and Starbuck’s long faces that there must be a deeper meaning, and descries a very long zodiacal version of the Sphinx’s riddle that supposedly charts a universal course for the life of man. (Women don’t count for much on a whaler, you might have noticed.)

When Flask looks at the doubloon, he literally sees nothing but the monetary value of it. (A special note from my Norton Critical Edition, on Flask’s line “It is worth sixteen dollars, that’s true; and at two cents the cigar, that’s nine hundred and sixty cigars”: “The arithmetic seems shaky.”) Unlike Stubb, he doesn’t seek a deeper meaning; he’s satisfied with his pragmatic observation of “a round thing made of gold.” I see this version as an important recognition of the thingness of the doubloon, regardless of what meanings a more reader-response-type approach yields.

The Manxman uses his special training in esoterica to identify the doubloon as half of a zodiacal prophecy of when the ship will encounter Moby Dick. I read this one as a small parody, actually. Daryl brought our attention to prophecy in the novel, and there’s always the possibility that’s at play here, but this one is so general that I suspect it’s much more like an ancestor of Maslow’s hammer. The Manxman knows something most people don’t, and everything he sees tends to be through that lens.

Queequeg comes in for comic relief, mistaking the doubloon for a fancy button. There may be a point to make here about constructed reality—if Queequeg’s pants lose a button and he sews a doubloon on in its place, that doubloon is now a button (as well as a doubloon and whatever else it may be)—but I wouldn’t want to strain that one too much, so I’ll just say it’s possible.

And then Pip. Pip is a character who makes me very sad, so I’m uncomfortable reading his mad babble anyway, but here it also feels to me like the kind of thing that might mean something if you try very hard to interpret it, but then probably won’t turn out to have been worth the trouble. So I don’t try. (My white flag, I wave it.) His reading of the doubloon can, however, illustrate the troubled extremity of personal meaning-making, since the significance he finds is available to him only. That is, even though he apparently finds some meaningful content in the doubloon, he can’t share it with anyone, because he spends most of his “on-screen” time in an interpretive community of one.

It’s very interesting to me that this chapter comes so late in the book. In a way, it’s kind of a programmatic chapter; it announces the book’s concern with meaning and interpretation by showing characters interpreting an object to create meaning. (I love that trick.) But I have a feeling that passages doing this work so explicitly usually come much earlier in books where they appear, to give the reader fair warning of what’s afoot—and to give us a chance to play along. Curious, then, that it’s only near the end that we’re asked to start looking for Rashomon Dick, the Allegedly White Whale.

On Saturday, Eric and I plucked up our courage, braved the police, and actually visited Long Beach. We had tickets, you see—tickets I’d been waiting 12 years for.

When I was in high school, I commuted into Berkeley twice a week for a class at Cal on Chinese history. I would occasionally delay my trip home with a sidetrack to the gorgeous old Berkeley Public Library, where I found the first CD section of any library in my experience. It was like skooB dlO srednaeroC darnoC lraC for me in there, dusty, golden-dim, and magical (or at least my memory re-creates it that way). One day I found a box set of something called Nixon in China, and I figured it was the serendipity that often strikes in places chock-full of books: I was taking a Chinese-history class, this was at least partly about China, why not check it out and give it a try?

As it turned out, the opera itself—for it was indeed the sole recording (at the time) of John Adams’s first opera—on the subject of Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972, wasn’t all that relevant to the class. But I did have background information on the Cultural Revolution, and on Mao Zedong, Jiang Qing, and Zhou Enlai, so in that respect it was a great help. No, instead those three discs introduced me to the man I consider the greatest American composer of “classical” music (we can get into what those quotation marks mean if you really want to). From the day after I first heard the mysterious, solemn opening lines of the opera, I scoured local press and the Internet for mention of a live performance.

For 11 and a half years I checked every opera company in whatever area I lived in, hoping to find Nixon in China listed for their season. (In the meantime, I ended up buying that box set and practically memorizing most of Act I.) I had a close call about two years ago, with an announcement that the opera would receive its Northern California premiere, but that collapsed under suggestive circumstances. Then, one day last fall, out of the mailbag and into my mailbox dropped a promotional card advertising Long Beach Opera‘s brand-new production—the opera’s first performances in the LA area since the first Bush presidency. I got tickets as soon as I could, and then I had to wait another six months for the night. But finally it came.

I had seen most of the original Peter Sellars production on video, and given how much the opera is really about re-presentation (for a capital-T Theory exploration of this, see Peggy Kamuf’s “The Replay’s the Thing”; the short version is that it’s about a self-consciously produced media event, and addresses that with techniques like musical vamps during news-photo tableaux), I was curious how it would be re-presented in a new production. The answer is: successfully, in two opposite ways.

As with any opera, some of the action in Nixon in China is dictated by the score. Adams is justly proud, for example, of the onstage arrival of the Spirit of ’76 (Air Force One), and there is a ballet in the middle of the opera. The stage director has to choose whether to present these moments “literally” or to stylize them. (If I were a stage director, I’d certainly be unable to resist putting an airplane on the stage.) In this production, Peter Pawlik takes a sort of magically realist approach to most of the scenes; a quadrant of the airplane pulls forward out of the backdrop, and there’s a miniature proscenium arch on the stage-within-a-stage for the ballet, and a banquet-hall set. They’re slightly abstracted, but generally realistic and easily understandable. In fact, as the LA Times‘s Chris Pasles points out, Pawlik sets Act III back in the banquet hall rather than in Sellars’s floating-theater-space barracks—a definite improvement on the original. This approach, which I’ll call the literal one, is accomplished very well in the production. The opening, particularly, is beautiful, with blue dawnlight silhouetting the chorus against a scrim to reproduce the misty February morning.

Then in two scenes—Nixon and Kissinger’s meeting with Mao and Zhou, and Pat Nixon’s sightseeing trip—the literal approach goes out the window and a more stylized aesthetic takes over. Compare the new production and the original: This is from LBO’s version of this scene. (There are four of those big red chairs, and please ignore the woeful caption from the OC Register, who might be expected to know a little more about their hometown president than that.) When Mao’s triune secretary deadpans to Pat Nixon in three-part harmony “Here are some children having fun,” a row of wooden children is rolled out with their upraised right arms all attached to one pole, so that a chorister can flick them back and forth in a synchronized flag-waving. The pig whose ear Pat scratches is a cutout side of pork hanging on a rack. It’s quirky, and funny.

And here’s where I get to take the critic’s step back and be judicious yet opinionated. I am usually quite open to abstract stagings; I enjoy the intellectual effort they spark, and personally I find the Verfremdungseffekt enormously productive, when well used. In the scene with Nixon and Mao, for instance, while I didn’t particularly appreciate the way the giant chairs turned the principals into children, I thought the maneuvering of the chairs around the stage (they’re on wheels, pushed around by chorus members) made an exciting counterpoint to and expansion of the political and philosophical sparring in the magnificent libretto, and gave Mao an excellent opportunity to menace and harangue Nixon at one point. The trouble, however, comes in the unevenness that results from alternating between literal and stylized presentations. This production uses a fundamentally inconsistent staging, and because the literal first scene was so thrilling (airplane! On stage!), the stylized second scene was disappointing. But taken separately on their own merits, the stylized thread and the literal thread are equally successful. I’d love to see either one woven through the whole opera, but that’s not so much a complaint as a plea to be embarrassed with riches. When we took our seats, I leaned over to Eric and told him, “This could basically be terrible and I’d probably still love it.” It was great; and I loved it.

Break out your wigs and ball tape: Season two of RuPaul’s Drag Race starts tonight! I was turned onto the show during season one by Tom and Lorenzo, may the most flattering light shine upon their cheekbones forever, and it may well be one of the most fantastic things ever made in the history of television.

You should imagine me typing that with entirely straight-faced fingers, depending on how you think I mean “fantastic” (read: fabulous). The show is outright ridiculous, in very many ways; take the premise, for instance: Nine drag queens compete to be “America’s next drag superstar,” which title they must earn through a series of Project Runway– and America’s Next Top Model–style challenges. (Isn’t that how everyone becomes one of America’s drag superstars?) RuPaul, in male and female drag, is both mentor and host (respectively), shot with the most lovingly Vaseline-slathered lens you’ve ever encountered in a nonmedical context. In each episode, after he gives the girls (even in interviews, out of drag, they refer to each other by their drag names and female pronouns; it’s delightfully disorienting) their challenge, he reminds them of the scoring rubric. They are judged on:

  • Charisma;
  • Uniqueness;
  • Nerve; and
  • Talent.

Then he tells them not to fuck it up. (I’m quoting.) At each judging, the bottom two are required to lip-sync for their lives, and then one receives Ru’s benediction (“Shantay, you stay”) while the other has to “sashay away.” The guests and guest judges are amazing—Bob Mackie, Michelle Williams (who cried watching drag queens lip-sync her song “We Break the Dawn,” and not in the bad way), Jenny Shimizu, Lucy Lawless, Charo.

To me, the show is plainly wonderful. But when I tried to describe it to a friend of mine, he nearly had an allergic reaction. (He can’t handle Beyoncé either, who is, let’s face it, a female drag queen.) And that’s when I remembered Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp.’”

By my lights, Sontag’s essay is not a triumph. It’s generally conclusory throughout (“Life is not stylish.” Well, says you), and where it attempts to reason, it is often either offensive or wrong. Or both. What’s most frustrating for me about the essay, then, is its quicksilver flashes of brilliance, the bits where Sontag succeeds in “getting down something of this particular fugitive sensibility.” When she talks about camp’s attention to “the degree of artifice, of stylization,” that rings a bell. “The great stylists of temperament and mannerism” sounds exactly right. And most of all, camp “understand[s] Being-as-Playing-a-Role.” These notes I recognize from my own experience; and taken out of context like I’m doing here, they could be from a magazine profile of a drag queen. These truths about camp exactly describe drag (which must be, I suppose, the ultimate enactment of camp—even though Sontag seems to suggest that intentional camp can’t be good, before she contradicts herself). So if she understands it so well, at least in some parts, how does Sontag miss the point so badly in others?

If you watch the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, you’ll see just how wrong Sontag is when she calls camp “disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical.” You’ll see her error in basing camp in a “psychopathology of affluence.” You’ll understand the deep misprision in her bare assertion that camp is a “solvent of morality,” propounded by gays to make us more acceptable in a consequently less-moral world. This will all be clear to you because you’ll see actual drag queens doing drag.

The contestants cover a wide variety of approaches to drag. Porkchop and Tammy, for example, are comics; Ongina is a genderqueer warrior; Shannel is a showgirl; Rebecca is a tired little Latin boy in dress; and Bebe and Nina are creatures not of this world. Bebe and Nina give the lie to Sontag’s disparagements through their approach to drag, which is dignified and powerful. They cast a remarkable spell, and I think I’ve worked out how they do it. I don’t mean the makeup-and-artifice part—you can look that stuff up—but the way they hold their audiences in thrall. It’s a combination of glamour and guts.

The widespread gender norms we are mostly all embedded in make a man in a dress a figure of mockery. He is a ridiculous person, suitable for laughing at. Bebe and Nina know this, but through the force of their wills they are able to persuade the audience to forget. They wear their vulnerability like couture, and radiate such an honest refusal to be afraid, such a “state of continual incandescence” (Sontag again), that it doesn’t occur to the audience to take them as anything other than what they present themselves as. Which, importantly, is never real women. They do not seek to be mistaken for actual women, though it is of course a compliment to their technique if someone is fooled. Instead, they present themselves as men creating the illusion of female personae, an illusion that requires the audience’s collaboration if it is to stand up. Their special power is inducing the audience to collaborate in this way, and that power comes from the strength of will involved in unreservedly exposing themselves to ridicule. The show of vulnerability demonstrates a strength that the audience can’t help but respect.

Which is why I thought it was so outrageous that Rebecca made it to the final three with Bebe and Nina. Those two are true gender-performance artists, whereas Rebecca couldn’t even be bothered to blend her blush. Her goal was to be girl-sexy, which is a fine thing, and an impressive accomplishment for a man, but it doesn’t hold up to the amazing projection of the other two. Girl was outclassed, and she knew it the whole time.

(I do have one last Infinite Summer post in the works, even though we’re almost into next year now, but it’s held things up long enough. When it happens, it’ll happen. Meanwhile!)

I can’t say with complete confidence that The Best of Gene Wolfe is the best of Gene Wolfe (although Clute says yes), but it is astoundingly good, and remarkably consistent. If I’m putting together a team of books that can hold their own in a short-fiction cage match before Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories ultimately delivers the death blow, I’m torn between this volume and its sibling, Endangered Species. On the one hand, “The Death of Doctor Island,” “Seven American Nights,” “Petting Zoo,” “The Tree Is My Hat” (which I’ve always had a special affinity for because it was the first Wolfe story I felt I had truly understood), and particularly “The Eyeflash Miracles”; on the other, “The Last Thrilling Wonder Story,” “When I Was Ming the Merciless,” “The HORARS of War,” and “Silhouette.” (I haven’t yet got my hands on The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, so for all I know it’s got a shot at the roster too.)

My point is, while I might quibble over the exact contents of a short-fiction collection called The Best of Gene Wolfe, it will inevitably be among the most gripping, exciting books of stories and novellas I have read. And it is.

I’m not really interested in writing a story-by-story review, though, or a subjective defense of Wolfe’s writing. Instead, I thought I might pay some analytical attention to Wolfe’s technique. Let me draw another circle around myself, even smaller: I’m going to look at one particular kind of technique Wolfe often uses, a species of unreliable narration.

Much of Wolfe’s work is written in the first person. He has said, “It always seems to me that if you have a narrator, if the narration is not by an all-knowing, all-seeing author, . . . then the narrator is damn well going to be unreliable. Real people really are unreliable narrators all the time, even if they try to be reliable narrators.” One interesting thing about Wolfe’s versions of the unreliable narrator is the ways in which they are unreliable. He often presents an in-story explanation for their possible unreliability. One narrator may at some point eat a hallucinogenic candy without knowing it; one is unconsciously in denial about his identity; a couple excise pages from their journals (which are the text) because they expect those journals to come into police custody. (In another example, which I will address again, it’s not the narrator who is unreliable—the work is in the third person—but the central character, who often serves as a kind of interpreter of events. He may have been contacted by a deity, or he may have a brain lesion.)

In keeping with that quote, Wolfe’s narrators are often not (wholly) deliberately unreliable. They tend simply to not know as much as they suppose—or as much as you might ordinarily want your narrator to know. This ignorance of the limits of their knowledge can lead to narratorial assertions that to the reader plainly cannot be true, but to the narrator obviously must be. Alternatively, the narrators are often mystified or confused by events in the story. Sometimes they merely report the cause of their confusion then throw up their hands; sometimes, though, they try to explain what has happened. In these cases, they are frequently wrong: They may accurately note the facts that have occurred while missing the meaning of those facts, or they may strenuously attempt to divine an ultimately unconvincing interpretation of the facts. Wolfe plays some of these miscues for comedy, but some of them are crucially dramatic, and one at least is the engine for an entire series of books.

The in-story narrators are not the only avenues Wolfe uses to introduce uncertainty; even in his third-person work, the narration often tracks close to one or more characters, without the kind of distance between narrator and narrated that is necessary for an omniscient perspective. Indeed, at explanatory or interpretive moments, Wolfe often exercises the third-person narrative prerogative of diving into a character’s thoughts; the narrating voice in fact doesn’t explain at all, ceding its authority instead to that character and temporarily adopting a first-person point of view—with all the same reliability risks outlined before.

But none of this has yet touched on the subject I want to wrestle with, which is the technique (the writerly craft, that is, not the specific operations) of this unreliable narration. Brace yourselves for the simile I’m about to lay on you:

It’s as if the substance of one of these unreliably narrated works—the characters, the setting, the plot, etc.—is a magnificent cubic sculpture, baroquely burrowed through, complex with caverns and crystalline with combs. The narration is then a polished brass facing affixed to the surfaces of the cube. When you first see the sculpture, the brass is all you observe. It’s aesthetically self-consistent, pleasing, perforated here and there with curious gaps, but a finely made thing. Thanks to the spaces inside, the sculpture is only a little heavier than it looks. It makes satisfactory sense as an aesthetic object, but something about those punchouts haunts you. You keep coming back to the sculpture, turning it over in your hands, looking at it from different angles. Then one day you notice that, at this new angle, you can see through one of the perforations into the cube’s cathedral interior, and suddenly the whole sculpture makes a deeper and more awesome sense. Now that you know what angle to look from, the gaps in the surface all show chambers and structures in the heart of the cube that reveal an organization you only suspected before. You see details that were wholly concealed, and echoes you couldn’t have matched to each other; what seemed merely decorative now stands in prominent dialogue with other areas, and some region that occupied your attention now melts into a fuller pattern.

The trick here—and I use the word not to demean Wolfe’s accomplishment, but to emphasize its intentionality and createdness—is the writing of a narration that seems like a complete piece of art and yet still, perhaps almost subliminally, hints at a fuller conception that supersedes and frequently contradicts it. This isn’t quite unreliable narration, and it isn’t quite obfuscation; given the religious bent of much of Wolfe’s fiction (or, more properly, the religious interpretations that much of Wolfe’s fiction permits and sometimes encourages), it probably makes more sense to see in this tactic a palimpsest of the Book of Nature: careful observation and contemplation of the “natural” (that which is presented directly to the senses) leads to the revelation of what was hidden.

And I wish I came up with these interpretations earlier in the process of writing these posts, because it feels like there’s a lot more to say in that direction—but if I’m going to say it, it’s going to be in a different post. For now, Seacrest out. (Spooky: it’s like EROCK and Matt Roe know who I am…)

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.”