What a Game of Eschaton Looks Like

by jbloodwell

I’ve remained on the fence way too long re: The Decemberists, the rock band that I should, on paper, like a lot more than I do. (They wrote a song about Myla Goldberg, author of Bee Season; they brought in Gillian Welch to sing on their most recent album; and they are generally pretty literary and wordy without being too unbearably pretentious about it (at least most of the time).)

This new video, for “Calamity Song,” has got to put them over the top with me. Directed by Michael Schur, who works on the fantastic Parks and Recreation, “Calamity Song” depicts a game of Eschaton from the David Foster Wallace novel Infinite Jest (which I’ve written about here). The New York Times wrote a piece giving the full background.

Eschaton is a game that the students in Infinite Jest‘s fictional Enfield Tennis Academy play on an expanse of multiple tennis courts, nets removed. It’s a game of apocalyptic global warfare, with students forming blocs like REDCHIN (Red China) and SOUTHAF (South Africa). They take turns lobbing tennis balls, representing so many megatons of explosives, across the court to hit targets in other nations. The accumulating damages, measured in military destruction and civilian casualties, are tallied by a student who works a computer on wheels, continuously calculating the effects of, say, a direct hit on a major metropolitan center in the middle of ONAN (Organization of North American Nations).

It’s a great passage of the novel, with a typically smart, dark, and funny juxtaposition of kids at play with the not-quite-subtext of global nuclear warfare. It’s also interesting in terms of semantics/semiotics and representation, as the game breaks down according to a dispute over whether the players themselves represent their blocs: during a ceasefire, a losing player smacks a ball at one of his opponents, hitting her in the head. He wins the ensuing argument that hitting that player effectively decimated the leadership of her bloc (let’s say it’s IRLIBSYR (a coalition of Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria)), and there follows a free-for-all, with players attacking one another’s bodies with balls, rather than the sections of tennis court that represent their respective nations. . . . It probably doesn’t sound that thrilling, but it’s a cool linguistic problem brought to life. And the video, to the credit of Michael Schur (who sounds like an IJ fanatic; he bought the film rights to the book (which, good luck with that)), includes that episode.

The video is, for my money, the closest anyone is ever going to get to the thrill of playing Eschaton in real life. Unlike Quidditch, which appears to be fun when translated to the real world, Eschaton seems like it would involve a lot of tedious math and a lot of time waiting for the game’s administrator to run through various algorithms on his computer before telling you how many of your civilians were just vaporized. I did find these instructions for “Eschaton Lite,” which even in its reduced dimensions sounds like a real handful. (I notice that the instructions recommend allowing at least half an hour for set-up alone.)

On a side note, the song’s lyrics make it well-matched to Infinite Jest and Eschaton not just for its broader themes of chaos, destruction, and war, but for this line: “In the year of the chewable Ambien tab.” This seems to be a reference to the novel’s “subsidized time,” where years are no longer numbers but are named according to which corporation ponies up for naming rights. So, e.g., “Year of the Whopper,” “Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster,” etc. It could be just a coincidence, but in that case, I’m not sure what Colin Melloy, the Decemberists’ singer, is talking about.

Schur, and Wallace, seem to acknowledge that Eschaton is cooler as a concept than as an actual game to play by having the game break into a free-for-all; in the book, a student gets shoved and goes flying, his head crashing through the computer. In the Times article, Schur seems to lament that he couldn’t achieve absolute fidelity: “‘They’re all flat screens now, and you can’t put your head through a flat screen,’ he said.”