Infinite Winter (Week Five)

This week perhaps more than any other we see the two tonal extremes in DFW’s writing. These two contrasting segments demonstrates the different ways that Infinite Jest comes under the branch of hysterical realism, a term coined by critic James Woods that shows, “the strong contrast between elaborately absurd prose, plotting, or characterization, and careful, detailed investigations of real, specific social phenomena.”

Towards the beginning we get the fascinating game of Eschaton (derived from eschatology, theology that concerns itselfwith the final events of history, of which Eschaton is the final heaven-like state), a live action version of RISK using tennis equipment to build a map of the world across four tennis courts and the players used their rackets to lob tennis balls that represented nuclear warheads to attack other nations, thus unlike RISK and the Civilization games, that the athleticness involved separates it from “from rotisserie-league holocaust games played with protractors and PCs around kitchen tables.” At first I was intrigued, who wouldn’t be by such a premise, and DFW does well to set the groundwork at the beginning of this section to help us visualize how it all works, but very soon it descends into chaos with the abundance of acronyms obscures the action until towards the end. This is likely deliberate to satirise the complexities of war politics with constant infighting, changing of factions as each action has ramifications that affect others. Then at the end the ridiculousness of the situation is unravelled as the rules of Eschaton (and war are broken) as a player is directly targeted instead of the jumpers representing countries. Is the player part of the game or merely a puppet? It sends the game into meltdown at the end of a funny albeit long winded sequence.

BONUS: Eschaton inspired the music video for the Decemberists’ Calamity Song directed by Infinite Jest obsessive Michael Shur.

And the other side of Infinite Jest is the two harrowing drug addiction stories that Gatley hears at a Boston AA meeting. The young girl whose foster father sexually assaults her paraplegic stepsister, and that of a woman who continues to use drugs while pregnant, giving birth to an underdeveloped foetus which she carries around after its stillbirth. They’re both haunting due to the detail that DFW goes into in each case, firstly of the abuse, wearing of the Raquel Welch mask and the look on the stepsisters face as the mask slips off after the abuse and then the full sequence of giving birth to the stillborn baby and keeping its foetus around as she turned tricks to keep up her habit. After the man a previous AA attendee talks about finally having solid bowel movements this takes the wind out of the sails. Reading these passages were the few times I’ve read a book and felt unsettled, but not enough to put the book down. Morbid curiosity and a desire to get it over with as soon as possible pushed me to the end. It’s grim but so is addiction and that shouldn’t be shied away from.

It’s interesting how DFW uses these two segments to study something, whether its global politics or the struggles with addiction (a struggle that DFW had) in two vastly different ways, showing us the delights of fictional nuclear warfare and sorrow of addiction that Infinite Jest takes us to within 75 pages. And it feels normal. Some books don’t even manage to do that across an entire book.

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