If you know how to play Eschaton, congratulations!
Either you’re one of the proud few who’s managed to finish David Foster Wallace’s epic novel Infinite Jest, which invented the game somewhere within its 1,079 pages, or you’re a superfan of the Decemberists, who just made a video for “Calamity Song” that shows how one might play it.
Parks and Recreation co-creator and show runner Mike Schur falls into both categories, which is why he leaped at the chance to recreate an Eschaton match for the video: “This was a weird dream come true,” he tells EW.
When he was a student at Harvard, Schur wrote his thesis about the book, met the author on campus, and later spent years corresponding with Wallace (who sadly committed suicide three years ago, at 46). So after Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy came up with the idea for the video, the band’s manager, whose brother went to school with Schur, knew exactly who to pass it along to.
Meloy wrote “Calamity Song” shortly after finishing Infinite Jest, and says in a statement: “The book didn’t so much inspire the song itself, but Wallace’s irreverent and brilliant humor definitely wound its way into the thing… I can only hope DFW would be proud.”
Watch the video here, and read more below about Schur’s relationship with Wallace, plus his primer on the rules of Eschaton.
Schur describes the game this way: “It’s played by these kids who are tennis and math prodigies. Each team represents a different nation, and they place their athletic socks and sweatshirts and stuff around their playing areas to represent military bases and other high-value targets. Because they’re tennis players, they lob balls at each other, and the balls represent warheads. They’re given a scenario like, ‘A rogue terrorist cell from Pakistan breaks free and launches an attack on Russia,’ and they play out the end of the world through this game.”
Schur got his chance to discuss the Eschaton sequence with Wallace himself while he was in college, working for the Harvard Lampoon. “I called his agent and said, ‘We’re gonna give him an award, he should come accept it,” recalls Schur. “It was a complete desperation Hail Mary, because really, I just wanted to hang out with him.”
“There was a night, I was sitting in my dorm working on my thesis, which was about him, and my phone rang, and it was him,” says Schur. “It was the weirdest craziest phone call I’ve ever had—until I got the call asking me to direct a video based on Infinite Jest.” The two men ended up meeting, and spent the next few years writing letters back and forth until Wallace moved from Illinois to California.
Whether Wallace would’ve known who the Decemberists are is anyone’s guess. “He was completely removed from mainstream culture,” admits Schur. “He told me a really funny story once where, back in like 1994, a friend of his had given him a tape of a band, and he was like, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing.’ He was teaching a grad seminar at University of Illinois and he played it for his students. He was like, ‘I might be crazy, but I think this is really an amazing band!’ That album was Nevermind by Nirvana. It had come out like three years earlier. They all looked at him like, Are you crazy?”
But Schur believes that, had he lived to see the video, Wallace would’ve been a big fan. “The Decemberists have that same inventiveness and wordplay,” he says. “Colin’s lyrics are incredibly complex and intricate and beautiful, and Wallace was a total language geek. And the band is emotional and sincere in a way that I think Wallace would have loved.”
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