Chapter 20 describes how Orin Incandenza makes the switch from tennis to football that eventually leads to a professional career as a punter in O.N.A.N.'s equivalent of the N.F.L. In his final few years at E.T.A., Orin is consistently ranked #74 in the nation, which is not quite at the level a junior tennis athlete needs to be in order to enter the pros, or the "Show" as they call it at E.T.A. A national ranking is, however, more than enough to attract the attention of a handful of prestigious universities. Orin is offered full rides and generous signing perks to schools like Cal Tech and Ohio State, but ultimately he chooses to enroll at Boston University. At B.U. he has the realization that he will never really make those leaping improvements to his tennis game at this point in his life, especially in a relatively mediocre and not-so-rigorous tennis program like B.U.'s. That realization, coupled with a strange and overwhelming attraction to a baton-twirler on the cheer squad, causes Orin to try out for a walk-on spot on the B.U. football team.
His try-out goes horribly; as someone wholly unfamiliar with contact sports, he seizes up when it comes time to collide with other players. The coaches and would-be teammates berate him and belittle him until he's told to leave the field. On his way off the field, during a drill, a lineman accidentally barrels into the punter mid-kick and crushes his teammate's foot and leg, causing the ball to fly off to the side and the punter to scream inhumanly as his kicking foot and leg are rendered useless. Orin kicks the ball back to the players from across the field, demonstrating perfect form, power, and instinct for kicking a football, and that very week he's made first-string punter for B.U. Just like that, a career begins.
Several games into his first season on the football team, Joelle, the baton-twirler, strikes up a conversation with Orin. Orin and his roommate have begun to refer to her as P.G.O.A.T. (prettiest girl of all time) and Wallace makes clear that this young woman's beauty is unsurpassed, an almost other-worldly beauty that actually renders her an outcast from her peers, who are on the whole too paralyzed by her stunningness to approach her and hold a conversation. She approaches Orin, and they immediately hit it off. After his freshman year, Orin and Joelle move in together a few subway stops from campus. She's a Film Cartridge Production and Theory major but admittedly has pretty "commercial" tastes when it comes to film. She likes shoot-em-up, explosive-filled action films. Orin introduces her to art films and the work of his own father, J.O.I. J.O.I. starts casting Joelle Van Dyne in his own films. As a gesture of support for her production career, Orin buys Joelle some film equipment, which she then uses to make films of his punts and kickoffs. Orin enjoys watching these short films of himself in privacy.
Wallace then shuttles to November 14th, Y.D.A.U., the day Poor Tony has a seizure from alcohol withdrawal. After the incident with Wo and Bobby C. in which Poor Tony allows his friend to shoot up heroin he knows is a hotshot, Poor Tony has a bounty on his head with his old crew. He's burned most of his bridges and doesn't feel safe showing his face anywhere near Harvard Square or the Brighton Projects. His friendless predicament has led him to a place of unwilling, unwanted sobriety and thus severe, violent withdrawal from heroin. To help deal with the withdrawal, Poor Tony starts to drink around eight bottles of codeine cough syrup a day, which is high in alcohol content, among other things. Poor Tony takes residence in a men's bathroom in a public library. He loses control of his bowels and bladder in the course of withdrawal, and his symptoms continue to snowball. The codeine doesn't stop the heroin withdrawn but rather drags out the process and blunts the sharper symptoms. After a week, Poor Tony isn't able to obtain more codeine, and thus has a severe alcohol withdrawal episode on the subway during which he swallows his tongue in front of a car full of commuters.
On November 7, Y.D.A.U., after E.T.A. annihilates Port Washington in the tournament and immediately before the Interdependence Day communal dinner, E.T.A. students hunker down in front of exams. Wallace describes some of the more eccentric courses offered by E.T.A. prorectors including "Deviant Geometries," "Introduction to Athletic Spreadsheets," and Mary Esther Thode's "The Personal Is the Political Is the Psychopathological: the Politics of Contemporary Psychopathological Double-Binds," in which Thode presents questions like, if a person is pathologically kleptomaniacal but also suffers from agoraphobia, what must they do? To which Schacht offers the suggestion of mail fraud. The students work on their exams with the reward of a total, mandatory R&R weekend ahead of them, what with Interdependence Day and the all-important Whataburger Invitational on the horizon.
As Wallace describes Hal gradually warming up to his prorector-taught class about Canadian separatism, the lengthiest, most narrative-heavy endnote yet (note. 110) sends the reader to the back of the book. In this note, the reader is first presented with an example of a letter written to Orin I. by Avril as a part of her persistent attempts not only to reconnect with her self-estranged son, but also to pretend like they are not estranged. In the letter, Avril describes her day, the quotidian goings-on at E.T.A., and her latest efforts on behalf of the Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts which is to have all grocery stores change their "Ten Items or Less" lines to "Ten Items or Fewer." Avril's letter is followed by an example of Orin's typical response, which is a form letter supposedly written by the Assistant Mailroom Technician for whatever professional team Orin is playing for at the time thanking her for supporting the Saints, Cardinals, etc. and apologizing that Orin Incandenza is too busy to respond, but has included for her a signed photograph of himself.
These letters are then followed, in the same endnote, by a phone conversation that occurs between Orin and Hal later that day, November 7, Y.D.A.U. When Orin calls, Hal is in his dorm room, naked, soaking his weak ankle in a bucket of dissolved epsom salt, getting ready for the annual night out organized by Pemulis ahead of their weekend of total rest and relaxation. Orin asks Hal about Canadian separatism. It turns out that Orin seems to be especially romantically interested in Helen, the reporter for Moment magazine who is working on a "soft profile" of Orin and the Incandenza clan. Apparently Helen put some hard questions to Orin about separatism, and Orin wants his answers to sound intelligent and considered, so he calls Hal for help. The main question is why have the Quebecois separatists, once vehemently anti-Canadian, changed their tune to anti-O.N.A.N.ism post-Interdependence. An extension of the question is why would the Quebecois separatists not use the wasteland of the Great Concavity as a bargaining chip to gain their independence from Canada and O.N.A.N. by offering to absorb, along with their independence, responsibility for the environmental blight that is the Concavity. As their phone conversation drags on, Pemulis enters Hal's room urging him to hurry up, because the boys are getting hungry and restless.
The narrative then shuttles back to the main text, and Wallace devotes the next section to explaining the circumstances of Mario's birth and childhood. While pregnant with Mario, the whole time she is pregnant, Avril has no idea. Not until her water breaks on the stairs up to their house does she know that she's going to give birth to a child. Mario is dangerously premature and is born with a laundry list of congenital defects. His hands cannot grip, his legs can hardly stand. But his demeanor and unflappable optimism give him the status of something like a saint of E.T.A. In James O. Incandenza's will, he leaves Mario a special video cartridge camera that is custom head-mountable and controlled by a foot pedal for Mario's use. After assisting James with his films during the final years of his life, Mario feels that his own ambitions to be a filmmaker are affirmed by the gift. When a "veiled legate from the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed" (317) arrive at E.T.A. to try and recruit Mario, Hal chases them away with a tennis racket.
We then return to the scene of Marathe and Steeply in the desert, discussing the issue of Canadian separatism and radical separatist groups. Steeply continues to indirectly accuse Marathe's associates of targeting the medical attaché with the video cartridge of Infinite Jest, a film with such irresistible allure that the viewer cannot pry themselves away from it. Marathe maintains that he and his compatriots have no interest in minor squabbles over the marriage of J.O.I. and Avril Incandenza. They then have an argument over the nature and definition of "freedom" and what it means to be truly free. Marathe makes the argument that the cultural shift towards narcotizing entertainment vis-a-vis video cartridges is actually preventing people, specifically Americans, from being able to live. Marathe emphasizes that this "freedom" to choose crippling excess is actually enslaving. Marathe and Steeply are still in the desert mountains as night falls. Wallace writes, "Unmentioned by either man was how in heaven’s name either man expected to get up or down from the mountainside’s shelf in the dark of the U.S. desert’s night" (321).
On November 8, Y.D.A.U., a watershed game of Eschaton takes place at Enfield Academy. Eschaton is an extremely complicated, multifaceted game that involves diplomacy, strategy, and the ability to serve up an accurate lob. Wallace explains that the rulebook, written by Hal, is the length of an epic, but that basically the game involves around twelve participants, give or take a few players, and that small groups or individuals are assigned to play certain countries or regions of the world. The game also requires about 400 retired tennis balls, so old and stripped that they are basically just white rubber balls. These balls represent nuclear warheads. The players hold a U.N.-like council before every game, during which certain alliances and deals are made and certain match-specific rules are laid out. A statistician/referee presides over the game, and the new generation's game master is a skittish young man by the name of Otis Lord. The older boys like Hal and Pemulis (who still reigns as a shadow-game master over Eschaton) watch from the sidelines and, on this day, November 8, Y.D.A.U., smoke marijuana and drink to celebrate the rare mandatory rest and relaxation weekend.
The game of Eschaton has evolved quite a lot since the start of Enfield, and it now involves a rolling cart carrying a computer to calculate and adjust complex statistics that determine the course of a game of Eschaton in addition to several hard drives that contain the rule book and codical archives of previous games. At a particularly tense moment in the game, Evan Ingersoll, representing Iraq-Libya-Syria, makes an unprecedented move. Instead of lobbing a ball/nuclear warhead at a territory, he serves a ball directly at the back of Ann Kittenplan's head. Ingersoll argues that because Kittenplan is the entire launch capacity for SOVWAR, he has disabled SOVWAR's ability to launch warheads. And because Kittenplan is conferencing with other world leaders in another part of the world, she has opened her territory up for that kind of attack. Ingersoll's wild move causes general chaos to erupt. Pemulis shouts from the sidelines about how Ingersoll's move is ridiculous and disregards the entire mechanism of the Eschaton map, and that Kittenplan is a player and not part of the map. Pemulis becomes even more animated as Otis Lord appears to consider allowing Ingersoll's move to stand. Pemulis warns Lord that if he allows this, Eschaton will be forever changed for the worse. Otis slips on the red beanie, indicating a global crisis. Other players, as a show of collective hatred for Ingersoll, begin pegging him with bald tennis balls. Lord tries, in a panic, to wheel the computing cart off the courts, but in the process is tripped. The cart goes flying, and the hardware of Eschaton is destroyed.
Following the Eschaton fiasco, Wallace switches back to Gately's perspective over at the Ennet House and various Boston-area AA meetings. Gately joins the White Flag AA group, which is run by a small handful of veteran AA members, primarily old men with "geologic amounts of sober time" (278, 353, 354, 468). These old-timers are referred to as "Crocodiles." Gately finds the Crocodiles' monastic devotion to the Program inspiring and humbling, so he allows himself to be taken under their wing. Eventually, Gately sticks around long enough to be asked along to "commitments," which Wallace explains are speaking tours to other Boston-area AA groups. We see an AA meeting on November 8, Y.D.A.U., during which Gately and the Ennet House residents and the White Flag group host other speakers at their meeting house. In this scene, it is revealed that Ken Erdedy and Joelle van Dyne are now residents of the Ennet House. Joelle expresses her absolute disdain for the ungrammatical nature of AA's use of the phrase "but for the grace of God," and Gately doesn't quite know how to respond. Two speakers speak, both outlining the traumatic experiences that led them to addiction.
The first speaker talks about the experiences that she feels drove her to drugs and alcohol, which include her upbringing in an abusive foster family. Her foster parents had a biological daughter who was paralyzed and severely mentally impaired to the point of not being able to speak or control any of her motor functions. The speaker's foster mother forced her to take their biological daughter everywhere with her, to playdates, parties, class functions, and later on, on dates. The foster mother was in complete denial about her biological daughter's limits and possible quality of life. The speaker then described how the foster father would nightly sexually abuse his biological daughter, who slept in the same room as the speaker. Eventually, the speaker runs away, starts stripping at a club outside of Boston, and becomes addicted to drugs and alcohol. Her story, while certainly tragic, makes the AA meeting quite uncomfortable because the speaker seems to be framing these events as the cause of her addiction. Wallace explains that the AAs have a big problem with members placing blame on external factors.
The next speaker is a new member. She describes her path to AA in brutal, uneditorialized detail. Her main addiction was crack, and she smoked crack through an entire pregnancy, even while in labor in her bedroom. While in labor, she's so compulsively addicted to crack that she can't stop smoking it long enough to get herself to a hospital. The baby comes out stillborn and extremely underdeveloped. She wakes up the afternoon after giving birth, still connected to the stillborn infant by an umbilical cord. She's filled with so much shame and self-hatred that she snaps into an extreme state of denial. She carries the baby around with her for weeks until a beat cop notices the unbelievably rancid smell and calls Child Protective Services. She's checked into a hospital where she undergoes surgery for an impacted placenta. The stillborn baby is buried, and she's promptly checked into a psychiatric hospital. Now she has finally arrived at AA, ready to give herself over to the program.
Back in the Arizona desert, Marathe and Steeply are still perched on a mountainside, even as night grows darker and colder. It's revealed that Steeply's disguise is of a female reporter, and that his mission is to gather as many details as possible about the Incandenza family. His alias is Helen, and he is supposed to work for Moment magazine. This means that the reporter with whom Orin has been speaking, the same reporter Orin admits to Hal that he's inexplicably attracted to, is actually Agent Steeply.
A major argument of Wallace's essay "E. Unibus Pluram" is that irony is an insufficient tactic for contemporary writers to diagnose and treat society's ills. Wallace proposes that in the television and internet age, where commercial advertisements have co-opted irony and self-reference to their own capitalistic ends, sincerity or sentimentalism is, at times, exactly what is needed in order to communicate the human experience, to connect with readers and attempt to diagnose the dangers of this overindulgent, overstimulating television culture. In Infinite Jest, Wallace finds an almost perfect metaphor for embracing sentimentality and banishing irony from the language of healing in Alcoholics Anonymous. Through the character of Gately, Wallace explores and analyzes sentimentality as it is used in AA. Gately, in his supervisory role at the Ennet House, often finds himself in the position of defending the many aphorisms, clichés, and mantras like "easy does it" and "one day at a time" to new members of AA. These aphorisms are small, indicative parts of a whole program of reducing addiction treatment to simply giving oneself over to the mercy of a higher power and having absolute faith in the program.
Wallace writes that "folks with serious time in AA are infuriating about questions starting with How. You ask the scary old guys How AA Works and they smile their chilly smiles and say Just Fine. It just works, is all; end of story" (349-350). It is this faith in the power of sentiment and community (another structure of human life that postmodernism attacks, or rather to which the postmodern world seems particularly inhospitable) that allows addicts like Gately to regain control over their lives. Wallace continues, "The newcomers who abandon common sense and resolve to Hang In and keep coming and then find their cages all of a sudden open, mysteriously, after a while, share this sense of deep shock and possible trap; about newer Boston AAs with like six months clean you can see this look of glazed suspicion instead of beatific glee, an expression like that of bug-eyed natives confronted suddenly with a Zippo lighter" (350). Wallace mentions in his 2003 interview with German television station ZDF an unattributed quote about irony, calling irony "the song of a bird that has come to love its cage." This sentiment rings throughout his essay, "E. Unibus Pluram," and is woven into the very fabric of Infinite Jest.
Extending this metaphor of irony as "the song of a bird that has come to love its cage" to the conflict of new members of Anonymous programs who both want to resist the total surrender to sincerity demanded by Anonymous groups and, at the same time, free themselves from the "cage" of addiction, one sees how sincerity emerges as the key to the cage. Resorting to irony or cynicism keeps one firmly locked inside that system about which one is being ironic or cynical. Wallace writes that in the context of speaking during AA meetings, "causal attribution, like irony, is death" (370), meaning that using irony as a defense mechanism is considered just as serious of an infraction as blaming one's addictions on external factors.
In Infinite Jest, AA emerges as an almost perfect antidote to the pitfalls of the so-called postmodern condition, which include but are not limited to a loss of community and a loss of faith in God or religion in general. Wallace writes that in terms of AA-slang, one's bottom, or "rock bottom" state, the state at which one feels it is impossible for their life to sink any lower, is actually a misleading term "because everybody here agrees it’s more like someplace very high and unsupported: you’re on the edge of something tall and leaning way out forward" (347). This oxymoronic sense of bottoming out, described as the consensus among Boston AAs, is also diametrically opposed to a sense of community because one is "unsupported" and alone, dangling out in an awful suspense.
In conjunction with AA as a metaphor for embracing sincerity, drugs and alcohol take on a broader metaphorical significance to represent the general culture of excess in the U.S. Here is where the function of Marathe and Steeply's desert conversation becomes evident. Marathe and Steeply serve a thinly-veiled philosophical function of laying out the consequences of the mass proliferation of passive forms of entertainment i.e. television and other empty, commercial pursuits that in no way, Wallace argues, nurture the individual's soul or exercise their intellect. Marathe discusses the American notion of "freedom." He says, "Your freedom is the freedom-from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint and forced duress" (320). Steeply maintains that U.S. citizens are adults and don't need a paternalistic government to tell them what they can and cannot do, but Marathe counters by suggesting that some pleasures are too powerfully tempting to resist, and once they're made widely available, they actually take away people's freedoms and almost enslave them to their inability to resist partaking. He refers to Infinite Jest, J.O.I.'s film, and says, "What is the difference, please, if you make a recorded pleasure so entertaining and diverting it is lethal to persons, you find a Copy-Capable copy and copy it and disseminate it for us to choose to see or turn off, and if we cannot choose to resist it, the pleasure, and cannot choose instead to live?" (321). Of course, the video cartridge of Infinite Jest is posed to be nothing short of a biological weapon; it hypnotizes the viewer into a dangerous, life-ruining stasis. Wallace seems to be making the argument that if the "special treat" that is digital entertainment is not somehow kept in check, that it threatens to derail human culture and zombify the masses.