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  • Will Britt

The Map is Not the Territory. Is the Game Reality?

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

Through the machinations of Fate, or Chance, or Amazon Recommendations (a late-born fourth sister to the Moirai), two of the major novels I read in the past year prominently featured atypically structured human bodies. And by prominently featured, I mean consisted almost exclusively of. I think this is of more-than-trivial interest, since our own uncommon configurations of body and soul tend to be precisely those parts of the truth that we either resist looking at or unproductively obsess over, while literature can help us by portraying them alluringly. Minor spoilers to come – they are basically teasers – but I have avoided revealing any major plot points, even for these novels that are not especially plot-driven.


One of them – Infinite Jest (1996), David Foster Wallace’s story of the longing to give oneself away completely to something – functions as an extended meditation on the maxim that the map is not the territory.[1] This relation is highlighted directly (and hilariously) at a climactic moment in the story, when a children’s game called Eschaton goes badly wrong in a snowstorm, but it infuses the whole novel: if we take people’s bodies, especially their faces, for who they are, we, too, go badly wrong, and yet bodily configurations are not just unrelated to identity and personality. Primary character Don Gately is a drug-addicted criminal learning to be solidly reliable; his principal feature is a massive, semi-rectangular head, sturdy enough to survive most anything. The wife of primary character Remy Marathe has no skull; efforts to support her and the choice or destiny to love her shape the conflict for Remy, who himself is (literally) missing his legs and (socially) functions in an especially plastic way: as an n-tuple agent in the main political plot, one who is faced with terrible decisions. Mario Incandenza, the lens through which we see a surprising amount of the story, has a camera mounted to his head, which itself is grossly out of proportion to his undersized, twisted body: one aspect of his character is to embody illicit love. Primary character (and endless object of fascination) Joelle van Dyne’s face was disfigured in an acid attack that, similarly, manifested the dysfunction of her family; though she now wears a veil at all times as part of the amusingly acronymed Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed (UHID).

Why are these folks' heads so important? Why is what happens to faces during drug use specially emphasized throughout? One clue is that ‘map’ is slang for ‘face’ in the story, and to kill is to eliminate someone’s map (including one’s own, as in the two suicides by kitchen appliance that form part of the story’s backdrop). This importance is also tied to the fact that in the story’s alternate history, both the map and the territory of the United States and Canada have been rearranged, disfigured, as part of the in-story current U.S. president’s obsession with cleanliness – a kind of purity-code, but applied more to landscape and geophysical separation than to racial or ethnic divisions.

What does it mean for the map, face, or body to present, without being identical to, the territory? It means we have to attend to the sign-character of the map, have to grasp reality through the mediation of physical signs without wholly entrusting ourselves to those signs. We are tasked with a work of memory, aided by the story’s bizarreness. Perhaps most obviously, the book is not arranged linearly, although it does frequently feature time-and-date stamps. This leaves it to the reader to come to know the disfigured narrative by navigating between the main text and the lengthy endnotes for which Wallace is famous.[2] We as readers are neither simply constructing the story nor penetrating beyond a merely superficial disorder to a pristine story beyond; we are grasping the real territory, including dreams and visions, by means of a bizarre map. For example, much of the exposition comes via a night-long conversation, scattered throughout the book. This conversation is between two secret agents; its tension is driven by an absurdly complex question of loyalty (Marathe’s);[3] and it features an absurd disguise (for ‘Helen’ Steeply) which does not work in the conversation but bizarrely works elsewhere in the story. The map/territory theme is emphasized from the jump: the whole novel opens with a scene in which the first-person narrator cannot communicate with the characters around him because of some kind of drug-induced physiological decompensation that prevents him from controlling his face, voice, and limbs – yet he can narrate quite clearly for us as readers. On the far side, the book ends in a coherently narrated fever-memory that involves a compound shin fracture, addiction-voluntary[4] drug trips that become externally forced drug trips, and a character’s eyes sewn open to allow some substance to be steadily introduced into them.

That last scene obviously echoes the novel’s questions about entertainment as addiction, including the bizarre quantification procedure according to which test subjects not only watch until death but steadily remove their digits (with an orthopedic saw) along the way in order to view the lethal Entertainment more times (726-7). The literal trade of bodily members for viewing rights, like the sewn-open eyes that close the novel and the story’s fascination with incorporation (passim, including all meanings of the word), interrogates the freedom of various sorts of openness. Is there something that can satisfy our desire to give ourselves away completely, or to take in all that is offered, without thereby eliminating our own maps?

The tennis academy’s guru, Lyle – perched, lotus-style, atop the paper towel dispenser and licking sweat from the young athletes’ faces – provides a crucial observation along these lines. “The truth will set you free,” he says, “but not until it’s done with you” (389). The line comes in the context of explaining to one of the boys about envy, which Lyle characterizes as “burn[ing] with hunger for food that does not exist” (389). When we seek to incorporate what is unreal, to give ourselves over to what’s false, it destroys us; but on the superficial level, that of the map, this destruction is not easily distinguishable from what hungering for and incorporating the truth does to us. As several characters learn in the course of addiction recovery, “It starts to turn out that the vapider the AA cliché, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers” (446). Those are the teeth of reality, the pain of life from which we seek escape in addiction, sometimes in illness; reality’s representatives within AA, those with many years of sobriety behind them, are appropriately called Crocodiles.[5]

One of the central contrasts concerning freedom and incorporation of truth involves distinguishing between cause (which seems exterior, mechanical, and slides easily into excuses) and responsibility (which looks from the outside like just one variety of cause, but from the inside involves encounter with all the teeth of the truth). This distinction is illustrated in the novel by juxtaposing two horrifying AA stories. The first is from an addicted stripper, who blames her current situation on some terrible foster-family dysfunction,[6] telling “what she sees as etiological truth” (374), according to the narrator inhabiting Gately’s memories. The second is from a cocaine freebaser who used all through her pregnancy, including during the hotel-room delivery of a stillborn, deformed child, to which she responded with psychotic denial, carrying the dead infant around everywhere for months, until its decomposing body became fused to her. After semi-surgical removal and a stint in a psychiatric hospital, she turned to drink, but eventually had to start facing the truth in AA, “trying to tell a truth she hopes someday to swallow, inside” (378). The taking of responsibility, here, is both being chewed by the truth and incorporating that same truth into oneself, altering the territory so as not to eliminate the map. (Echoes of the sort of thing that is supposed to happen in the Christian Eucharist – namely, being-incorporated into the truth via eating that truth oneself – are probably not incidental, in light of Wallace's own fascinations.)


The other book, currently my favorite novel, is translated from Russian as The Gray House (2009; the book is not yet well-known in the US, though it's massively popular in Russia; some floundering English-language commentary, joined and clarified by the translator, here). Mariam Petrosyan’s novel, gorgeous in its own right, also turns out to be a companion piece to Infinite Jest: elaborated here is not so much the need to give oneself away as to belong completely, to feel at-home, even if only in what is strange and dangerous.[7] For that reason, it’s worth considering the reader’s possible avatars within the novel: how can we come to belong in this odd community?

We first encounter Smoker, one of three black sheep in the House.[8] As this book’s Raskolnikov (256), Smoker crosses lines, literally moving between cliques because he doesn’t fit in, and spends a lot of time playing detective (concerning both the House and his own identity). His attempt to belong is also ours, and a good deal of our enlightenment comes on account of his confusion. He returns us to the entwined questions of freedom and openness, since he is described by other characters as too wide-open (149), too eager to imbibe whatever comes his way (427), although in other ways (perhaps in response) he turns out to be too closed-off to accept the more remarkable aspects of their shared situation. Subsequently, we meet Grasshopper, a much younger child whose entry into the House we can easily participate in – but there’s a gap that’s hard for us to cross to reach his present identity as Sphinx. (Crossing it was so traumatic for him that in the course of falling into the gap he grew up, went bald, and then had to return to being an early adolescent.) Ralph, a counselor, offers us a third way in, from an adult perspective, when he re-enters the House at the beginning of Book 2, although he admits he does not understand the kids or the world that they create. Finally, Mermaid looks like the ideal version of the reader: she belongs partially to a different world and loves stories; she uses 'sorcery' to persuade Sphinx to date her, thus granting us more-intimate access to this puzzling central character in his older identity; she even offers us a possible general strategy for reading this novel, when she tells Sphinx that she "prefer[s] to listen and compare" (475) between the various voices telling the story.[9]

The titular House is a boarding school-cum-orphanage for physically (and sometimes emotionally) disabled children, although the deformations in this story are less unlikely than in Wallace's: the kids are paraplegic, or blind, or emotionally struggling, or without arms. There is no sentimentalizing of their challenges, but also no glorification. They just deal with their various capacities, working together, negotiating for themselves the space between bullying and overcompensating – a space shot through with the clumsy attempts of adults to control its meaning. A crucial, long-running interpersonal tension, for example, turns on an adult’s intervention on behalf of the armless character, and this failure to understand turns out to be tied to that adult’s untimely death.

If the characters’ bodily configurations are more realistic than in Wallace’s tale, the world itself is more magical. Or rather, here the real world seems to open onto another world, accessible through the House. We gradually discover this other world, along with discovering both that the House is in some way alive and that it is complexly identified with one of the primary characters (Blind), who seems to belong to it more than anyone else. The House collects broken people (echoed by Tabaqui's and Mermaid’s collection of “nobody’s things,” 584) and holds onto them, gives them a place to belong, in some cases even preventing them from leaving. The characters are “all assembled from little pieces […] glued together” (41; plausibly extended to the adult counselors on 542), and the House “doesn’t like its parts to be scattered” (164).

That problem of unity, closely tied to belonging, runs throughout the story. The House itself is located, the novel’s opening explains, “in a no-man’s-land between two worlds” (5). This is given a prosaic meaning initially, but we come to realize that it means more. I’m told the original Russian title of the book translates as “The House In Which…” and is a disfigured allusion to “In the House That Jack Built.” That nursery rhyme, a story for children constructed additively, layering and recapitulating meaning as it goes, echoes the role of the House as a place for children described as an “insane pastiche” (577), one populated by people who desperately shore fragments against their coming ruin. But the repetitive time structure of the rhyme also suggests the complex temporality of the story – and its explicit obsessions with time. Something about the House destroys clocks (which, naturally, the previous principal then collects). The student known to the staff as the House’s chief terrorist has an alternate identity as the Master of Time, yet he dislikes waiting (249) and claims (246) to prefer moments to stories (note that the latter stretch across and connect time). The kids themselves speak of time loops (“life […] is like circles on the surface of the water […] the world only ever draws repeated patterns,” 584), and we as readers encounter at least three such loops.[10] Moreover, as with C.S. Lewis's Narnia, time spent on the House’s underside (i.e., in the other world) does not track time in this one.

For the reader, the most obtrusive time problem has to do with the interweaving of temporal modes. The novel’s whimsical, somewhat challenging construction weaves back and forth between the present, when the primary characters are “seniors” (currently between the ages of 16 and 19), and a past when they were “juniors” (between 6 and 10), with the epilogue filling in some details of the future. Graduations (and consequent promotions) happen once every six years. In the tradition of Russian novels, all the characters (except Smoker’s father, whose name links Smoker to Bob Dylan) are known by nicknames – but these are not diminutives, and they change over the years, sometimes multiple times. The nicks are uncannily, if not always straightforwardly, accurate labels, but much of the reader’s working memory (and/or spreadsheet capacity) is spent tracking nickname changes. One (but only one!) crucial key to sorting these out is the characters’ disabilities or atypical bodily configurations.

For the students, by contrast, the most obtrusive time problem is the future, or rather its yawning lack in the shape of their upcoming graduation. Because of their status as misfits, they mostly cannot see any life for themselves beyond the House; to go into the Outsides is treated as dying (though they send occasional messengers across the barrier), so to anticipate graduation is to anticipate death.[11] That death sentence renders the space-time of the House a genuine microcosm of human life and focuses the coming-of-age aspects of the story on the transitions and struggles of coming-to-belong. It highlights as delightfully absurd the cliquishness of high school.[12] Such compression also raises the stakes of Smoker’s attempt to conceive the whole thing as an elaborate game; his attempt, like that of the reader’s, crashes and burns in the face of deadly seriousness. But more on that shortly.

The inevitable approach of graduation/death is mirrored by the collective exclusion of any past that took place outside the House.[13] There are curious and complicated unspoken rules enforcing this: Tabaqui advises, “Including the Outsides in sentences constructed in present or future tense is discouraged. Past tense is permissible, but it is not advisable either” (252). And even past adventures in the other world, which is somehow the House itself, can only be spoken of mythically, as fairy tales. The foreclosure of the future, for its part, gets enacted in the catastrophe that is the graduation-time of the cohort ahead of the primary characters. This traumatic event takes place between the two time periods we witness and even puts time in the House out of joint, somehow: it marks the first of what the House’s residents (including adults) experience as occasionally recurring extra-long nights. It also seems to have other traumatic effects: the school is evidently doomed in the community’s mind, since no new class of juniors enters, and the staff we meet is replaced almost wholesale, except for Ralph, who himself needs to take a delayed leave of absence. Moreover, the new seniors huddle defensively in a few large groups, rather than doing as the previous seniors had: spreading out into single rooms, with belonging organized by just two rival factions.

If we bring together the reader’s time-problem (naming and identity) and the students’ time-problem (approaching death, fraught past), we may be tempted by a logical corollary to the maxim that the map is not the territory: the name is the death of the thing. Yet this novel puts on display precisely the opposite: against childhood’s inclination to use names for taunting and adulthood’s inclination to use them for categorically setting aside (e.g., “blind” as purely a limitation), names in this story function much more like magical incantations. They are sometimes blunt and sometimes cruel (Smoker has difficulty getting used to calling late adolescents Sniffle or Piddler), but they always extend an invitation to be; they summon someone into being by asking for interpretation via a life.[14] They are a way of being seen and known in what one might become. They tell us something deeply important about who someone is, and often they change as the characters grow. Primary character Sphinx, for example, went through at least three on the way to his current nickname, and these get layered into his identity the way the nursery rhyme constructs Jack’s house. Tabaqui, for his part, has several nicknames at once, as befits his complex relation to time.

Problems of naming, fate, and time return us to the question of freedom – which, as Sphinx tells Smoker, “can be discussed until forever, breaking only for sleep, tea, and movable feasts” (253). Infinite Jest treated this question via the interplay of desire and external compulsion: the longing to give oneself away completely too often gets mapped to destructive objects of desire. In The Gray House, the question is instead inflected by the exploration of belonging, and hence of difference. The disabled occupants of the House are outcasts from society, as the narrator’s initial account of the House itself suggests: “Nobody likes Gray House. No one would admit it openly, but the inhabitants of the [surrounding neighborhood] would rather not have it in their neighborhood. They would rather it didn’t exist at all” (5). As with all marginalized groups, this marginalization gets variously internalized, and the black sheep within the House are precisely those who identify more strongly with the Outsides, who can’t find themselves compelled by the House community. Sphinx urges Smoker to try to understand that “[w]hat for you means nothing can be everything for someone else” (253). He offers a question, one which Smoker predictably misunderstands: is “an elephant stomping across the savanna” more free, or “an aphid sitting on the leaf of whatever plant they sit on” (253)? Smoker refuses the question, but (I think) in the wrong way. Instead of seeing that the answer is neither, that they can be equally free, determined somehow by their character, he assumes that Sphinx is going to try to convince him that the less likely one is in fact more free. In frustration, Sphinx will only conclude, “Everyone chooses his own House. It is we who make it interesting or dull, and only then does it start working trying to change us” (254). Smoker’s complaint, by contrast, is precisely that he has no choices: “It was all chosen for me. Even before I took the first step inside” (254). This lack of freedom, as he sees it, is directly tied to the problem of belonging: whichever of the school’s rooming groups he gets put in, he would have to conform to their clique, and even just to be in the school at all is to be forced to play a role in a game (of leading, following, and belonging) that he thinks is stupid (254).

Smoker here is taking up the adolescent position of someone who has recognized what Wittgenstein called “language games” but sees them as inappropriately restrictive – as if there were some other option, whereby one could belong without joining, or as if opting into such a game were opposed to inhabiting reality, rather than the way to live in reality. That is emphasized in the text as a problem: do games require separation from reality, perhaps forming an alternate reality? Or can they be a way of inhabiting reality? Smoker’s initial ‘insight’ into the game is explicitly an attempt to make sense of something it looks like he hasn’t yet learned about human belonging: “It was too improbable that every single one of the pathetic, whining conformists would assemble in one group, while all the unhinged anarchists would go to the other. Which meant that someone somewhere must have designed this at some point. […] So one day, my imagination churned, they became so frightfully bored that they compiled the script of the Game and vowed to never deviate from it under any circumstances” (84). Why so improbable? Smoker’s new state of nature theory posits a conscious decision and invention at the root of social and political grouping; but his attempts at exposing the game as a conscious charade, at least on the part of the House leaders, run aground on its utter seriousness. What he calls his “final insight” concerning the Great Game tries to tame the threatening transfer of power within the House by rendering it a planned shift to keep the game from getting boring, rather than an event in human relationships (85). That tameness comes into question acutely by the end of Book 1, but already the chapter in which he has his realization about the game concludes with Smoker himself wrapped deeply in a (drink-aided) feeling of belonging with his packmates. His own experience thus questions his theory, since he does not need to consciously take up an artificial game in order to play. Subsequently, during his time spent in solitary confinement, he begins imaginatively to see how he could have belonged, without an artificial game, had he grown up in the House rather than joining it only in late adolescence (127-8).

As I suggested, the problem of games does not go away in this book. Smoker’s temporary sense of belonging emerges precisely on Fairy Tale Night, the evening each season when the inhabitants of his room tell each other fanciful stories – which turn out to be complexly grounded in reality, but now the alternate reality, the one the House offers its broken and outcast inhabitants. Ralph takes his leave of absence when he realizes that what he took for an artificial game is somehow more, something that is colonizing and shaping the real. This game that is and is not a game highlights a choice that some of the House’s inhabitants have: a choice between a reality that has no place for them and a reality that, while still grim, offers them some foothold.[15] Their approach to that choice (i.e., to death/graduation) is the novel’s dramatic tension. The problem of that choice is also what Sphinx was pointing to in his disquisition on freedom, quoted above: everyone chooses his own House, which then works to change him. This is not primarily a question of choosing between different options, though that meaning of choice is especially relevant to his late attempt to rescue Blind; it’s primarily a question of choosing how you will play the game. Because of the ways that the game is reality, how you play it ends up changing who you are. Acting a part, for example, is not easily distinguishable from growing up, since we imitate our way into what we are.

This Sphinxian insight equating games and reality contrasts helpfully with Infinite Jest’s insight about the map’s difference from the territory. Neither claim is wholly true – there may be other, related games that are also reality, and we saw that there are some important ways in which the map is the territory – yet the contrast between them remains important. We have some map-exceeding access to the territory, but it is not clear whether we have game-independent access to reality. It looks, instead, like our way of belonging to reality is through language games, expanded into forms of life. Choosing how we play these games, then, need not differ from choosing how we live in the real world – even if various ways of living in it are really attempts to avoid doing so.

A major choice that must be made in this regard is precisely the one these books confront us with: the one about how we will understand maps and territories, games and reality. As readers of The Gray House, we are presented with various options (in the form of primary characters). We may be skeptics like Smoker, convinced that there’s nothing to the House’s strangeness except a human-invented Game. We may be pragmatists like Black, refusing to play (and thus refusing to belong) without deciding whether it’s mere game or real. We may be idealists like Noble, excited about what can be done in the game while imagining it harmless; fatalists like Humpback, stuck in the game and feeling forced to play; realists like Sphinx, who encounters the game as somehow real but dangerous and unpredictable, something he cannot love; or ironists like Tabaqui, who playfully opts in, over and over, in different iterations.[16]


[1] I have the sense that the Mean Value Theorem, subject of a long endnote in connection with the Eschaton game, serves as an important model for this same point, though I can’t work it out yet. I cite the 20th anniversary edition: Little, Brown, 2016.

[2] Two of my favorite endnotes begin with the not especially reliable narrator acknowledging that he or she has “overshot” the proper place to explain some important feature of Mario’s anatomy, then giving the explanation in the endnote. Major plot points concerning Orin Incandenza and Mike Pemulis have also been relegated to notes.

[3] His greatest line, however, is subsequent to this conversation: “I am spending a day to find someone I think my friends will kill, all the time I am awaiting the chance to betray my friends, and I come here and telephone to betray them and I see this bruised person who strongly resembles my wife. I think: Remy, it is time for many drinks.”

[4] I mean this to be a subcategory of voluntary actions, but it reminds us that the freedom of the will is both a major theme of the novel and the topic of Wallace’s college thesis.

[5] “The thing is it has to be the truth to really go over, here. It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. […] Sincerity with an ulterior motive is something these tough ravaged people know and fear, all of them trained to remember the coyly sincere, ironic, self-presenting fortifications they’d had to construct in order to carry on Out There, under the ceaseless neon bottle” (369).

[6] As always in this novel, the dysfunction involves but is not defined by someone’s significantly deformed body (370-74).

[7] The distinction between house and home is invoked early on (13, again on 94). I cite the English translation by Yuri Machkasov (Amazon Crossing, 2017).

[8] The others are called Black and Black Ralph, in case you were worried about identifying them. And there is a chapter about two of the three titled “On Mutual Understanding Between Black Sheep.” Some things about this story are not confusing.

[9] This crucial conversation occurs near the beginning of book 3. Mermaid: "I'm thinking how the same story comes out completely differently depending on who's telling it. And for all that, none of you is really lying." Sphinx: "Because whoever's telling the story creates the story. No single story can describe reality exactly the way it was. I told you that I personally prefer Tabaqui's version." Mermaid: "And I prefer to listen and compare." (474-5)

Other possible reader-avatars: Tabaqui, who provides advice and poetic exposition in the first person and whom Sphinx tells us (by telling Smoker) to listen to; or Blind, who nearly becomes whomever he is talking to and so is the only voice to address the reader in the second person. But these two are more like spokespersons for the House than avatars for us.

[10] Tabaqui, who likes Indian fairy tales about karma, also claims that when the end comes and the string snaps (i.e., graduation), he will be “thrown far, far away, farther than can be imagined, while at the same time staying exactly where I am” (607). He claims to have “lived through more loops than” anyone else there (615).

[11] In the run-up to graduation, the students fill out a personality profile questionnaire. “ ‘Do you sometimes experience an irrational fear of the future?’ This is question number sixty-one. They told us that all questions on the test were significant. That each added important detail to the psychological profile. In our case they could’ve very well started and ended the test with this one” (456).

[12] Instead of jocks and nerds (or Hogwarts’ strong/brave, loyal/fair, smart/knowledgeable, and cunning/ambitious options), the clique options for a good portion of this novel include sanctimonious brown-nosers, rebellious emo-kids, fragile mourners, obedient joiners, and a smaller, eclectic group of leaders and outcasts.

[13] In this ‘no pasts as key to belonging’ theme, the novel resembles Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Tana French’s The Likeness, and perhaps even Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

[14] Consider Smoker’s reflections early in the story on the current principal, Shark: “And then I realized what had changed in the office since my first visit. It was Shark himself. The unassuming body […] had turned into a real shark. Into exactly what his name was. The nicks were given for a reason. […] No, he wasn’t called Shark for nothing. He was precisely that. A blotchy, slit-mouthed fish with eyes looking in different directions. It was getting old, and the hunting was not what it once had been, which is why it was entertained by chasing after minnows like me” (12).

[15] The “only game Blind knows how to play with someone else” gets described this way: “It’s that leap into a different world, a world without pain, without blindness, where he stretches time, making each second last an eternity, where everything is just a game, even though it’s the kind of game where he could [in reality] flay someone alive or turn him inside out with the flick of a finger” (469-70).

[16] These last characterizations draw on some extra-textual comments of Gray House's translator, Yuri Machkasov, from July 27, 2017 (scroll down through the comments).


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