Ghostwords and Lyle the Semi-Wraith (The Walk-On of James O. Incandenza, Part III)
The J.O.I. wraith has made another brief Walk-On appearance (pp. 933-34), now with just fifty pages to go in IJ. Gately is in less of a fugue-state and deeper in a dream, so J.O.I. communicates in images rather than in the verbal projections into Gately’s head. But what images! I am impelled to include another installment of “The Walk-On of James O. Incandenza,” to follow Part I and Part II. J.O.I.’s companion in this brief encounter is none other than Lyle, weight-room guru and sweat-licker extraordinaire, and to tell you the truth, I couldn’t be more pleased with how DFW is tying these strands together! Not only is Lyle’s own magic “clarified,” but we now have nearly everything we need to offer possible solutions to the narrational complexity of IJ.
The wraith’s original appearance was attended by two features I did not discuss earlier: the Coke can and the ghostwords, each of which Gately finds very unpleasant. “Other terms and words Gately knows he doesn’t know from a divot in the sod now come crashing through his head with the same ghastly intrusive force” (p. 832), after which crashing Gately silently screams and the wraith is temporarily disrupted. On p. 884, he mentions ghostwords for the first time, noting that it is “a real and esoteric word,” which is especially funny since shortly thereafter Gately realizes that “esoteric is another ghostword he’s got no rights to throw around, mentally” (p. 887).
The real and esoteric meaning of ghostword, so far as I can tell, is a word that is included in a dictionary as a result of misinterpretation or lexicographical error. Ghostwords, therefore, go along with such things as malaproprisms, eggcorns, and cocography, discussed by Love, Your Copyeditor a while back (and at the same time her recent post on the Lexical Rape of Don Gately is important reading). It is especially funny/self-reflexive that the word is here misinterpreted to mean something like “a word that a ghost brings and intrudes in my head.” Of course, we can also presume that the wraith has been doing this all along, being in people’s heads that is, though less invasively, sometimes transcribing and sometimes interpreting. And the wraith, supernaturally, is therefore pretty much the only “character” available to bind together the narrative/grammatical/linguistic continuity between E.T.A.-type scenes and Ennet House-type scenes (and many things in the middle). That is, it has always frustrated me that, whether it is a scene about Hal, about Eschaton, about Mario, about Orin, the voice is quite consistent, so to me it is not possible that this is the voice of any of the characters.
Of course, there are other scenes that contradict this idea: there are literal transcriptions and documents; there are scenes that smack of a kind of objectivity, such as Kate Gompert in the hospital, the newspaper articles, the confab between Gentle, Veal, Tine, etc., the Wardine/Clenette section; and quite near the end, there are lengthy sections narrated by Hal in the first person. Wait, this gets worse: the section on pp. 964-971 is also from the first-person p.o.v., but appears not to be Hal, since “A couple of us remarked how Hal wasn’t eating the usual […]” (p. 966). Nearly every E.T.A. player is mentioned on these pages, thereby excluding them one by one, until (as someone on IS pointed out) the only one not mentioned is, I think, Axford (who is interesting in that he is clearly one of Hal’s “best friends,” but so far as I recall we never get any “backstory” on him). So, I admit that I’m mystified by this, but still happy to give J.O.I. the primary narrative role based on his ability to get “inside the head.”
After all, I don’t expect a perfect line of narration, not in a text that uses postmodern devices to construct a new relationship between author and readers. What I’m excited about – if the proposal is not off the wall – is that the wraith’s appearance makes sense out of the highly personalized voice that has carried us through so many pages. We are all so fond of the narrator, that having some sense of an “it” or “him” is, to me at least, extremely satisfying. Of course, to pursue this line of thought or to rest on this conclusion requires actually believing in the wraith, such belief apparently being difficult for many people. All I really have to say about the wraith’s existence to those folks is this:
Not believing in the wraith is like not believing in the airborne toxic event of White Noise.
In my view, you have to take the author at her or his word, in a sense, if they give you a word to take, even if you don’t have to (or shouldn’t) take all of the characters at theirs. (Here I should point out that I keep trying to decide which character’s “at their word” can help to resolve the issue of Joelle’s acid disfigurement, and thus find I keep falling into traps of believing too readily, as Aaron (and Dan) pointed out in response to my previous discussion of this.) DFW includes a wraith in the story, so there’s a wraith. Objects move, Lyle floats, fine. Recalling the airborne toxic event, here, reminds us that what is “real” has no metaphysical significance over and above the simulacra that organize it, and might as well precede it. The airborne toxic event is as “real” as anything in the text, though it’s very purpose is to point out that its reality solves none of the issues of meaning & interpretation that are central to White Noise.
Gately comes sharply around when he feels the little rough tongue on his forehead […]. The wraith is back, right by the bed, dressed like before and blurred at the edges in the hat-shadowed spill of hallway-light, and except now with him is another, younger, way more physically fit wraith in a kind of faggy biking shorts and a U.S. tank top who’s leaning way over Gately’s railing and . . . fucking licking Gately’s forehead […]. (p. 933)
I remember someone asking, during IS discussions of the first walk-on appearance of J.O.I., what the Coke can was doing on Gately’s forehead (see p. 832). I feel like a fool for not having recognized this. Of course, Coke is what students bring Lyle when they go to the weight room for counsel. Caffeine Free Diet Coke, specifically, “to cut the diet’s salt” (p. 316) as he licks the sweat off. Gately may not have noticed, but it appears that Lyle may have been zipping in and out for some Coke and sweat even during the first visitation, and is sticking around even more for the second!
Of course, this is all truly, truly weird, don’t get me wrong. But, I see Lyle as some kind of semi-wraith, or a wraith who is able to partially materialize so as to converse with E.T.A. students and others. (Kind of like a Nazgûl, but without the whole aura of evil and spreading fear thing.) If his time sense is as extended as J.O.I. claims his own is, then just imagine the patience he must exert, spending months or years of wraith-time to have an afternoon of conversation. Because of his material presence, I am tempted to attribute the moving objects – most recently, Stice’s bed – that plague the academy to Lyle rather than J.O.I.
But perhaps this doesn’t matter all that much, because what does matter is the content of the message/images/vision that J.O.I. and Lyle bring to Don Gately.
He dreams he’s with a very sad kid and they’re in a graveyard digging some dead guy’s head up and it’s really important, like Continental-Emergency important, […] and the sad kid is trying to scream at Gately that the important thing was buried in the guy’s head […] and Joelle van D. appears with wings and no underwear and asks if they knew him, the dead guy with the head […] while the sad kid holds something terrible up by the hair and makes the face of somebody shouting in panic: Too Late. (p. 934)
At this point in the novel, it is clear that we will never actually witness the digging of the head of J.O.I., and probably not even the initial meeting between Gately and Hal. But we’re talking way more than even ghostwords, here. We’re talking foreknowledge, fate. Even though the vision hasn’t happened yet, it’s pretty clear that it does happen, outside the bounds of the novel. (Back when people on IS or ASFB were complaining about the endnotes and size of the book – and I was feeling inordinate disdain for those who were reading on a kindle or were ripping the book into separate pieces – it became immediately clear to me that I loved the heft of the book, I loved keeping track of endnotes, and that the physicality of the IJ-experience was intentional. Now, we are given a new quasi-physicality: the text outside the text, which wraps back annularly to the beginning of the novel. I think it is Pink Floyd’s The Wall that starts with the words “… we came in?” and ends with the words “isn’t this where …”.)
The wraith(s) are here, among other things, to fill in the gaps. Hell, I don’t know if Gately will even remember all of this. But with Hal headed off sometime soon to the hospital (see p. 16: “the only other emergency room I have ever been in, almost exactly one year back,” whether due to DMZ, anhedonia, or something A.F.R.-ish), it makes sense that Joelle will intermediate a connection to Gately, and that Hal will somehow figure out that the Entertainment is indeed for him. But, going to look for it where it is supposed to be (interned with Himself) just reveals that it has already been taken. John N.R. Wayne, A.F.R. agent, presumably has some info on this, and for whatever reason accompanies them to the grave (maybe A.F.R. is still searching for the Master, not knowing it is gone? maybe Wayne has gone Marathe-like and turned double-agent?).
In another day or so, I’ll have a chance to look at the accounts that others are giving/have given of the puzzle I’ve worked so hard to put together these past months. Those will be fun to read, I’m sure. But whereas in the past, I felt that the puzzle simply wasn’t going to emerge as a coherent picture, I now have a sense of comfort. This comfort comes from the presence of the wraith(s) along with the idea that the text implies a space beyond the pages of the book that is also text. Indeed the work is thorough and complete and takes in vastnesses that cannot be settled in a single text-object.