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September 19, 2009 / Infinite Tasks

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.



Leave a Comment
  1. Daryl Houston / Sep 20 2009 8:24 am

    Once again, I’m just floored at what a good, close reader you are.

    Regarding the connection between Lyle and Himself, I think it’s interesting to note the scene way back in the 160s in which Himself’s father is lecturing him on objects and bodies. Does Himself have some influence on Lyle in this area or vice versa? Or does Lyle go way back to influence Himself’s dad in some way? Is there some kind of trickster/wraith that gives Himself’s dad a push as if with “hands at my back and nothing underfoot like a push down the stairway. A rude whip-lashing shove square in the back”?

  2. tom collins / Sep 21 2009 12:20 am

    Reactions scattered accross the entire summer:
    1) I propose this series of posts on The Walk-On of JOI as the summer’s greatest ever. And I’m sincere! That said, the achievement of these posts creates or discovers a sobbering law: nobody can read without being willing to write his reading. You can spend a whole life reading, but at one point you have to double up back over the territory with your own map.
    2) I keep forgetting that you have been in strict observersane of the incremental stage by stage by-laws of IS. I can only marvel at this succession of readings, which has helped us all, even those, like myself, who jumpted the gun and went out hunting for help instead of keeping their nose to the grindstone of the set-up.
    3) Now that we are winding up, I hope you will consult the thesis by Chris Hager. Your conclusions concord perfectly, and for this, as you say, “I couldn’t be more pleased.” There is a circularity of narrative voice which sounds banal, but this circularity is built up so as to share out the responsibility and authority of the various voices, putting a huge burden on the reader to sort them out, and to hold fast to the question of authority, light years away from the some intentional fallacy. I suspect your pleasure and excitement will wane as the dimension of the new reading project you have discovered becomes clearer.
    4) There’s a little book, probably translated into English by now, by Jean-Luc Nancy, entitled Le Partage des Voix. (Voices separated and shared.) I think there is more there to be gleaned over the months and years to come, as we periodically return to the task of reading, than other things you mentioned in Derrida.
    5) With the passage on the wraith, you separated yourself out into an old crocodile, saying with authority: ‘you have to believe this” and the jazz pianist sending out a beautiful tune: ‘you must believe in spring.’ That’s useful, now that the summer is coming to a close. After all, it’s only justice: an infinite summer is not an unending one! Thanks again for all your help and insight: you have turned me into a faithful reader, which I was not at the onset of this billowing adventure.

  3. Sarah / Sep 22 2009 3:53 am

    I have been avoiding the personal blogs for the last week or so, having briefly dropped behind the spoiler line. But this is great! Had I read this earlier I doubt I would have considered my final thoughts worthy of a post at all.

    I looked for answers at infsum first, and adopted Kevin Guilfoile‘s point of view:

    ‘Wallace is making us painfully aware of the fact of the cage. Like that missing scene with Hal and Gately, perpetual happiness exists as an idea, but we can’t have it. And deluding ourselves that we can will only make us perpetually miserable.’

    A convincing and satisfying summary, which allows any plot hiccups (on the part of the reader) to melt away unremarked.

    But now I can have my cake and eat it! This post and ‘Orin’s dread – concluded’ fill in a lot of the blanks; an unlooked for bonus. I very much like the idea of wraith as narrator, and Lyle as wraith, although wraith-narrated end-notes may be stretching it a bit…

    However, I still have two questions, the answers to which may be obvious/irrelevant:

    -If Joelle was present at Orin’s technical interview as you (I think correctly) surmise, does her appearance in Gately’s graveyard dream indicate that she also is become wraith? Or, at the very least, perished?

    -This quote, from Hal’s visit to Ennet House, pg 787, ‘Much later, in subsequent events’ light, Johnette F. would clearly recall the sight of the boy’s frozen hair slowly settling..’ seems significant. But I can’t figure out why?

    I want to say thanks, too, for all your posts over the summer. Without fellow infsum participants to turn to I doubt that I would have progressed beyond the first two hundred pages. Your blog has been thought-provoking throughout.

  4. Jeff / Sep 22 2009 2:13 pm

    Oh, that’s very nice work. I’m disinclined to take the overall narrator of IJ (that one recognizable and recurrent voice) as a character from the book, but your observation that the wraith’s appearance and communication method makes sense of that voice is a strong one. The way I (want to) see it, there isn’t actually a narrating character—except when there is—but in the same way that J.O.I. is able to implant his words into other people’s thoughts, “his” sensibility has come to suffuse the world of the book generally, so that it’s reported to us as something similar to the way he might report it to us.

    (I keep having to steer myself away from reading J.O.I. as DFW. I believe there’s some solid substance there, but it just feels so unseemly, and cheaply biographical.)

    And that’s a beautiful parallel between the way the wraith exists on a separate order from the physicality of the world, on the one hand, and the way Infinite Jest exists on a separate order from the physicality of the book.

    I second the other folks in appreciation and admiration for your work this summer. It’s been a great contribution.

  5. infinitetasks / Sep 22 2009 3:04 pm

    Daryl – Great catch on the Himself’s dad’s “shove.” That’s a wraith showing if ever there was one!

    Tom – Thanks for the kind words, and the Nancy recommendation. Of course, my adherence to the spoiler line doesn’t mean I didn’t go looking for or get help, I did, tons of it, from Jeff, Daryl, Detox, Paul, and Aaron, most of all, and bits from many others, too.

    – Two questions? Only two? 🙂 On the first, I didn’t mean to imply that Joelle was there at the technical interview, so far as I know she doesn’t leave Boston. But he can “rat” her out anyway. On the second, re: p. 787, well, I remember now coming across that with a mental exclamation mark, but it is still an unresolved future-pointer for me. But how about this: we know that A.F.R. is raiding E.T.A., and that though some may die (e.g., the jr. kids who went to check and never returned), others may be forced to flee. It makes sense that Hal, especially, would flee down the hill to Ennet House. This is pure speculation (I’ve been accused of before, but this one I admit), and there are other ways Johnette might come into contact once Gately and Hal have hooked up.

    And, Jeff – Ever since reading Milan Kundera years ago, the closest I’ve ever let an author into their book is as the “author”, and only if they put themself there (as Kundera likes to do). If you run all the way back to my Kate Gompert post on autobiography, you’ll know I don’t have any need for DFW within the frame of the novel itself. I mention him at times because, well, he wrote it, and the written words are his. But I don’t even find a “DFW” in the novel, or at least, I don’t feel any need to find one even if it is there. The maybe-J.O.I. voice is all I need. And thanks for the ‘preciation. This is the most fun I’ve had writing in a long time.

  6. itzadrag / Sep 23 2009 9:53 am

    The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else.

    –Wallace Stevens

    Daryl, could that shove come from our author, in the above-hovering role of Deus ex Wallacia?

    Gratitude, one and all. Well done, infinitely tasking ones.

  7. Paul Chandler / Sep 29 2010 2:34 am

    Well it took long enough. Thank god I went a little nuts in 2008 and posted as much as I could about what I had figured out. Because its there, for all to see: I got it first. FIRST! As the kids on YouTube comments like to fight over. NO BUT REALLY. You have no idea how happy I am to see someone at least come in second. And then there will be a third, and so on. But I will always be first. And i will always have been first ALONE. And I will always have survived the misery of that. Alone. Sorry, but this is a belated but still monumental moment for me personally. Here, a cookie: You are still hedged re: Lyle being semi or full wraith. All one has to do is determine exactly what kind of towel dispenser he sits on (the import of this question is hinted at by almost Homeric epithet of “guru on the towel dispenser” in intro to Lyle). There. Ah, it was nice and terrifying to be the champ of IJ interpretation by my lonesome, but way cooler to have more company now. Congrats on joining the ranks!

  8. J.J / Sep 15 2011 10:39 pm

    Hmph. Well, I’m reading this about a year later than anyone else, but can’t seem to find anywhere else to post this: I believe that JOI worked on an ocular-projection type machine that allowed scientists to visit the toxic areas of the annulation machine (could be getting some things wrong here). Could it be that his “wraith,” is simply a projection of himself? I don’t know how long Lyle has been at the school, but he could be one too. Maybe JOI used the machine in a way that preserved his essence…

  9. jerome / Sep 6 2013 6:56 pm

    I don’t agree that the wraith was the narrator of the entire book because the narration is generally contextual and is replete with the dually idiomatic and idiosyncratic expressions of specific characters. Additionally, in the footnotes corresponding with the “Eschaton Debacle”, Michael Pemulis speaks in the first person while teaching Hal the fundamentals of function in math.

  10. Mr Trials / Nov 11 2016 5:54 am

    first, i want to Thank you for this multidimensional analysis of one of the best books i have read in years. i have only read IJ about a year ago for the first time (i’m on the second approach as i write these lines) and shortly after i read “entangled minds” by dean radin.

    and let me tell you, it felt WEIRD. the scientific credibilty aside, on so many occasions, it felt like a scientific study on the whole JOI/Schtith/Lyle philosophy/phenomenon (philosomenon!?.)

    there are various chapters in this book, where radin explores the possibilities and practical application of the features and feats that are exhibited by the wraith(s), it seemed to me almost, as if DFW used some of radin’s material as inspiration for his (DFW) book. but even though radin’s work dates back to ’96 and earlier, entangled minds had been published 10 years AFTER IJ. now that’s some foreknowledge, isn’t it? 😉


  1. David Foster Wallace–[Final thoughts] Infinite Jest (1996) « I Just Read About That…

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