The Wraith

November 2, 2008 § 6 Comments

Just finished: Infinite Jest.

Reading next: End Zone, by Don DeLillo.

It’s one of the most audacious gambits in American fiction, period.  It makes perfect sense for its narrative and yet it seems a colossal singularity.  In complicated ways it recalls both Hamlet’s father’s ghost and the “Circe” episode of Ulysses.  Somehow (how?!) I’d forgotten it was coming and then, as I read it, the feeling of reading it the first time rushed back to me: that feeling of being torn between belief and skepticism, at the appearance of James Incandenza’s “wraith” to agonized, incapacitated, feverish Don Gately.

There’s no doubt, really, that this actually happens: James Incandenza appears to Don Gately, even bringing Lyle or his disembodied spirit with him at one point.  If it’s a product of Don’s fever, it’s a vision, not a dream or figment.  The wraith corresponds exactly to James O.’s characteristics, which Don would have no way of knowing, even though Don’s seen some of his films (unwittingly) and has other weird tangential relationships with the Incandenzas (getting us back to that confluential/anti-confluential discussion).

The word itself, “wraith,” is important here, since DFW uses it pretty much exclusively.  Hal’s beloved OED is less than helpful, but interesting.  The first definition is the simple “apparition or spectre of a dead person…”  The second is somewhat confusing: “An immaterial or spectral appearance of a living being, freq. regarded as portending that person’s death; a fetch.”  But what Hal would likely be most interested in is the utter lack of etymological information: “Of obscure origin.”  The earliest uses are from 1513, in a translation of the Aeneid into “Middle Scots” by one Gavin Douglas.  And a 1691 reference also refers to the use of the word among “low-countrey Scotts.”  Just as the appearance of the wraith is inescapably creepy and weird and outside of the already very weird (but differently weird) world of this book, so the lack of etymological information on the origins of the word itself would strike Hal, I suspect, as equally creepy and unsettling.

Hal is the key here, because the only reason I can see for JOI’s wraith to appear to Don is to plant a dream in Don’s feverish mind of helping Hal unearth his (JOI’s) corpse.  The wraith explains to Don that it takes enormous effort for him to appear to Don: “Wraiths by and large exist (putting his arms out slowly and making little quotation-mark finger-wiggles as he said exist) in a totally different Heisenbergian dimension of rate-change and time-passage.”  Therefore, the wraith has to stand still for extremely long periods of time to appear at all to Don (who seems to be able to see the wraith at all just because of his feverish dream-fugue state; and all of this seems creepily reminiscent of the way that Hal moves in jerky and frightening ways at the beginning of the book, so deep inside his own head that he’s something of a wraith).

Basically, as Don summarizes: “death was just everything outside you getting really slow.”  JOI’s wraith then does this scary kind of whirl into Don’s brain, where he can plant thoughts and vocabulary Don would never use and basically make things even more confusing for poor fever-addled Demerol-tempted Don.  So he plants a dream, very similar to the brief mention of Gately all the way back in the very first section of the book, with Hal thinking (remembering?) as he’s strapped down during his apparent seizure in November of the Year of Glad (a year after the action of the rest of the book), “I think of John N. R. Wayne, who would have won this year’s WhataBurger, standing watch in a mask as Donald Gately and I dig up my father’s head.”

It strikes me that JOI’s wraith could function as a metaphor for the authorial perspective of the book, a figure outside of the world diving in and out of heads and planting thoughts in the voices of the characters themselves, if we want to get metafictional about it.  Less metaphorically, could be JOI is our narrator.  Even less metaphorically, but on rather more destabilizingly metaphysical ground, could be that JOI’s wraith is somehow behind the movement of Stice’s bed (last seen somehow hanging from his room’s ceiling), the strange movement of other objects around E.T.A., and even the disappearance of Pemulis’s DMZ from its hiding place, acting as a kind of deus ex machina, although much more confusing and ambiguous in intent and execution.  Could be that he also plants that thought of Wayne and Gately and digging up his body in Hal’s mind: that it hasn’t, in fact, happened yet, that Hal and Don haven’t met yet, and that JOI is still trying to get them together.

It’s hard to close the circle of this book.  Things seem to be coming to so much of a head, as the Y.D.A.U. action of the book winds up, that it’s hard to imagine them getting to the point they’re at a whole year later, with Hal still playing tennis (apparently very well, still, since he’s in the semis of the WhataBurger) but apparently non-communicative for the entire year.  The thought of Gately gives us hope that he survived, although he seems so very close to death at the end (although the cooling sensation of being on the beach in the “freezing sand” in the very last line could be a clue to his being given an ice bath, maybe, to relieve his horrible fever in the hospital, or perhaps just the fever’s breaking).  One way to look at it might be that the wraith of JOI thinks that Don may be able to help Hal, to get through to him and help him both with his marijuana problem and with the apparent danger he’s in from the Quebecois separatists.

Beyond all that, though, is DFW’s amazing insistence on the wraith’s appearance.  We go on.  The wraith is undeniably James O. Incandenza, not just some facsimile or hologram or apparition thereof.  He’s got the man’s characteristics, memories, annoying and inspiring quirks.  I suppose what it is, is an insistence on the human soul, warts and all, and on the possibility of infinity.

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§ 6 Responses to The Wraith

  • Cletus says:

    Brilliant,really.Maybe you can help me,because I can’t understand the strange things that happen to Stice.

  • thedmo says:

    Eric Partridge (ORIGINS, 2nd ed., Macmillian & Company, NY, 1959) gives this etymology, under “ward” (795):
    “5. Akin to OE “Weard” (m) one who watches or guards, is the syn ON ‘vorthr,’ whence, in C16, the Sc ‘warth,’ whence, by metathesis, ‘wraith,’ a guardian angel, hence a person’s ghost seen–as a warning, a means of protection–shortly or imm before his death, hence any apparition: introduced into England by Burns and Scott.”

    (The words in single quotes appear in the source in italics, with an umlaut in the first.)

  • spaceman says:

    It seems pretty obvious to me that Hal is the patient next to Don Gately, and the reason that JOI and Lyle are both governing Hal’s recovery. Why would they ever inter-face with Don Gately? However, I do not remember DFW ever mentioning that Lyle ever died, and so he must have been a wraith for a long time, with his levitation powers and philosophical skills. I believe that Dostoevsky and Crime and Punishment and his views about the human condition really influenced this novel, I also feel that DFW addictions led him to that ultimate bridge, that bridge you cross when you read Crime and Punishment, and wake up in a cold sweat, wondering if you accidentally killed somebody. This book is all about the human condition, and addiction. We know DFW was addicted to Kodiak chewing tobacco, pot, and possibly prescription drugs as shown in the footnotes.

    • Himself says:

      It would make very little sense for Hal to be physically in the same room as Don Gately during Gately’s recovery from his gunshot. The timeline, though occasionally confusing, makes it quite clear that while Gately is in the hospital Hal is still at ETA, with approximately another year to go in the narrative’s timeline before the literal beginning of the book.

      I think the call back to Hamlet (especially considering the title) is the most obvious but also the most apt; whether the “wraith” is “actually” there or not doesn’t matter, because Don Gately is affected by JOIW (James O. Incandenza’s Wraith) rather directly. Also, as the author of this post mentioned, the Wraith’s attributes correspond exactly to what we’ve learned about JOI.

      Its presence makes further sense if you think about JOI’s (real or not) conviction that Hal refuses to speak to him (episodes throughout relate this, and in fact it is directly stated at one point) – in JOI’s mind, Hal’s “inability” to “hear” JOI would also mean that JOI can’t very directly affect Hal (JOI is convinced he cannot communicate with the world (a delusion his so-called wife weirdly helps maintain by doing things like taking Hal to fake appointments) which is the direct inverse of what happens to Hal).

      In some sense, I do think the wraith is one of the MANY aspects of the book that was purposely left somewhat ambiguous, to be questioned both by Gately and the reader (just as Hamlet’s father’s appearance is not taken for granted to actually be the ghost of his father…) while also providing motives and exposition.

      Also, the “footnotes” (they’re actually end-notes) DO NOT “show” that DFW was an addict, only that he was immensely capable when it came to both research and characterization (this is the same guy who went so far as to actually *become a CPA* in order to write a novel about the IRS).

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