I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts

Alas, my poor Yoricks! I must begin this post with a disclaimer: I’m afraid that I left my copy of Infinite Jest at the office today by accident and must write without the text on hand to consult and/or quote. I apologize in advance for the lack of page numbers and specificity, as I will be writing about this section from memory and may fudge a few details by accident… Mea culpa!

With that said, I’m raring and ready to talk about all that paranormal activity in IJ this week and what it means for the narrative.

So, without further ado: shall we begin?


While Joe shared his thoughts on this part of the novel yesterday under a particularly brilliant subheading entitled “More Ghostly Narrative Ambiguity + Surrealism to da MAX,” I just had to add my two cents today because not only was the entire scene fascinating to read, but it had lots of – you guessed it – Hamletesque undertones.

And I can practically hear your collective groan of “Enough already with all the Hamlet!” but please bear with me for a few paragraphs more. I promise I’ll make this as short and sweet as I can. In all fairness, though, how can any self-respecting Hamlet lover turn a blind eye to a scene that includes a fatherly ghost? Check and mate, my friends.

I totally agree with Joe when he says that Wallace does a good job of simulating what it feels like to “[float] in and out of consciousness” with all of the memories, thoughts, and fever dreams blurring and swirling around in Gately’s head as he recovers from his injuries sustained from protecting that underserving insect named Randy Lenz . (To be honest, I kind of stopped liking Gately after he saved Lenz from the rightfully enraged Canadians, but that’s neither here nor there.) While I can’t say that I’m a fan of these long surrealist sections because I find them a bit tedious to wade through after a while, I can say that I was a fan of the way our friend DFW slowly brought JOI’s wraith into focus – like a camera lens slowly adjusting until the picture is sharper, clearer. The ghostlike figure begins on the fringes of Gately’s consciousness with a few tentative mentions interspersed here and there, and its shadowy presence grows and grows until it is a fully-fledged wraith capable of having a sustained mental conversation with Gately.

It is during this mental conversation that we learn that the wraith is James Incandenza and that he is wracked with worry for his youngest son, Hal. And, if this doesn’t scream Hamlet to you, then I don’t know what does.

The parallels stop there, however, because JOI’s ghost does not appear to his son, but to a complete stranger. Not only that, but he also does not ask for anyone to seek vengeance on his behalf because – as far as we know – he was not murdered by his brother Claudius/Charles. (Now, wouldn’t that be a twist?) Additionally, Wallace deploys Himself’s ghost too late in the narrative for him to be considered a comparable catalyst to Hamlet’s father. It is almost as if he is tacked on as a bit of an afterthought, but –

But that isn’t right. No. The appearance of JOI’s wraith feels too significant for an afterthought, so why now?

Why at all, really? And I ask that because, for someone who is never technically alive within the narrative, James Incandenza is perhaps the most omnipresent character in the world of IJ. He lives on through his filmography, through conversations between the Incandenza brothers, through the AFR’s desperate search for his final entertainment, through the ETA, through Joelle’s memories and musings – even the narrator brings him back from the dead a few times to tell the story of his childhood.

Gately is one of the few who remains untouched by JOI’s legacy, which makes the wraith’s apparition to him – of all people – a curious one. I honestly don’t know what to make of it because it would have been far more emotionally resonant, or just plain interesting to see Joelle, Hal, Avril, Mario, or even Orin (God forbid) to interact with Himself’s ghost due to their shared history. I would hazard to say that the scene in which Hamlet meets his father’s ghost on the ramparts of Elsinore Castle is so iconic because it is speaks to the common fantasy of seeing a loved one again after death. Their exchange is a charged one because Hamlet is an ocean of feelings – grief, rage, wonder, disbelief, fear – and it’s thrilling to read and/or watch.

Instead, with Gately, Incandenza’s appearance is robbed of the opportunity to be emotional and replaced with something else. Something I can’t place.

And that isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the Gately-JOI mental conversation that took place. I just don’t know how to feel about it. That notwithstanding, I think I like Wallace’s decision to subvert the ghost figure in Hamlet and make him a part of the resolution rather than the rising action. While the ghost’s apparition precipitates all of the pain to come in Hamlet, Himself’s ushers in a period of healing for Gately and perhaps signals something that looks like hope as we get closer to the end…

But enough about me. What thinkest thou?


Author: alliefournier

Full-time fangirl, feminist, and Mary Shelley enthusiast.

9 thoughts on “I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts”

  1. I like the way you link Hamlet and IJ here. After finally reading Ulysses this year I found that the “Scylla and Charybdis” chapter to be hugely important to IJ. There is a a kind of dramatization of literary theory there that links Hamlet to Ulysses to Infinite Jest.


  2. No groans here, Allie. Hamlet it up! I like your idea about the wraith ushering in a period of healing–it’s an interesting way to think about it as Gately is actually physically recovering.

    When I first read this book, I also wondered, “Why Gately?” and “Why not an Incandenza or Joelle?” This is a good example of one of those mysteries that Wallace puts in to the book to keep you digging for more. All I will say is that there -is- a connection between Gately and JOI, though the mention of this connection is buried in the text many pages back.

    Happy hunting, er… Gravedigging? And are Kenkle and Brandt supposed to be the gravediggers in Hamlet? (are there even two? I forget…)


  3. I do think it’s possible that JOI was murdered, in a sense, by CT. In Hamlet the King is killed with poison. In IJ JOI takes his own life after ingesting Wild Turkey – which is his “poison”. So, the question becomes – who gifted him the poison? Given the plot similarities to Hamlet, the suggestion that CT gave JOI poison in the form of Wild Turkey is plausible to me.

    There’s another Hamlet sighting that I like to point out. Namely, when Lenz is on his crazy walk he is moving NNW. Similarly Hamlet declares he is only mad north-north-west.


    1. huh! I never thought about the fact that Wild Turkey was a gift, and that the Wild Turkey is his “poison.” How was the poison in Hamlet administrated? For some reason, I am thinking that it was poured into his ear? Am I correct in this? If so, well, both had a painful death via the head.


      1. Yep, in Hamlet the poison is poured into the king’s ear. The concept of ear poisoning never seemed very realistic to me but i guess it’s been scientifically proven to be possible. On a related note, I’ve wondered if Hamlet’s speech to Ophelia was a kind of ear poisoning that led to her collapse.


  4. Allie, I’m also at a loss when thinking about why JOI appears to Gately. The ONLY thing I can think of is that JOI may have encountered Gately when he attempted to go to AA, but I forget if that lines up for how long Gately has been in AA for. And Joe, I’m unsure where you are alluding to! Do you meaning the opening of the book with Hal, Gately, and John Wayne? If so, then that still doesn’t answer why Gately because those events happen AFTER Gately is in the hospital.

    On another note: I really want to write some kind of Ghostbusters/Hamlet mashup. Like, why hasn’t it happened yet? Hamlet can be all like “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts, especially ghosts of my father.”


    1. So when he’s the professional conversationalist probing Hal for information about Avril’s affairs, he mentions a sordid liaison with the notorious M, DuPlessis, then Gately’s initial appearance is when he accidentally kills DuPlessis during the burglary, so if JOI was watching he would have seen it and liked it. I don’t know if there are other dots to connect as well, but that’s all I can think of and at least it’s something.

      I agree with your and Allie’s assessment that it’s all a bit flaky too though. I’ve always just thought he works through Gately because he needs a completely immobilized, captive, and attentive audience. Gately won’t recognize him or have any personal conflict with him either, like his family or Joelle would, and he also knows Gately won’t perceive him as some kind of higher power bullshit so he’ll be able to interact with him as a normal person. Albeit as a wraith, lol.

      So is it true as Joe said that you read Finnegans Wake solo, and if so, did you enjoy it like that?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haha I did read it from front to back but I cannot say I finished reading it. I continued reading it in a group held my one of my professors at Brock, and I enjoyed it much more to do it in a group. It’s a book that should be read aloud together to read it slowly with others. But I did enjoy it solo, even if I didn’t know what the hell was going on


    2. That is the part, Phil. You’re right though–JOI is dead at that point (if it’s real). But if the wraith is everywhere at once, then he certainly would recognize Gately. I agree that it’s still weird…there must be some connection though, even if it’s not readily apparent (like you said, the AA connection…the murder of the AFR PIT, which is maybe linked to Avril… Something! Gah)


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