The Imprint of Celluloid Ghosts & Ontological Eternalism: Speculations on the Narrator of Infinite Jest (a gothic mystery) by Tex Gresham


The ghost is tired of hearing that it doesn’t exist. 

It will show them, it will show all those living 

people what an appearance is when it appears. 

Carte Postale du Fantôme, Robert Malaval 


§1 Prefatory Matters 

The structure of this article is meant to be equal parts mystery, film, and equational essay, meaning that each section should (hopefully) build upon the next and that each should rely heavily on the section previous—and all these clues lead to a conclusion. In these mystery films (or whodunnits), the revolution (or thesis) is presented to the audience at the end. Because of this structure, a thesis will be vaguely stated in the beginning but fully “revealed”—or clarified—in a later section. The reason for this delay in thesis is a) to build a moderate level of suspense (given that this is a quasi-academic article, I still feel it necessary that there be a healthy level of “narrative” excitement), and b) that once the thesis is stated, the article will swerve into a realm of somewhat wild speculation. This speculation, however, will not be unfounded, as the sections leading up to it will provide enough foundation and evidence so that the suggestions and speculations will (again, hopefully) seem logical and possible—and not a waste of your time. 

Here is a list of abbreviations used (sometimes used, sometimes not) within the text:

IJ Infinite Jest 

JB John Barth 

DFW (take a guess) 

GGB Giles Goat-Boy 

RB Roland Barthes 

HB Harold Bloom

These abbreviations are necessary due largely to the continued use (and overuse) of the names and phrases these abbreviations represent. Their use is an attempt to repel any tiresomeness as a result of overusing these names and phrases. 

And because Infinite Jest so concerns itself with entertainment and cinema (a clear distinction between the two), the idea of this paper is to present narratively and entertainingly an academic or critical paper on authorship. This is not necessarily a critical theory paper, but instead is more like a mess of theory, speculation, and philosophy. And in the end should leave the reader with the evidence and possibility to determine the validity of the speculation—which is probably what any reader will naturally do. Or as they say: the ball will be in your court

§2 A Standard Introduction 

Infinite Jest is a novel that is also a compilation of David Foster Wallace’s knowledge of cinematic technique and critique. Like any proper cinematic auteur, Wallace has learned the rules of cinematic storytelling and then abuses them to unsettle the reader (or viewer) and situate them outside the realm of expectation and comfort. But Infinite Jest is also a novel of influence. Throughout its pages, the reader is faced with both the ghost of Wallace and the ghosts of his predecessors (even though some are still alive). Though a completely original piece, the novel situates itself in the influence of these predecessors, thus turning it into less a collaboration and more a compilation of techniques and ideas—much like a director would compile scenes to present a film to viewers. But this leads the writer of this paper to question who, then, is the true narrator of Infinite Jest? If Wallace is merely committing the act of compiling scenes, editing them together, who is responsible of the transcription of these scenes to the viewer—or reader? Through the influence of John Barth’sGiles Goat-Boy as defined by Barthes’s Anxiety of Influence, and with the understanding of cinematic principles (both within the text of Infinite Jest and known to Wallace himself), this paper presents the idea that the narrator of Infinite Jest is not Wallace, but rather James O. Incandenza, that Infinite Jest the novel and Infinite Jest the film within the book are the same, and that David Foster Wallace is merely a compiler of these scenes into the finished product: Infinite Jest.

§3 History 

It is necessary to take a brief detour into the history of DFW and the development of his fiction. During his formidable years, Wallace’s development and understanding of the boundaries of literature (and how to push them) relied on the up-to-then oeuvre of authors such as Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, and, of particular interest to this paper/article/essay, John Barth (JB). It is with these writers that Wallace discovered postmodernism and all its trimmings, as well as the ability to deconstruct the expectations of language and narrative. However, Wallace’s reliance on these established influences heightened a certain amount of anxiety toward his own writing. 

In his book The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom (HB) discusses this anxiety (though in reference to the Poet, but can be equally applied to artists of any medium) and claims that an Author is always aware of predecessors and in creating NewWork consciously or unconsciously relies on the works of these predecessors to build the foundations of this New Work, thus inducing an anxiety within the Author that this New Work will be recognized (whether by outside sources or by the Self) as imitation or derivative, and not an entirely unique work of the Author. Bloom goes on to discuss the pitfalls of idealization and concludes that “figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves […] and self-appropriate involves the immense anxiety of indebtedness” (5), summarizing that even the most independent creation owes itself to previous work—whether directly or indirectly. This indebtedness is apparently, according to Bloom, inescapable. Bloom seems to be under the impression that the Author must be under the influence of idealization. To him, it seems that the Author can think only of these predecessors and that all creative relationships the Author has with New Work is through the lens of this idealization. Unfortunately, despite my attempt to reject this idea, petulantly denying the fact that influence is inevitable, Bloom, in this case, is 100% correct. Note: This article is proof of that idealization and influence.1

Wallace was all too aware of this inescapable anxiety. And while previous authors on this subject have suggested otherwise (as I am hardly the first to discuss Wallace, Barth, Barthes, and Bloom, and the intertextuality of each), limiting the definition of these subjects feels necessary. Marshall Boswell in Understanding David Foster Wallace suggests that Wallace remained in the Bloom-created realm of clinamen2w/r/t John Barth (who will be discussed in detail in a bit), “which implies the precursor [work] went accurately up to a certain point, but then should have swerved, precisely in the direction that the new ‘poem’ moves” (Bloom 14). In his article, ‘The Anxiety of Influence: The John Barth/David Foster Wallace Connection3, Charles B. Harris implies that Wallace openly accepted this influence form Barth and developed an “agonistic relationship.” And this subject was further detailed in David Hering’s book David Foster Wallace Fiction + Form—which should not only be read in relation to this article, but also as a thoroughly-researched collection of important Wallace studies. 

Rather than discussing all six of Bloom’s “Revisionary Ratios”, only the fourth will be discussed: daemonization—where the “later poet opens himself to what he believes to be a power in the parent poem that does not belong to the parent poem” and uses this power to create a New Work that generalizes away the “uniqueness of the earlier work” (15). So instead of Wallace correcting the direction of the predecessor’s work as Boswell suggests or accepting the influence and embracing it as Harris claims, Wallace is actually, in an intellectually complex and hardly petulant way, taking the works of these predecessors (namely Barth, for the sake of this article) and saying, I can do you one better

§4 Goat-Boy & The Mighty WESCAC 

Although Broom of the System is a notable reference to the up-to-that-point works of Thomas Pynchon (Broom being a playfully complex derivative of The Crying of Lot 49), with “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” and Infinite Jest (IJ) it is noted that Wallace pulled form and function from his “strongest artistic influence, John Barth” (Boswell 103)—though Wallace had an antagonistic relationship with JB. In D.T. Max’s in-depth biography of DFW, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, there are notes and references to DFW having a falling out with Barth and his use of metafiction. In the margins of “Lost in the Funhouse,” Wallace had noted that the story calls attention to itself too much, that it is only concerned with figuring itself out. He even stated that this type of metafiction only “fattens without nourishing” (91)—all fun, no function. (Though it’s worthy to note that Wallace, according to Max, previously used the term “meat fiction” to describe the “clever” and “sardonic” and “intellectually [rich]” (90) metafiction that came from Barth). Max implies that Wallace claims he was rejected from the MFA program where Barth taught—though, and Max makes this clear, this claim is unsubstantiated, lacking in proof outside speculation.

However, though DFW did tire of Barth’s substance-less metafiction, it is clear and obvious (and well-noted) that Barth was one of the main driving influences that helped Wallace develop a deeper understanding of what it means to craft shapely and substantive fiction.4 

Focusing on JB and how his work relates to IJ, it is important to familiarize oneself with Barth’s massive postmodern novel from 1966, Giles Goat-Boy (GGB). Released the same year as Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, GGB (of similar girth and complexity as IJ) points the JB lens at the campus life of a university divided in Eastern and Western hemispheres and bound to religious/spiritual education—and re-education. The novel satirizes classic storytelling techniques and Biblical & heroic myths—and specifically lambasting Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces—and much like IJ is an exploration (and deconstruction) of language, hesitance in a highly-conflicted near-future North America, obscured purpose of character within narrative, and, most notably, (especially in relation to IJ), the inclusion of the hyper- and meta-textual including postscript “tapes” to postscript footnotes and Editor’s notes and letters from Barth himself. GGB also deals heavily with Cold War and post-Cold War fear and paranoia—very similar to the way IJ deals with global warfare and the threat of nuclear war. GGB is also a family drama in bizarro terms—a father who shapes his son into a specific being, a son raised by a mother who isn’t his mother, an intricate plot created specifically for the use of this son, where pieces come together to shape this son into something more-than. These elements (along with the elements discussed in the body of the article) create a series of connections from GGB to IJ. Wallace, being highly influenced in the beginning of his life of writing by postmodernism, undoubtedly recognized Bloom’s system of intellectual revisionisms and applied it to this foundationary American postmodern novel. Barth himself called it the first American postmodern novel—but that title would actually likely belong to either John Hawkes’s The Cannibal or William Gaddis’s The Recognitions.5 

But why GGB is so important when discussing Wallace (and eventually the narration of IJ) is that the structure of the text itself, in its highly postmodern and metafiction form, from the first page, calls attention to the fact that it is not a work of fiction produced by Barth’s, but rather a compilation made by a questionable source. GGB begins with a disclaimer from the publisher, editors’ notes, and a letter from Barth, all of which detail the fact that a) the text consists of “found tapes” (the entire novel being transcribed from a collection of these found data tapes), and b) that the “found tapes” were originally “written by a certain automatic computer” known as the “mighty WESCAC” (xii). This “WESCAC” though is actually a character existing within the narrative of these “found tapes”—a character within the novel itself. So with GGB as a complete narrative, what Barth has done is strip himself of the role as Author, and instead has made himself a compiler (or facilitator) of the collected “tapes” written by the only “person” qualified to express the narrative—who also happens to exists within the narrative itself. Barth is also calling attention to the Barthes idea that the Author is always dead. It is also of worth to note that the letter from Barth and the editors’ notes question the validity of the novel’s authorship. 

Which all leads to questions regarding the mysterious “authorship” of IJ and how that authorship changes when viewed through the lens of GGB—and with a little help from Roland Barthes (RB) for clarification on how this yet-to-be-seen thesis is possible.  

§5 Death of the Author 

Despite DFW’s death, his presence is experienced in every word of IJ—or so it would seem. He remains imprinted in the medium, much like the celluloid that directors such as Kubrick, Wells, and Altman (to name a few) use to manifest images from their mind into a palpable narrative—or collection of narrative units. RB defines these narrative units as any “segment of the story which can be seen as the term of a correlation” (89). From mind to print, these units last long after their death—much the same way DFW exists within IJ. In his essay collection Image-Text-Music, RB states, however, that the Author should be seen as dead, and that the novel is an “oblique space” where “all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing” (142). Barthes is calling for the reader to see the Author as a nonexistent entity, that the narrative allows space for the “language while speaks, not the author”, and that this speaking comes from a place where “every text is eternally written here and now” (143). This here-and-nowness could possibly refer to the essentiality of the text being based in a POV that is continuously everywhere and nowhere—an impossibility for an Author to experience if one were to take the narrative as its own reality. 

In GGB, JB plays with this idea, taking his position as Author and rendering down to the role of Editor (or Collector) and giving the authorial position to the WESCAC. With IJ, Wallace, I believe, took this idea and further removed himself from the text. Much in the same way a film director is a collector of narrative units, compiling them into a unified structure6, Wallace is taking this same approach, editing pieces of an unfinished film and compiling them into a narrative as he sees fit. He takes the role of a curator, and in this curatorial approach affirms the parametrical nature of this disconnectedness between the author (Wallace) and the narrator of the text. Wallace doesn’t have “A Novel By” on the title pages of Infinite Jest, but rather “A Novel”, therefore not implicating himself, but instead simply stating that Infinite Jest is a novel—and not specifically by whom. Given that Wallace was very invested in the presentation of the Novel7(the title page, the copyright jokes), the careful choice of wording on title page (though it appears like this in numerous novels, but is important here because of the postmodernist, metafictional playful antagonism of the reader that Wallace seems to be extracting from GGB and applying to IJ) points again, textually, to his extraction of himself as Author/narrator. Or maybe it’s that not giving a book a clear person to point at and says “This person is the author” absolves the author for the wrong doings. It isn’t a question if David Foster Wallace wrote Infinite Jest. He did. But what this paper is suggesting thus far is that maybe he didn’t want it to seem like he wrote the Novel, and that he didn’t want his presence within the text in an obvious, obtrusive way—like Barth did with Giles Goat-Boy. Barth’s novel, however, includes “by” on the title page, thus destroying the illusion before he even makes a case for the illusion. Wallace’s daemonizationized response is to not implicate himself, and it’s important to remember Barthes’s quote regarding all these details: “Everything has meaning, or nothing has” (89).

§6 A Singular Quote 

One of the most important elements to this theory of narrative authorship, it is necessary to take a more structuralist approach to studying IJ. Adding to the unfinished-ness in the previous section, Barthes continues with his narrative discussion by determining that a narrative is distinguished by “three levels of description” which are function (elementary particles—words, phrases, and punctuation that bring them together), action (specifically, the actants, or Characters, and details that make up the narrative), and narration (the system with which these actions and functions are presented as a whole) (88). For the sake of this section, the focus will be primarily on the units of function—specifically in reference to IJ. Within this classification, RB determines a subclassifications of function called functional syntax8—which asks “How, according to what ‘grammar,’ are the different units strung together along the narrative syntagm?” (97). With the function of punctuation being considered within this functional syntax equation, questions naturally emerges in relation of IJ and the direction of this article: What is the function of single quotes inInfinite Jest? How do these quotes change the narration? And, outside European literature, how does that differential applied in Infinite Jest? And while these questions might seem a bit too microscopically thinking, allow me to again quote Barthes: “Everything has meaning, or nothing has” (89). 

Oxford’s Guide to Style specifies the delineation between the use of single quotes (or inverted commas)—a common British (and European) function—and double quotes—a predominately American style preference. It is highly unlikely that DFW uses the single quotes in moments of dialogue within IJ to communicate a level of snooty, high-brow-ness, a look-at-me-using-European-style-in-an-American-novel thing. Nor is it likely (though vaguely possible—the same vagueness that life exists after death) that Wallace’s use of single quotes is used as a means to call attention to the potential narrative authority of IJ being based around Quebecois Elements of Style, which would lean—likely—close toEuropean standards—and which would imply the authorship of the novel being somehow tainted by Quebecois separatists—and I promise: this will make sense. Since IJ is an American story, and the American functional syntax of single quotes denotes a quoted phrase or dialogue within dialogue (or anything already within quotes), Wallace’s use of single quotes implies that the narration of IJ is actually telling within the narrative—that is, that the entire novel is a long, continuous quote. Each of the sequences within IJ are connected by this “tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred” (147). If these intentions are lost and deferred, then who is it are they deferred to? 

Recall the form with which JB structures GGB—a compiled narrative originating as tapes transcribed from the free-thinking of sentient computer.It is a singular entity relating the “here and now” (Barthes 143) the exists within the narrative between the Editors Notes and the post-tapes (GGB’s version of DFW’s “Notes and Errata” endnotes in IJ). Though GGB does not use quotes, it is the text itself and the way it is arranged and presented that implies the telling—the printed word (transcribed data) being the only manner with which a computer can communicate outside itself. With IJ, the same theory applies, but with the single quotes signifying a singular voice chosen to “speak” or “tell” the narrative to the reader much the same way as a director presents a sequence of narrative units to the audience. Because of this,I believe that Wallace’s choice for single quote usages was an intentional attention-calling technique (narrative function syntax), hinting at the narrator’s voice, taking all responsibility from the Author as narrator and giving that responsibility to an Other, the “donor of the narrative” (109). How, though, can a singular being see all aspects—internal and external—of a narrative, existing at different times and in different minds? How can a narrator be omniscient and real at the same time? 

The lens is ever present in IJ. The idea of being watched and filmed, seeing the self reflected back through tape––the room where the boys watch their tennis form over and over. Taking the concept of film and lens into this single-quote question, it’s safe to say that what a lens digests in a quote of the reality that it consumes. A facsimile. Just as much as a picture is never really you, nor is the you you see in the mirror (touching on simulacra here and don’t really want to). Look, I have to say mention it here. In Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, he talks about film (or the lens) being an “invocation of resemblance, but at the same time the flagrant proof of the disappearance of objects in their very representation: hyperreal” (45). Ah, good old Baudrillard.9 When we see what the lens sees, it is no longer what was. It becomes a quoted reality, a telling told to us. It changes. RB states that this reinvention by the lens is “to change structures, to signify something different than what is shown” (19). So this changed structure, this hyperreal reality within the novel is crafted, seen through the lens and digested and formed to us, hence the single quotes. But there has to be someone behind the camera, guiding where the lens is pointed and how close it gets. So who is it?

§7 Let’s Talk About Ghosts

The ontology of narration and the ontology of ethereal beings—ghosts—are identical in that each represents time in its entirety as existing in a singular point, thus allowing the reader—or the ghost—to jump around at any point, any place, any time. Eternalism is a philosophical furthering of ontology, stating that all points in time within this ontological sameness are equally as real. Likely being familiar (thoroughly, given his in-depth study of philosophy) with these philosophical concepts and how they relate to narratives (both literary and filmic), and applying it to Barthes’s principles discussed in the next paragraph, Wallace challenges the way in which a narrative can be presented—and who can present this narrative in a subtle and intelligent way. 

Given Barthes’s definition of the three types of narrators, IJ is told, predominantly, through the God-like narration. Barthes’s three types of narration differ from the traditional ideas of narrative styles (first, second, third person narrations). Barthes relates these “donors of the narrative” in terms of how the narrative is presented (not necessarily who). The first is close to the first-person style (in that I is used and that the narration comes from a single individual), but that there is an “endless exchange between the ‘personality’ and the ‘art’ of a perfectly identified individual who periodically takes up his pen to write a story” (110). This pen translates a rather wide net for content—not necessarily limiting the content to experience of this personality. The second is the traditional omniscient God-like narrator—able to jump around and translate the details in any manner. The third—and Barthes claims this to be a more “recent conception” (recent as of 1977)—doesn’t limit itself to first-, second-, or third-person, but does limit the narration to what the “character can observe and know” and that “each of the characters in turn were the sender of the narrative” (111). The third is where IJ lives. As if the narrator is able to possess but not transcend the identity of the character in which the lens is pointed. Though he’s discussion the short story “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” Herring identifies this ghost authority Wallace uses as “comprehensible directional flow of possession via the introduction of an amalgamated set of possessing and counter-possessing narrative voices.” Which sounds like the flow that IJ follows. A cast of characters in various states of possession

Though IJ is a collection of all three, it is the shifting nature of this narration that applies the “omniscient, apparently impersonal, consciousness” (111) that comprises the novel’s text. This narration style is most closely related to the way film narratives translates through the eyes and mind of the viewer. A film is a compilation of narrative units (scenes). These scenes, though compiled in an often-linear manner, are almost always filmed out of sequence and compiled later into the proper order. This diachronic order of film narrative is only seemingly constant. Given the discussion of the article, it can be argued that filmic narratives are almost always presented with a synchronic synthesis of time. According to structuralist theory, synchronic storytelling considers all moments in the narrative at one time—whereas diachronic presents these narrative units in a linear, chronological order. In these diachronic films, think about flashbacks and forwards, moments when the narrative jumps (whether to represent events occurring in the past, at the same time, in the near future, events that relate to the scene occurring at the moment of or prior to these jumps in time/space). These jumps are considering the time and the subject focused on these jumps as a moment of equal important to the present and that they should be considered to occur synchronically. A director, in the process of filming or developing the narrative, must take into account the entire narrative as a singular moment, that all moments within the narrative are of equal importance to each other, and that this synthesis of narrative function is, in fact, an ontologically-dominated way for viewing and presenting time. Inherently, a director becomes a God-like observer on the world of this narrative—and almost always this. 10 

And though Wallace was not uncomfortable with telling the narrative from the perspective of a ghost, it isn’t likely for Wallace to take the position of a God-like being as narrator. The next closest narrative style to this God-like omniscience—the ability to jump through time, take up temporary residency in the mind of any character necessary to the narrative, and exist in this state without having a presence within the narrative—is that of a ghost. Wallace is familiar with the use of ghosts as a means to narrate a story. David Hering dedicated an entire chapter to Wallace’s relationship with ghosts in his collection of intenseWallace studies, David Foster Wallace Fiction + Form. In this chapter—titled “Vocality A Flickering Hand, Dead and Cold: Reading Wallace’s Ghosts”—, Hering states that “Wallace’s fiction retains the motif of the ghostly ‘apparition’ as a way of explicitly disrupting narrative authority” (16)—which is how Hering begins his chapter, and which is likely how I should’ve started this article. 

David Hering’s article “Reading the Ghost in David Foster Wallace’s Fiction” details the use of this relationship with ghosts and their functionality in a narrative. Though Wallace has a history throughout his oeuvre with the subtle use of phantoms and ghosts as a means to commit logical meta-textualism, in the Oblivion-published short story “Good Old Neon”, Wallace actually makes the narrator a person who has recently died. And this is an obvious element, as the narrator himself speaks to the reader (traversing the narrative reality in the reality of the reader) that the narrative will be more interesting when he gets “to the part where I kill myself and discover what happens immediately after a person dies” (143). This ghost narration calls attention to the ontological elements of this narrative style, allowing the narrator to jump back and forth through (and outside) time and space in order to cover all the events relative to the story. 

Given Hering’s thorough research and discussion on this topic (bibliography in back for further research), I will only give a brief overview of notes on the subject, and specifically of those that relate to the thesis—which hasn’t been said yet (but will be in the following section). Hering claims that Wallace consistently “interrogated the ontology of the author’s presence” (16), and that his “fiction [is] populated with multiple and competing indiscernible voices which originate from powerful absent and often ghostly figures” (17). This theory goes on to define Wallace (the man whose name appears on the cover and title page of the Novel) as less authorial and more “explicitly curatorial”, much in the same way Barth “curates” the collected reels (tapes) of GGB (and much in the same way that I am compiling all these external essays and theories to present my own). So then, taking the Idea of omniscient narrator, Wallace as curator, and the ontological eternalism of the narrative style of IJ, it can be speculated that the real narrator of IJ is either a ghost or someone existing outside this realm of existence—one that would experience time as a singular moment. And if this is true, that ghost would be able to navigate and witness all side of the Plot hidden within Infinite Jest.11

§8 And Finally, Back To The Thesis 

If Wallace, performingHB’s idea of daemonization of GGB (think back to the WESCAC and its position both within and external to the text) and Barth’s rejection of the Author—and Wallace rejecting his purpose as narrator—, applies this ghostly narration to a consciousness within the text—like the WESCAC—, a consciousness fully familiar with the appreciation of this ontologically-centered narration—similar to the structure and form of filmic techniques—, there exists only one clear possibility: James O. Incandenza (JOI). At the time of his death, JOI was at work on the fifth iteration of his filmInfinite Jest (V)—which remained unfinished due to his “suicide.” Suicide here is in quotes because I do not believe that JOI suicided himself, but rather was murdered as part of the Plot withinIJ. Thinking of the possibility that The Entertainment is installed within JOI’s head, there could be a possibility that JOI shoved his head in a microwave in order to scramble the information on The Entertainment cartridge to prevent it from falling into the “wrong hands”—or rather in the hands of anyone. And if there’s anything learned from most films involving ghosts or hauntings, it’s that the ghost has unfinished business and what’s the seer of the ghost to know that something bad happened to them (thinking about Stir of Echoes and The Sixth Sense). The possibility that JOI was murdered over the final cut of Infinite Jest (V) due to it’s insidious nature leads to the possibility that the novel is a way for the reader (the seer of the ghost) to learn the true nature of the narrative, to put the pieces together and to solve the unresolved issues of the ghost. 

According to the lengthy footnote detailing JOI’s filmography in IJ, with instructions on how best to complete this film, with subsequent distribution to follow its completion, it is left uncertain as to who and how the film is to be finished. 

Much like the WESCAC in GGB (with its translation of computationally-created data into tapes/reels of transcribed text),IJ is represented as transcribed text, as this is the most efficient means for narration for a ghost (JOI)—who cannot speak, nor can they visually communicate the film, and who is likely only able (being outside space, time, and communication) to communicate via data, data that is then transcribed into text. To vaguely (and terribly) summarize the premise of James Gleick’s theory in his book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, all matter, at its most base level, is constructed out of data and information, and that anything existing (be it real or—apply my own theory here—ethereal) consists of this information. That the “whole universe is […] a computer—a cosmic information-processing machine” with DNA being the “quintessential information molecule” connecting everything into a “richly interwoven communication network” and taking forms from the “solid to the ethereal” (11). So then applying this scientific theory to the theory of narration, this data, at the base level, could be used to communicate from the ethereal to the corporeal. Herring points out that toward the end of IJ, JOI as “The wraith converses with Gately through his own ‘brain-voice’ (831), implanting thoughts into Gately’s own consciousness including words that are not in his vocabulary but which nevertheless appear as part of his own thought process.” This idea of “brain voice” is then translated to the reader through the novel, from ethereal to solid. The reader is then possessed by the wraith who in turn possesses those within the novel to show the reader moments, clues, a hyperreal recreation. 

Therefore, the Novel is a typographical, linguistic adaptation of Infinite Jest (V) (The Entertainment) as completed by JOI in this afterlife state—the narrative weaving in and out of time and consciousness, JOI retracing his life and the lives of those connected to Himself through in intricate web of Plot and serendipity. But how, ifJOI is a ghost, can he possibly be narrating (whether through the mediated data of ghosts, or though filmic narrative technique—here, talking about the completion of Infinite Jest (V) by JOI in the afterlife) the novel Wallace will later curate? 

In Ronald Alexander’s article in The Huffington Post, “Hungry Ghosts: The Wanting Mind of Depression”, Alexander—known for his work combining Eastern philosophies and mental health—discusses how a person suffering from depression often feels like a “hungry ghost” and that this hunger stems from an extended period of “wanting and dissatisfaction”. And recalling the statistics on the American Foundation of Suicide Preventions website, more often than not the “most common factor for suicide is depression”. Though I have stated here that I do not believe JOI to have suicided, I believe that in the narrative of IJ, JOI presents himself as a ghost within the text due largely in part to his depression of having been an absent father, and that, from the ethereal place, Himself is attempting to communicate this misery—both to the reader and to his son (within the text). Wallace, making JOI the narrator of IJ, expresses this possibly within the text by making the living JOI “the narrator not he who has seen and felt nor even he who is writing, but he who is going to write” , but that this act of writing cannot occur until Himself is in a place where the writing can exist, synchronically, as it is meant to. And the single quote use translates to JOI telling this, or rather showing it to Wallace, and Wallace—being less the narrator and more the curatorial compiler—is merely responsible for presenting this narrative in a curatorial manner. 

But why is any of this important? Well it could be that Wallace, given the response to being compared to Pynchon with Broom of the System, wanted to keep himself distanced from the novel. If blame was placed in the case of the novel’s difficulty or drifting narrative, it wouldn’t be placed on Wallace—but rather Wallace could defer it to the narrator of the story. Wallace, being simply the curator, could stave of the possibility of being hurt or offended by all the “bad things” that could come his way regarding IJ. Speaking with David Lipsky in Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Wallace mentions that reading these types of reviews (both good and bad, but mostly bad) were “not for [him]” and that “they fucked [him] up” (30). And I don’t think that it was a way for Wallace to dodge responsibility as an author. What I think it was was that given Wallace’s continual fear of failure and fraudulence (spoken about numerous times in the Lipsky book, and detailed again in Max’s biography), DFW wanted a very meta-textual, postmodern way to lessen the pain of putting the Author’s mind into the readers—and the sometimes not-so-positive results that can follow. According to Max, Wallace constantly worried about (to summarize and put into article-related terms) becoming a JOI—depressed by “failure” with the only logical answer being suicide, leaving behind something unfinished. And regardless of his attempts to combat this, that’s exactly what he became. 

§10 An Ending to Unfinishedness

 There are so many aspects to this paper that could be discussed, and if these aspects were discussed, there’s a likelihood that the paper would be absurdly long and absurdly tangled and recursive—and not in an appealing, charming sort of way. I didn’t discuss this ghost theory in relation to Hamlet—which should be an obvious comparison, but that requires a whole other lengthy interpretation of both texts. Think about the ghost of the father, think about the story of Hamlet being, essentially, a dead father attempting to connect with this son—in a very indirect way. Nor did I discuss, to continue this conversation about fathers and sons—and the theory presented that IJ is mediated by a dead JOI—that the title Infinite Jest could be in reference to the endless “failure” for fathers to connect with sons—which could be what the Infinite Jest mediated by JOI is all about. These unformulated theories, among others, exist in the unfinishedness. 

While this article might feel a bit rushed, the ideas are presented in a way that a) initiates certain lines of fresh thought toward the narration of IJ and b) supplies a fair amount of evidence and support to allow these theories to be more than just scratch-paper-scribbling. Though these ideas need time to develop and find proper purpose within the discourse, this author believes that presenting them as such is an opportunity to allow for these ideas to seed and seep. IJ is a dense meta-text that has no clear answers—and likely never will. Searching through its narrative chaos to find threads of commonality between itself and other critical discourses is a puzzle I am almost certain DFW would’ve required we attempt to solve for as long as we thought necessary—infinitely, if we must (which adheres, again, to the idea that the book itself is an infinite jest, like The Entertainment within the narrative). In essence, what IJ could be considered as is a adaptation of Infinite Jest: The Failed Entertainment as directed by—and adapted by—James O. Incandenza, which then was compiled by author DFW into the novel IJ. It’s an adapted novel about a film that the novel is adapting as seen by the director within the film. Seeing it this way, this regression can continue infinitely, always circling back on itself and never truly reaching a definitive conclusion as to who the narrator of the novel actually is. It becomes an infinite joke of itself. So, finishing this all off here, what I’m hoping to accomplish is to spark the conversation. Nothing said in this paper is meant to be definitive—and is likely wildly incorrect or unfounded or just maybe not really worth discussing further. However, I’d like to put out a call-to-arms on this subject and ask that anyone interested in furthering this topic—or shutting it down completely—to do so. Again: being that this is—at least as far as I’ve read—the first time this sort of speculation has been printed or discussed, this is more of a spark than a period. 

Let’s end on a note of irony, one that revolves around the article’s subject and Barthes’s call for the rejection of the Author as narrator. According to Barthes, this entire paper is essentially pointless seeing as how “once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile” (147). And yet here it is.♦︎

List of Works Cited⇒ 

Tex Gresham is the author of Heck, Texas and Sunflower (11/22/21). He’s on twitter as @thatsqueakypig and online at


  1. So, here’s where I point out what is already absolutely obvious: that this article is an inescapable imitation of Wallace’s essay-writing style. The endnote, the meta-textual interjections, the recursive sentence structure, et cetera. But I think that it is in the nature of all those covering the topic of David Foster Wallace to inevitably feel some of this need to embrace the influence and deny the anxiety—or recognize that indebtedness and the presentation of this indebtedness as an obviousness in the text. Maybe I’m wrong.
  2. The clinamen is part of a system of revisionary methods devised by Harold Bloom and which will be discussed in the following paragraph in the main body of text.
  3. This is an excellent essay, and can provide further information into the topic being discussed within this article. However, Harris and I have very different interpretations of Barth’s influence on Wallace (which is noted above).
  4. Also: think about the infinite nature of IJ (both in structure and content) and JB’s “Frame-Tale” (with it’s avant-garde experiment on text and infinity)––which is another point of influence but doesn’t really belong in the equational question: who narrates IJ?
  5. Gaddis’s The Recognitions is a story all about the anxiety of influence and tears it down—essentially rejecting its notions. Gaddis continues to reject the Bloomian by thematically stating that to create in the same vein is inevitable and that all art is essentially forgery—but that this forgery is almost always done out of love for the predecessors and their art. This is a wildly reduced version of the novel’s message, but this reduction is relevant to the topic due largely to the fact that Wallace was also largely influenced by The Recognitions and its messages about Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence.
  6. While a film as a whole does consist of a larger collective of individuals creating a singular work, it is the work of a singular person that they create. A typical auteur––Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, David Lynch, and etc.––often dabble in all aspects of this process. The final cutting process is at the hands of an editor. And again, these directors typically step in and either partake or oversee the editing process. So for the sake of this critically theoretical metaphor, the role of a filmmaker (or director) is to shape an idea into a finished product.
  7. Though it is known that Wallace did not get his desired artwork approved for the Novel’s cover. Sticking to the role of entertainment—and possibly hinting at what I claim in this article—Wallace originally wanted the cover to be a black-and-white image of German director Fritz Lang lording over a large crowd of shaved-headed, shirtless, misery-stained actors for a scene in Metropolis. (Could it be that Wallace is the Lang and the crowd of miserable workers are the multiple threads and characters of IJ? Probably not.)
  8. In this case, this discussion relates to a broad definition of syntax—focusing both on sentence structure and punctuation that helps structure these sentences.
  9. Baudrillard also says that “information devours its own content” (80). Which kinda sounds like ouroboros or “Frame-Tale” or Infinite Jest––and kind of has todo with what I’m going to discuss regarding ghosts.
  10. In the case of films that take on the first-person narration (which almost always makes me sick), there still exists a sense of synchronic presentation of narrative. In the film Hardcore Henry (a terrible movie presented in first-person POV) still presents time in a playfully abused way, and that synchronically gives the viewer a history of the main character (however shallow) with flashbacks within the mind of this character—and is presented as corruptions of data (the character is part cyborg and views time as a computer—or ghost).
  11. There are elements I wanted to add in this section but couldn’t figure out how to work in. Like that the novel is a way to view life as a ghost would, traversing and observing (see the film A Ghost Story, which is an excellent companion piece to the idea presented in this paper). Also that the novel is a memorial to the author (living or dead––but they always die, don’t they?). And the idea that the person who wrote the book dies within the pages of the book.They are never the person outside the book. So each novel is a ghost of the person who wrote it.