“Every love story is a ghost story.”
I’m not into ghost stories. I’ve never had the reputed pleasure of being freaked out by tales of psychotic spirits, or spirited psychotics, who are about to lop my head off with a power tool as soon as I drift off to sleep at this backwoods campsite right here. I’ve got a long history, dating to Heaven Can Wait or arguably “Thriller,” of failing to see movies about people who come back from the dead, zombies, mummies, vampires, ghouls, hulking corpses or anyone else on this list of the types of the undead.
Yet I really dug the wraith in Infinite Jest, and not just for telling us what James O. Incandenza’s fatally enjoyable film was really made for. Whatever you make of that, I’ve never thought about TV scenes in public places — or actual scenes in public places, for that matter — the same way since reading the wraith’s lament about life as a figurant. And the image of the spectral father explaining the horror of seeing “a son, the one most like him, the one most marvelous and frightening to him, becoming a figurant” (p. 837) is, well, haunting. #nootherwaytosayit (A presentation I’d like to find out more about apparently posited that the wraith is in fact the narrator of the entire novel.)
I felt quite clever figuring that IJ’s ghost was there as a Hamlet echo, so I was intrigued to see the spirit world return in The Pale King, starting with the phantom, half-glimpsed references in the workaday litany of Section 25 (“Jay Landauer feels absently at his face. Every love story is a ghost story”).
I could blow an entire weekend thinking about that last line alone, and did. Spent some of it canvassing for wisdom on the function of ghost stories in literature (#therewentSaturday). Suffice it to say you can run into ghosts that teach religious lessons in stories written by medieval European monks, horny women ghosts in 17th-century Chinese literature who have something to say about female freedom and the power of desire, some 18th-century Japanese stories with spirits who agitate for language reforms, and ghosts that allow oppressed people to reclaim and recreate their cultural history in modern literature by minority American writers and writers in post-Franco Spain. But perhaps overall, according to people who teach classes in these matters, literary ghosts serve to prompt reflection on the soul, the afterlife, and how life should be lived. As a University of Georgia English professor put it in a 1999 story in the Charlotte Observer, “Ghost stories explain the values of the groups telling the stories.”
For his part, Wallace takes pains to distinguish the tax-return examiners’ “phantoms” from the wiggle room’s two true ghosts. The phantoms, we learn, are Freudian taunts from the subconscious, while the ghosts are straight-up folkloric ghosts, the spirits of on-the-job forebears. This would be a great place for a savvy footnote instead of what’s going to top out at an arm-waving allusion to the parallels between this phantom/ghost dichotomy and Gately’s/the reader’s struggle to distinguish among reality/hallucination/the apparently, possibly or at least in-some-sense “real” wraith in I.J., but #movingon.
Among The Pale King’s true ghosts, then, one is a paranormal pain in the ass straight out of an office-park version of The Amityville Horror: Garrity, the implacable echo of the decorative-mirror quality-control inspector who killed himself at work after 18 years of staring into his own face to look for distortions. (I have to guess we’re supposed to note that even in its prior incarnation as a factory, this IRS post housed workers doing detailed, draining but rote examinations. And that Garrity, who writhes repetitively in “a complex system of squares and butterfly shapes” to scrutinize every part of the mirrors, could plausibly be described as a “wiggler” himself. #anotherunderdevelopedaside) “Chatty and distracting” to the examiners, “the yammering mind-monkey of their own personality’s dark, self-destructive side,” (p. 316) Garrity is the cynical spirit who later proves that etymology of “boredom” is far more diverting than boredom itself.
The other ghost, Blumquist, is the soul of the blameless employee — the one so “focused and diligent,” we learned back in Section 4, that no one noticed he had died at his desk. (If you think such stories are the stuff of workplace legend, take a look at this California TV station news report about a county auditor who perished in her cubicle about a day before anyone realized she had died). Blumquist haunts as he had lived: Silent and unassuming, “he’s no bother…. You get the sense that he just likes to be there. This sense is ever so slightly sad.” Accepted or even welcomed by most of the examiners, he is perhaps more appreciated in death than in life; certainly, no less so.
I think it’s fairly safe to imagine The Pale King’s ghosts aren’t subtly getting at medieval religious values, Japanese language reform or burying Franco’s regime. What I think they’re trying to tell us is something about the values of the teller of the story. About how not to die, for one thing, and so a bit about how to live.
Tags: David Foster Wallace, fiction, ghost stories, ghosts, metafiction, Pale King