The Student Becomes the Teacher

Although Mario is a great listener, he’s a pretty crummy conversationalist, generally. Way back on page 80, we learn that he’s great to talk to or at (not the last time you’ll see this sort of thing, by the way):

That’s why bullshit often tends to drop away around damaged listeners, deep beliefs revealed, diary-type private reveries indulged out loud; and, listening, the beaming and bradykinetic boy gets to forge an interpersonal connection he knows only he can truly feel, here.

In conversations in which Mario is a two-way participant rather than merely a sounding board, he’s usually rather less successful. Consider that infurating conversation with Lamont Chu at around page 758:

‘Jesus, Mario, it’s like trying to talk to a rock with you sometimes.’
‘This is going very well!’

Again and again, Lamont tries to steer Mario toward answering a very direct, clear question, and again and again, Mario manages to deflect. But he’s not doing it intentionally. Mario doesn’t lie, and he’s this sincere, honest, happy guy. Just as it doesn’t occur to him that people might lie to him (772), I don’t think it occurs to Mario to be evasive in the way that his half of this conversation would seem evasive if performed by someone else.

Or take that painful, clueless interaction with the S.S. Millicent Kent.

In most conversations we’ve seen with Hal, Hal is so busy talking down to Booboo (and Mario’s sensitive to this — see on page 592: “when Mario brought up real stuff Hal called him Booboo and acted like he’d wet himself and Hal was going to be very patient about helping him change”) that Mario doesn’t really even get much of a chance to speak with anything that looks like intelligence or nuance.

In the 760s, we witness a pretty lucid conversation between Mario and Avril, but it’s still just not terribly satisfying. He speaks malapropisms, and there are those awkward water-treading exchanges punctuated by phrases like “It’s terrific” and the like, things that show that it’s just not really a wholly two-way, meaningful conversation in places. Even in the spots in which the conversation has some depth, Mario and Avril talk past one another a bit. She finds herself trying to guess obsessively whose sadness Mario is worried about (Hal’s? His own? Tavis’s?), while he’s attempting to really two-way interface with a person for once. Still, it’s kind of a lovely (if in spots also sort of horrifying) conversation.

But where Mario really shines is in a conversation with Hal in the 780s. Hal has quit smoking pot and is having a rough time of it. And you know what he does? He surrenders himself. This exchange at the end of the section (785) is worth quoting at a little bit of length:

‘Tell me what you think I should do.’
‘Me tell you?’
‘I’m just two big aprick ears right here, Boo. Listening. Because I do not know what to do.’
‘Hal, if I tell you the truth, will you get mad and tell me be a fucking?’
‘I trust you. You’re smart, Boo.’
‘Then Hal?’
‘Tell me what I should do.’
‘I think you just did it. What you should do. I think you just did.’
‘Do you see what I mean?’

That right there is 100% Grade-A surrender. Hal has admitted to Mario that he has a problem and has surrendered his will (not to Yahweh or even a higher power, I suppose, though it does say somewhere in IJ, I believe, that Hal secretly idolizes Mario). It’s no secret by now that Wallace sort of stands behind the methodology of AA and its 12 steps, even if he doesn’t really understand how they work. And so to have Hal finally break down and Mario effectively affirm that being honest about having a problem and asking for help is just the right thing Hal needed to do — it’s really a big mental/emotional kind of win for Mario, here. He’s not just a simple, damaged grinning kid, and this is kind of a shining moment for him, I think. Gave me chills to read it.

That’s kind of a natural conclusion for this post, I guess, but I wanted to slap on this little coda that I think suggests a neat way in which we see growth in Hal and a sort of actualization of Mario. This conversation ends on the line “Do you see what I mean?” Way way back on page 42, Hal is sort of talking down to Mario about death and mourning, and he gives that neat example of how there are two ways of getting a flag to half-mast. Of course there’s the traditional way, but you can also double the height of the flag pole. And right there in the closing lines of that conversation, Hal says “You understand what I mean, Mario?” I can’t help thinking that the similarity of phrasing and the accompanying shift of helper/helped role is very much by design and really kind of cool.

13 thoughts on “The Student Becomes the Teacher

  1. infinitetasks September 4, 2009 / 7:29 pm

    Thank you, thank you, Daryl. I wasn’t fully understanding that conversation-ender by Mario, which seemed sort of circular on my unadorned reading (“what you should do is ask what you should do,” was my unexciting take). Your “adorned” version (adorned because you accessorize it with the p. 42 quote), that replaces the query with Submission, makes so much wonderful and touching sense, and of course Hal understands it perfectly well.

    In the conversations that Mario has been having, I’ve felt an irony in him, a playfulness, an awareness of his frustrating effects on others. But I also don’t want to read this in just because I want to find it there. You calling it “actualization” is an interesting choice of words. Lyle ways not to underestimate objects – we should perhaps not underestimate Mario!

  2. Daryl Houston September 4, 2009 / 9:31 pm

    Glad to adorn. 🙂 This entry was sort of a thrown-together summary of part of what’s going to turn into that big long essay I’ve mentioned (I’ll post the abstract if the paper is accepted and once I get a little farther along in it), so I’ve given it a fair amount of thought.

    I can see what you mean about the playfulness, but I don’t feel like that’s where Mario’s coming from. I think he just doesn’t interface exactly head-on in a way. Wallace says at one point that Mario’s not so much slow as simply refracted, that his view of things is off-kilter the way a stick stuck in a cup of water looks off-kilter. I think this leads sometimes to his just not quite getting that a conversation he thinks is going great is infuriating for the other party. It’s playfulness on Wallace’s part, I think, but not on Mario’s. It adds to the sense of Mario’s innocence, too. You’d never suspect that a young child speaking the way Mario does of playfulness or irony. I don’t think there’s an ironic bone in Mario’s body. Maybe even the fact that it’s so tempting for us to suspect that he’s ironic is even sort of a commentary on irony and our lack of preparedness to accept real, even sentimental-seeming things for what they are, another thing Mario comments on (or that is commented on in narration about him) at one point.

  3. Jeff September 4, 2009 / 9:35 pm

    Thanks for connecting these two conversations, Daryl. Mario’s probably my favorite character in the book (I think he’s also the most sentimentalized, which is interesting in light of the whole post-irony thing), and I love your interpretation here of his role reversal with Hal.

    I think you’re right to see the two conversations as linked by design: the whole set of behaviors that Hal analogizes to raising the flagpole sounds incredibly similar to a person being “too much himself,” in Avril’s words. Good catch.

  4. Jeff September 4, 2009 / 9:36 pm

    And we crossed streams on sentimentality and irony, there. Oops.

  5. itzadrag September 5, 2009 / 1:59 pm

    Greetings, Daryl and thanks so much for engaging this dialogue on Mario/Hal character dynamics, and the meta-levels.

    I have been troubled in mind w/r/t the layers of presentation, the voids, the lenses & masks of the 3 brother characters (and potential magnification of these notions through the Steeply/Marathe dialectic overview), but haven’t been quite able to formulate my musings into cohesive thoughts. Typical: my pedestrian difficulty putting one word after another today, so please bear with and plod on here.

    So, instead of pathblazing, I went crawling around and found a paper you may wish to read. ADDICTION TO ITSELF:
    SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS IN DAVID FOSTER WALLACE’S INFINITE JEST, by Teddy Wayne, can be found at Howling Fantods, at the Theses link–

    The paper begins with an investigation into irony, communication, and the functions of these very characters in IJ. “Chapter I: The Metafictional Monologue: Sincerity With a Motive” addresses Mario (beginning at page 7 if pdf download file). Ideas include the tyranny of silence imposed by irony (disruption of real communication), the effect of TV & image maintenance (mask/self presentation) on true communication (referencing DFW essay “E Unibus Pluram”), &tc. At this page the author (not that Wayne) uses the LaMont Chu/Mario filmic dialogue. I’m pretty sure this paper continues to investigate themes using Mario as the irony-boneless viewer & portal to IJ, but have not read very far.

    At any rate, thought you may be interested, and wished to thank you for this and all your insightful posts and essays this summer. Merci.

  6. Daryl Houston September 5, 2009 / 4:51 pm

    Thanks, itzadrag. I’ve run across that essay but haven’t read it yet. Maybe now I will. Re my posts this summer, the pleasure’s been all mine. It’s been one of my best reading experiences ever, in very large part because of all the cross-blog talk and interaction in the comments. Thank you for contributing to that. 🙂

  7. Daryl Houston September 8, 2009 / 5:19 pm

    Thanks, itzadrag. I haven’t really been able to keep up with the forums (or anywhere near all the blogs), so I appreciate the pointer.

  8. Elizabeth September 9, 2009 / 2:34 pm

    “I don’t think there’s an ironic bone in Mario’s body. Maybe even the fact that it’s so tempting for us to suspect that he’s ironic is even sort of a commentary on irony and our lack of preparedness to accept real, even sentimental-seeming things for what they are, another thing Mario comments on (or that is commented on in narration about him) at one point.”

    This is an interesting take: that we’re supplying the irony as readers. I wonder how this applies to Tennis and the Feral Prodigy film? If Mario did write it – even that presents problems, but let’s accept that he did write it. Can the film be read as a series of statements with no commentary and no judgment? DFW positions so that a reader would really have to work to make that happen. It’s easy to assume that Hal is the one who actually writes the film, we’re led in that direction because Hal narrates. But narration is not = to writing.

    I’m not sure I’m making sense, so I’ll stop there.

    Except to say that on my second read through the book, Mario presents some interesting contradictions that I haven’t quite resolved. Tennis and the Feral Prodigy is one of them.

  9. Daryl Houston September 9, 2009 / 3:09 pm

    Elizabeth, I think there’s pretty much no way Mario scripted Tennis and the Feral Prodigy. It’s not merely that it’s from Hal’s POV, but that telling interjection ” — ACCORDING TO THE ENTRY FORM — ” that suggests that Mario didn’t write the thing. Then there’s stuff like the line (within the film) “assume your brother’s expression” that I just have a hard time believing Mario would have written. Plus there’s just so much experience in the thing that Mario simply doesn’t have first-person access to. Of course, Mario could have written a draft of the thing and enlisted Hal to spruce it up. But that interjection in the heading inclines me not to think so.

    Still, it’s worth consideration. I’d be interested in hearing some of the other Mario-related contradictions you’ve uncovered, if you’re willing to share.

  10. Elizabeth September 9, 2009 / 3:39 pm

    Page 171: Hal is reading the Riverside Hamlet at Mario’s request. Hal has agreed to help Mario with a conceptual film-type project based on part of the play. Is Mario really going to make a conceptual film based on Hamlet or is this another case of Mario intuiting something that Hal needs and giving it to him (ie. when Mario acquired the O.E.D for Hal)? It becomes mind boggling to think of this conceptual film as the film within the book (ala the play within a play in Hamlet) since we already have the Interdependence Day movie which is also – read the text of the film pretty deadon w/r/t to the political situation in the play.

    But also: somehow Mario knows about Hamlet and about the OED while apparently having no access to written language himself.

    Page 172: I’ve already mentioned Tennis and the Feral Prodigy. I’m still not convinced that Mario couldn’t have “written” this. I’ll explain why in a minute.

    Page 188: We’re told that Mario was asked to leave Winter Hill Special School in Cambridgeport for “cheerfully declining even to try to learn to really read explaining that he’d rather listen and watch.” Again we’re told he’s “a fanatical listener/observer.”

    Page 202: It’s pointed out that “a lot of U.S. adults truly cannot read, not even a ROM hypertext phonics thing with HELP functions for every word.” Here’s the narrator pointing out that there’s more than one way to learn how to read and that there are some people who “truly” cannot. It also suggests that someone has maybe tried. I admit: I feel I’m over-reaching here. But what the heck.

    Then we have the Interdependence day film. Despite it’s crude production values, the script is intelligent, clever, and dead on in its portrayal of the J.G presidency. Sometimes it isn’t even a critique of the political situation. It mirrors the J.G. presidency and suggests knowledge of situations/relationships that Mario wouldn’t have access to. Is this Hal again? Is he really getting all this info from Poutrincourt’s class and can he at this point form a critique? Maybe. Per his phone convo w/Orin.

    So there are problems here. Narrative puzzles that don’t always have obvious answers.

    If it is Hal making these films then Hal is indeed a lot more of his own boy than is suggested by his smoking pot and listening and pleasing those in authority. So what gives? Is he trying to get revenge ala Hamlet? I’m not sure I buy that, yet. From what is written it seems like Mario has a better idea of what’s going on than Hal (for example giving Hal the play to read) and is certainly (in spite of his disabilities) more capable of action than Hal.

    If we let the reality be that Hal is making these films, then I have a hard time liking Hal (not that I have to like him). But it makes him selfish and self-absorbed to the point that he basically treats his own brother as a puppet – the films become ventriloquist acts and somehow dehumanize Mario. I think Hal loves and respects and idolizes Mario for that.

  11. Elizabeth September 9, 2009 / 3:47 pm

    “since we already have the Interdependence Day movie which is also – read the text of the film pretty deadon w/r/t to the political situation in the play.”

    Oops. I mean book. The text of the film is pretty dead-on w/r/t the political situation in the book.

  12. Daryl Houston September 9, 2009 / 4:16 pm

    Wow, those are some great finds!

    I guess it’s possible that the apparently (or not?) illiterate Mario picked up some stuff about Hamlet in particular from Himself while following him around with his bag of lenses. That doesn’t resolve anything, of course.

    The I-Day film is derivative of JOI’s film on the same topic, but is more parody than documentary. So I guess that’d be source material for the political stuff Mario/Hal wouldn’t have had access to (I don’t think Poutrincourt is a source, as the film is three years old at the time we encounter it, and I’m not sure whether or not Poutrincourt was around yet or whether Hal had taken her class yet, though I doubt both). On 381, we have “It’s pretty obvious that somebody else in the Incandenza family had at least an ananuentic hand in the screenplay” followed by basically the relegation of Mario to treadle operator and puppeteer/choreographer.

    I don’t know that I agree that Hal’s involvement in making the films renders him unlikable (though I do vacillate a bit on Hal). It could be that he just likes working on these projects with Mario, for example. Hal has his own contradictions pertaining to Mario, of course. He does idolize him, but at the same time, he also looks past him and patronizes him. I view the scenes I blogged about here (the talks with Avril and Hal) as sort of a righting of that wrong, as something of an unveiling of Mario as someone with a richer inner life than anybody has really quite suspected before.

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