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.