Mario Incandenza, the Embarrassment of the Real, and the (Non-) Reality of Evil

I have just finished David Foster Wallace’s brilliant, disturbing, terrifying, sad, funny, and very, very, long novel Infinite Jest. It follows what seems like hundreds of characters in an elite tennis academy, a drug rehabilitation center, various Quebecois terrorist cells, etc. in the near future. The amazing thing is the way Wallace takes you into the various characters and gives you, so to speak, the flavor of their lives. He has an amazing ear for spoken language, for the way people actually talk, with all its hesitation and grammatical inconsistency, and through that he is able to show what it is like to live in our world. Above all he shows with terrifying clarity what it is to live “having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12), what it is to be enslaved to the idols of the visible world, and what concrete form the simulacra gentium take in late capitalist America. And that is why a lot of it is really disturbing. In fact sometimes I found myself thinking it was to much; there are some things which it is simply better not to know. Felix Genn, the great bishop of Münster, once interpreted Rev 2:24 (“as many as have not this teaching, which know not the deep things of Satan, as they say; I cast upon you none other burden”) to mean that there are certain things which it is better not to look into. It is better to look at evil from a distance, to see it from a perspective from which its nothingness is most apparent— Tolkien is the master of the literary portrayal of evil in this mode. No one who reads Tolkien can doubt the clarity of his view of evil comes from remarkable personal innocence. Reading DFW on the other hand one has the sense that one is dealing with someone who has eaten way to much poisoned fruit… So, I abandoned Infinite Jest several times, but I kept on coming back to it.

Wallace was writing for an audience totally insulated against a Tolkienesque approach to literature: the post-modern avant-garde. In the above video he explains that he uses the techniques of post-modern literature to address ‘traditional human verities’ about spirituality and community and other ideas which the avant-garde would find very passé. I mentioned below that this presents him with certain problems. The basic paradox (and he was very much aware of this) is that the formal techniques that he employs were developed partly to mock the very idea of ‘traditional verities;’ post-modern literature is largely about seeing through the pretenses of supposed ‘truth,’ its ironic tone is aimed at exposing the hidden power-structures and manipulation that underlie supposed ‘verities.’

The most innocent character (in a Tolkienesque way) in Infinite Jest is Mario Incandenza, the severely handicapped second son of the Tennis Academy’s founder. Wallace is describes how Mario is puzzled by the way post-modern irony makes it embarrassing to talk about “real stuff:”

Mario’d fallen in love with the first Madam Psychosis [radio] programs because he felt like he was listening to someone sad read out loud from yellow letters she’d taken out of a shoebox on a rainy P.M., stuff about heartbreak and people you love dying and U.S. woe, stuff that was real. The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. [the tennis academy] over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that is really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy. (p. 592).

In contrast at the drug rehab center, Ennet house, Mario finds that people have no problem talking about ‘real stuff:’

Mario’s felt good both times in Ennet house Ennet’s House because it’s very real; people are crying and and making noise and getting less unhappy, and once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell that they were worried inside. (591)

The drug addicts have come to the end of their tether and they are desperate enough to shed their disguises. And that is why Wallace goes into the gruesome details of their predicament; he shows how their addictions are simply more evident versions of the same enslavement to idols that the cool tennis academy people are stuck in. I hope to discuss the central topic of idolatry more in future posts, but I want to end with Wallace’s amazing ability to enter into Mario’s innocent view of evil. Here is a wonderful passage which shows Mario’s experiential grasp of evil-as-privation-of-due-good. Mario is thinking about his brilliant but no-longer innocent brother Hal:

He can’t tell if Hal is sad. He is having a harder and harder time reading Hal’s mind or whether he’s in good spirits. This worries him. He used to be able to sort of pre-verbally know in his stomach generally where Hal was and what he was doing, even if Hal was far away and playing or if Mario was away, and now he can’t anymore. Feel it. This worries him and feels like when you’ve lost something important in a dream and you can’t even remember what it was but it’s important. Mario loves Hal so much it makes his heart beat hard. He doesn’t have to wonder if the difference now is him or his brother because Mario never changes. (590)

6 thoughts on “Mario Incandenza, the Embarrassment of the Real, and the (Non-) Reality of Evil

  1. Brother… (In more than one sense…)

    Great article… what resonated with me was your comment about DFW as “someone who has eaten way to much poisoned fruit…” having just read “Interviews with Hideous men” by DFW which has more poison fruit per page than most of Infinite J…

    What impresses me about DFW is his ability not to be poisoned by it and not poison the reader… Although he seems to have experienced evil and its aftermath… or at the least writes about it as some one who has knowledge of evil in an internal way… understanding the psychological and emotional feelings of it… he yet has a view that it is wrong… that it is judged by its own actions… that he gives the reader the ability to question and in questioning maybe come to a judgement… or if not judgement than feeling that both what is in the story and how real it is compared to their own experience… brings them to a place where they are examining things that are left unsaid… not PC or uncomfortable to confront about themselves and society…

    Like Socrates… DFW questions things that are Sacred to our society… Feminism… Freedom… The selfishness of the person… the emptiness of Capitalism… the drivel that is modern thinking… he confronts us with things that get at the core of what is wrong today… No love of God… and No love of Neighbor… but idolatry of self and things… and laziness and lack of looking at the truth… DFW forces the truth upon us… and it is up to the reader on what to do next….

    God bless….

    Your brother Johannes


    • Yeah, the comparison to Socrates is good. Like Socrates he points out things which are right there in front of people’s eyes unnoticed. In one respect though he is more like the Greek poets against whom Socrates liked to rail; in his attention to sense-experience and his facility at finding metaphors which convey that experience.


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  3. I love that you’ve thought this much about Mario because in some weird way I’ve convinced myself that he’s figured out some way to care about others. I may be looking into this too much, but Mario seems to be the hero for me. He isn’t burnt out, jaded, or given into drugs, or given up drugs, or thinks about himself all that much. I mean remember that scene when he’s riding in the passenger cart with I think it’s Schtitt, the way DFW describes Mario cracks me up, and having Mario oblivious to how he looks just puts the icing on the cake. I wish I could be like Mario. He genuinely worries about other people, and has a genuine interest in them. The passages of Mario and Hal talking at night are devastating, and how Mario collects all of the letters between Orin and the Moms. The irony is of course he’s slow and doesn’t ‘get it’ because he’s mentally handicapped. But I don’t know if this is a delusion or not, but I wish I could be more like Mario. Also on line 12 to should be too, as in too much.


  4. Mario is also one of the last incarnations of DFW himself, probably right before or after he became Himself just after destroying his mind eating “…SON ATE THIS” spending time as Lyle


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