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Mario is Hal's older brother and E.T.A. roommate. The offspring of Charles Tavis and Avril Incandenza, Mario is physically deformed in a number of ways. For this reason he cannot play tennis; instead Mario has assumed the unofficial role as the E.T.A. cameraman, filming everything from practices to games. Every Interdependence Day E.T.A. plays Mario's self-made and -directed film cartridge. He also has made a short film called Tennis and the Feral Prodigy.
Mario embodies many of the traits Wallace ascribes to his ideal "anti-rebel" in the McCaffery interview--he holds a unique place in the novel, for he stands apart from all the other characters, both physically and emotionally. In a society where irony, cynicism, and sarcasm prevail, Mario doesn’t fit in. His seeming ignorance and his inability to understand the language of irony around him causes him to be largely ignored by most of the characters in the novel. His words and ideas don’t seem to be taken for their full worth by the other characters. But, to the reader, Mario’s naïveté serves as a refreshing reminder of what it would be like to view the world unironically.
We learn that “the older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s 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” (592). While everyone else in the novel is trapped in the cage of cynicism, unable to express true emotion and instead hiding behind a veil of irony, Mario is left outside of the cage. He can only understand the truth in its purity. Therefore, he fails to grasp the significance of the winks and the nudges that normally accompany any truth.
This is why Mario likes visiting the Ennet house. The Ennet House residents are all learning how to rid themselves of Substance addictions. But, the foundational principle of the AA program is not to rid the alcoholics of their addictions first and foremost, but instead to release their members from the cage of irony so that they may then be open enough and truthful enough to slowly work their way to sobriety. The escape from irony comes first (through the meaningful work of doing clichés, etc.), and only then can one escape addiction. “…Mario’s felt good both times in Ennet’s House because it’s very real; people are crying 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 they were worried inside” (591). Mario, in his attraction to pure truth, enjoys being at the Ennet House because all of the residents are in the process of stepping out from the cover of cynicism and becoming their truthful selves.
But the most important question to address when it comes to Mario is what does it mean that Mario, the only truly unironic character, is also the only extremely physically disabled and deformed character? Near the beginning of the book, we learn that “Mario is basically a born listener. One of the positives to being visibly damaged is that people can sometimes forget you’re there, even when they’re interfacing with you…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 brady-kinetic boy gets to forge an interpersonal connection he knows only he can truly feel…” (80). Here, it is implied that the only reason Mario is able to be so truthful and irony-free is because of his damaged quality. It is only because he is ignored and becomes invisible that other characters can drop the “bullshit” when talking to him.
In creating the physically-impaired Mario as the only example of someone who has escaped the cage of irony, Wallace seems to be implying that it is only those who are abnormal, those who are flawed, and those who are ignored by the majority of the society that are able to escape from under the cover of the veil of irony.