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Hal and Mario's Relationship
There’s an overriding sense of loneliness that saturates David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. This emotion even exists among Hal and Mario Incandenza, two brothers who approach life from diametrically opposed perspectives. Hal’s solipsistic outlook alienates him from Mario, a character who continually tries to reach out and emotionally connect with others.
The first time we see the brothers together, they are in the room they share in the E.T.A. dorm. It’s dawn, Hal’s getting dressed for morning drills, and Mario is restlessly sleeping. A phone call from their eldest brother, Orin, wakes Mario. When he asks who it was, Hal responds, “No one you know, I don’t think’ (33).
It’s clear from this response that Mario, who Hal is closer to than any one in his life, isn’t immune to his younger brother’s life of deception and secrecy. Hal is hiding his marijuana habit, pretending to be unaffected by their father’s suicide, and acting outwardly as if he’s completely together.
Shortly after Hal gives up marijuana, he and Mario have a conversation about liars. He asks Mario if he knows when he’s being lied to. Hal concludes, “Maybe it just doesn’t occur to you. Even the possibility. Maybe it’s never once struck you that something’s being fabricated, misrepresented, skewed. Hidden” (772).
Ironically, Mario is on a mission to undercover “the real.” He’s looking for a truth that doesn’t exist within his family or among his peers at E.T.A. Mario’s desperate for a spiritual and emotional connection with this world. This helps explain his curiosity about God. However, he mistakenly goes to the least “real” person, Hal, in his search for truth.
Since Hal is “incredibly knowledgeable and smart,” Mario concludes he’s the best person to ask about God (592). Late one night, when they’re together in their room, Mario once again expresses his interest in a higher power. At first, Hal tries to ignore his brother. Eventually, he tells Mario that he doesn’t believe in God’s “laid-back management style” and “pro-death” attitude (40). He says, “Mario, you and I are mysterious to each other. We countenance each other from either side of some unbridgeable difference on this issue” (41).
This “unbridgeable difference” is evident not only in their views of God, but their opposing outlooks on life. Unlike Mario, Hal has been trained according to a tennis program that is geared towards “self-forgetting” (635). E.T.A.’s program only serves to heighten Hal’s sense of loneliness and isolation. Students are encouraged to rely solely on themselves and not look to others for support. This approach to life causes Hal to further draw back from Mario, as well as his classmates. By the end of the story, Hal has possibly retreated so far into his own world that he fails to recognize he’s lost the ability to speak.
In “I” and “Other,” Petrus van Ewijk argues that “Hal’s fall into solipsism can be linked to his loss of narrative coherence. Though he starts out as the most important narrator in the novel, he slowly loses grip on Infinite Jest’s narrative, disappearing into the margins of the story during the last 200 pages” (134). The novel’s narrative is picked up by Don Gately, an AA member who takes on the story with the knowledge that he’s not alone in his fight.
Gately, who’s arguably the novel’s hero, possesses “the real” that Mario is in search of. It’s not surprising that Mario connects with the community at Ennet House. The narrator tells us that Mario likes the rehab because “it’s crowded and noisy and none of the furniture has protective plastic wrap, but nobody notices anybody else or comments on a disability and the Headmistress is kind to the people and the people cry in front of each other…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” (591).
Mario, who “loves Hal so much it makes his heart beat hard,” doesn’t recognize that Hal lacks all ability to truly connect with anyone, including God or even himself (590). Instead, all he sees are Hal’s emotions and needs. He has an uncanny ability to know “Hal’s states of mind or whether he is in good spirits” (590). Mario begins to worry when he loses the ability to tell whether Hal is feeling sad or not. This loss is likened to losing something “in a dream and you can’t even remember what it was but it’s important (590). It shows that Hal is further breaking down and drawing away from his older brother.
Mario’s ability to recognize Hal’s needs started at an early age. It was Mario, not his grammarian mother, who obtained Hal’s first unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (OED). He brought the books home when Hal was being treated and assessed for “possible damage” (317). Mario gave his brother the tools needed for his survival. The OED demonstrates that Hal was given the language necessary to communicate his repressed thoughts. Still, he continually fails to use that language to express his sadness and connect with the outer world.
One reason Hal fears communicating his pain, is because he thinks it will be too difficult for his family. Although Hal often treats Mario as a child, he idealizes his older brother. Hal fears his brother’s opinion above anyone expect their mother, Avril. Secretly, Hal worries that Mario is the “family’s real prodigy, an in-bent savant-type genius of no classifiable type, a very rare and shining thing, even if his intuition – slow and silent – scares” Avril (317).
Mario has the gifts of listening and empathy, two of the main AA qualities that helped Gately find his voice and connect with the world. Like AA, Mario would never laugh or judge Hal. Hal knows this, which is most likely why he finally confesses his secret drug use, lying, his fear of getting tossed out for dirty urine, the stress of disappointing their mother, and his dread of falling apart and people knowing that he’s no different from their father.
It’s possible that this scene is the only moment where Hal is “real” and utterly honest. The only problem is that Hal doesn’t trust his brother’s sincerity and unconditional love. When Mario tells Hal that he never hurt him with his lies, Hal yells and says, “You can get hurt and mad at people, Boo. News-flash at almost fucking nineteen, kid. It’s called being a person. You can get mad at somebody and it doesn’t mean they’ll go away. You don’t have to put on the Moms-act of total trust and forgiveness. One liar’s enough” (784).
The fact Hal believes that Mario, the most honest person in his life, is lying, demonstrates how warped his thinking has become. He’s lost the ability to trust or accept forgiveness from the people who love him most. Hal’s deluded himself into believing that the Moms and Mario are putting on an act. Since he’s incapable of expressing genuine emotion, Hal seems to believe that others can’t as well.
At the end of the conversation, Hal asks Mario what he should do. Mario replies, “What I think you should do. I think you just did” (785). This honesty further infuriates Hal.
If Hal really wants to break out of his solipsistic cage, he needs to truly listen to his brother’s advice. Hal has to stop lying, communicate his anger and fear, and do something to stop the growing hole that’s causing him to “fly apart in different directions” (785).
This advice holds true for all the characters that have isolated themselves in similar cages. Most are lost, but have no knowledge or power of how to free themselves. The true infinite jest is that these individuals have deceived themselves into believing exits are entrances. They've trapped themselves into an infinite cycle of addiction, depression, and isolation. Like Hal, their reality is so skewed that they can’t see the true exit that exists before them.
Van Ewijk, Petrus. ““I” and the “Other”: The relevance of Wittgenstein, Buber and Levinas for an understanding of AA’s Recovery Program in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. English Text Construction: 2.1 (2009): 132-145.
Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. New York: Back Bay Books, 1996.
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