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Who is Mario Incandenza?

In one sense, he’s the lovable middle child of the Incandenza clan, the dysfunctional set at the heart of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. In another, he’s Wallace’s proposed ideal human and savior of authentic sentiment in literature.

Mario’s physical demeanor is sad/funny; his

“incomplete gestation and arachnoidal birth left the kid with some lifelong character-building physical challenges. Size was one, he being in sixth grade about the size of a toddler and at 18+ in a range somwhere between elf and jockey. There was the matter of the withered-looking and bradyauxetic arms, which just as in a hair-raising case of Volkmann’s contracture curled out in front of this thorax in magiscule S’s and were usable for rudimentary knifeless eating and slapping at doorknobs until the sort of turned just enough and doors could be kicked open and forming a pretend lens-frame to scout scenes through, plus maybe tossing tennis balls very short distances to players who wanted them, but not for much else…” (313)

On top of this, he can’t really stand up by himself and requires a body-brace and weighted tripod-like apparatus to anchor him in place, and he’s a homodont (every one of his teeth is a bicuspid).

He’s also the most unequivocally likable character in this book, and maybe in any book I’ve ever read. It’s almost too much to handle, really. The guy is entirely devoid of guile, self-consciousness, cynicism, judgmentalism, and smarm. And irony. Here he is, super-nice, über-deformed guy with a head-mounted movie camera, and he is so unironic as to be almost heart-rending in his sincerity.

But why should sincerity be so striking? Why should a character that isn’t cloaked in hip cynicism be noteworthy? Embedded in this consideration is, I think, Wallace’s comment on contemporary American literature.

Surveying the field of “postmodern” fiction, some of the hallmarks one sees are irreverence, shock-value, obsession with technical experimentation, cynicism about received narratives, and an ironic way of dealing with the past. Wallace is of the next generation, the one that grew up reading Barth, Pynchon, and Coover. But what happens after the critique has been made? In getting his generational pendulum on, Wallace says NO to glib irony, and seems to want to reclaim prominence for human emotion in high-brow literature.

And so, enter Mario Incandenza as the incarnation of Wallace’s anti-irony. Contrast him with his younger brother Hal, one of two ostensible protagonists in the book, the tennis whiz and lexical prodigy. Hal seems so jaded as to almost disappear as a force or will as he ages. He’s not without insight into his condition, though:

“Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human…One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.” (695)

A mask of course would be silly on Mario, who’s entire body is a strange, almost abstract representation of human form. He’s anything but hip and irreverent; he’s unwaveringly loyal, honest, and has a physically permanent smile fixed on his face.

Mario is also given the only glorious finale of all the characters in the book, a reviver of faith-in-humanity, as he comes across a bunch of homeless people outside the T-station pleading for anyone to touch them, just simply touch them: “and Mario, being alone and only fourteen and largely clueless about anti-stem defensive strategies outside T-stations, had had no one wordly or adult along with him there to explain to him why the request of men with outstretched hands for a simple handshake or High Five shouldn’t automatically be honored and granted…” (971) If not precisely Christ-like, Mario does carve a singularly optimistic and purifying figure (like a handicapped Socrates) against an oftentimes bleak themescape of consumer America.

So, who is Mario Incandenza? He’s unhip, unwordly, and embarrassingly sincere. And we should all try to be more like him. So, I plan to remember this catchy thought-experiment next time I’m in a jam: What Would Mario Do (WWMD)?


  1. There is another character, also a main character, named Gately. He is working at an addiction recovery house from which he has semi-recently graduated. He struggles internally with his ambivalence towards violence and his desire to reshape himself into a better person. Gately induced a heart-wrenching response from me far more than Mario did. Gately seemed real to me, whereas Mario seemed almost too much to believe. While I wholeheartedly agree with your response to Mario, there is a scene with Gately at dinner that won a place in my heart, more than Mario ever was able to, perhaps because of the hyperbolic tension Mario’s chapters contained. (Hyperbolic in regards to his sincerity.)

    Gately is in charge of cooking for the residents. Gately is a horrible cook. Gately is also huge. During this section, Gately is proudly bringing out noodles that have been overcooked for so long that they are basically mush. (We are talking an hour, at least, for the noodles). Every time Gately leaves, complaining breaks out, but as soon as he reenters compliments waft through the air. Gately’s pride in his meal of mushed noodles is possibly the most endearing scene in the novel. Hammered home a bit later in the book when, in a predicament causing him to miss dinner, Gately wonders who will be feeding the residents that night.

  2. Thank you for this! I love Mario so much and I can honestly say that he changed my life a little bit. I often ask myself WWMD – and mostly I fail to deliver. It takes a lot of courage to be Mario.

  3. I think that Mario had a disease called “endemic cretinism.”

    Its caused by dietary iodine deficiency in the mother during pregnancy. The only time this could happen in the United States would be if a women was not properly screened for thyroid problems before/during pregnancy (i.e. didn’t know she was pregnant).


    Mental defects

    The child’s growth will be stunted, the extremities are short, and the head size can be increased

    Varying severity of paralysis of the arms and legs

    Dry scaly skin

    Gait disorders, including ataxia (the kind of thing that would require a police lock to keep you upright)

    Respiratory difficulties, due in part to a large tongue, noisy respiration, and nasal obstruction

    I believe there is an interpretational payoff to this diagnosis: The term cretin “means Christlike (from the French chretien). Those affected were considered so mentally retarded as to be incapable of sinning.” (Robbins and Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease, 7th ed).

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. By Updates, elsewhere at a frolic of my own on 12 Jul 2007 at 2:57 pm

    […] first is a piece over at Speaking of Art…, entitled WWMD. It’s sort of an addendum to the review of Infinite Jest that I posted here in June, taking a […]

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