7 November — Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. Every prorector at E.T.A. teaches one class per term, and these classes are thought to be “jokes” by the students. Yet upperclassmen still compete for spots in them, both because they are easy to pass and because they are entertaining in a horrifying way. Schacht is completing his midterm exam for a class named “The Personal Is the Political Is the Psychopathological: The Politics of Contemporary Psychopathological Double-Binds” when he hears Troeltsch’s radio program come on E.T.A.’s student-run radio station, WETA. Troeltsch dreams of a career in tennis broadcasting and has been WETA’s resident sports reporter for some time.
E.T.A.’s radio station demonstrates that the academy is a kind of world unto itself. Although the students are only children and teenagers, they perform adult, professional worlds within the microcosm of the school. This includes Troeltsch’s role as the academy’s sports reporter and Pemulis’s role as its resident drug dealer.
Troeltsch reports E.T.A.’s victory over P.W.T.A. in creative language. Hal is currently enrolled in a proector class called “Separatism and Return: Québecois History from Frontenac Through the Age of Interdependence,” which he is finding difficult because the instructor, Mlle. Poutrincourt, teaches only in Quebecois French. Hal is puzzled by Quebecois Separatism, which has grown in intensity ever since the establishment of O.N.A.N.
One of the strange quirks of the novel is the idiosyncratic and inaccurate use of French. Throughout, the word Quebecois is spelled Québecois (the word can be spelled Québécois, but just one “é” is wrong). Alongside the neologisms and acronyms, this purposefully wrong French suggests the prose follows only its own rules.
(A long endnote here describes Hal on the same day, 11/7/Y.D.A.U., looking through a box of Mario’s old letters and snapshots. It mentions that Avril’s honors thesis at McGill was about the punctuation in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. This is followed by a letter Avril sent to Orin in June, Y.W.-Q.M.D., in which she tells him news from E.T.A. and tells him she loves him and misses him. The reply, which is also included in the endnote, is a stock letter sent by the “Assistant Mailroom Technician” of the New Orleans Saints, explaining that the team’s players receive too much mail to send individual replies.)
The novel quite clearly blames Avril for Orin’s neuroses, but this passage presents her in a more sympathetic light and suggests that Orin is unnecessarily cruel to her. While she may be an overly intense mother, ultimately she loves her sons and eagerly shows them affection. In return, Orin continues to push her away.
(The same endnote then recounts a phone conversation between Hal and Orin in which Hal mentions an Emily Dickinson poem. He explains to Orin that he is looking through a box of old letters, and Orin gives him romantic advice. Hal then tells him news from E.T.A., and Orin asks him what the word “samizdat” means. Hal explains that it is a Soviet idiom referring to self-published and -distributed dissident materials. He adds that the only comparable example in the U.S. would be Canadian separatist materials, although these aren’t officially banned by O.N.A.N.)
Recall that in a conversation between Steeply and Marathe, it was revealed that James’s mysterious film (usually referred to as “The Entertainment”) is also called the samizdat. This establishes a clear connection between the film and politics, and particularly the issue of Quebecois separatism.
(In the same endnote, Orin asks why James’s name would be associated with the word samizdat. Hal muses that it’s possible to interpret some of his films in a separatist light, but that overall James’s work was “all very self-consciously American” and not overtly political. Orin admits that he is interested in all this because of his latest Subject, Helen, who he claims is different to all his previous Subjects. He questions Hal about Canadian separatism. Hal says he is the wrong person to ask, but still gives Orin an overview of what he’s learned in Mlle. Poutrincourt’s class.)
Despite their Quebecoise mother, Orin and Hal do not seem to have any connection to Quebec—as shown by their ignorance around the issue of separatism. Perhaps Avril’s decision to remain in the U.S., marry James, and raise three sons who identified strongly as American emerged from her own desire to reject her homeland.
(Still in the same endnote, Hal says he thinks that Quebecois separatists hate Anglophone Canada far more than they hate O.N.A.N. Hal asks for more information about Helen, and when Orin gets cagey, Hal brings up Orin’s promiscuity and fetish for married mothers. Hal angrily urges Orin to tell the truth about himself to Helen, but immediately regrets the outburst, admitting that he hates losing his temper. At this point Pemulis cracks open the door to Hal’s room. Hal and Orin then discuss Quebecers’ resentment of the Great Concavity, which disproportionately affects them. Indeed, this could be what is driving the anti-O.N.A.N. sentiment.)
On the surface, the parallel conversations that Hal and Orin are having—one about Quebecois separatism and the other about Orin’s crush on Helen—are totally unrelated. Yet we know that Hugh/Helen works for the U.S. government on issues related to Quebecois separatism, and that these two narrative threads are thus more closely related than either Hal or Orin realize.
(The same endnote details that Pemulis is now wildly gesturing to Hal, who gestures for Pemulis to throw him a pair of underwear. Hal tells Orin that Pemulis is there signaling that it’s time for dinner. Hal, Pemulis, Struck, and Troeltsch have a tradition of smoking an enormous blunt in the woods before dinner. Orin asks why, given that all Canadians resent the Great Concavity, Quebecois separatists don’t use this to support their anti-O.N.A.N. mission. Pemulis is getting more and more impatient and begins to gesture to someone outside Hal’s window. Finally, Hal tells Orin he has to go.)
The fact that this whole scene is played inside an endnote makes it difficult to assess how important it is. On one level, it seems like a completely ordinary day at E.T.A., during which Hal and his friends engage in their usual habits. However, Orin’s curiosity about Quebecois separatism suggests that this could actually be a key movement within the plot—even if it is somewhat hidden in the endnotes. This emphasizes the novel’s unique structure—the endnotes are equally important to the text itself.
(In the final passage of this extended endnote, Orin tries to continue the conversation while Pemulis threatens to break off the antenna of Hal’s phone. Hal insists that what the separatists really want is for Québec to secede, and that their anti-O.N.A.N. position is “not what it appears.” He is searching under his desk for his shoe. He sneezes twice, and while this is happening Pemulis flicks off the phone console’s power unit, cutting off Orin mid-sentence.) Back in the main narrative, more details emerge about the Quebecois anti-O.N.A.N. separatist movement, which has proven to be very violent.
This scene is a great example of how Hal is always trying to keep everyone around him happy, and how this often proves to be an impossible task. Hal tells Orin that he has to go because Pemulis is waiting, and stays on the phone because Orin keeps talking. Of course, what we never learn is what Hal himself wants.
Exhibiting almost no signs of pregnancy, Avril did not know she was pregnant with Mario until her water broke. Mario was extremely premature and “had to be more or less scraped out.” He was kept in an incubator for many weeks and was named after James’s grandfather, Mario Sr., who was the inventor of X-Ray Specs!, a mail-order novelty item. Mario Jr. ended up with a range of physical disabilities, including his small size, “withered” arms, “block feet,” a squished nose, a heavy eyelid, a squint, and an “involuntarily constant smile.” His skin is “an odd dead gray-green” color, which makes him look somewhat lizard-like. He always wears a police lock to help him stand upright.
Mario is just one of many characters in the novel with physical disabilities and deformities, and thus in a sense these qualities are normalized through the frequency with which they occur. Yet some of the descriptions of his body seem to be deliberately horrifying, such as his lizard-like skin, or deliberately comic, like the police lock he wears to keep himself upright. This might lead us to question Wallace’s depiction of people with disabilities and deformities.
Mario is also cognitively impaired, and he remains on the outside of life at E.T.A., although he had a special role in supporting James’s filmmaking. He continues to record E.T.A. students playing tennis as well as pursuing more creative film projects. Many E.T.A. students see Mario as a mild annoyance, although Lyle loves him and Hal, who calls him “Booboo,” secretly “idealizes” him. Hal thinks Avril might believe that Mario is the true prodigy of the family. Mario was the first person to give Hal a copy of the O.E.D., and when a representative from U.H.I.D. approached Mario in the Y.D.P.F.A.H., Hal told him to get lost.
While this passage appears to present a more positive view of Mario, it also contains tropes about people with disabilities that are arguably harmful. For example, people with disabilities are often presented as being inspirationally wise and morally righteous, as if they exist to make abled people feel better about life. This is arguably a component of the portrayal of Mario.