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July 7, 2015 | Nonfiction

Animate

Marin Sardy

Animate photo

The story goes that Mario is Luigi’s brother. Nearly all we know about him is that he is a brother. We also know that he wears red and Luigi wears green. It is easy to infer that they must be close, having gone into the same line of work (plumbing) and being the title characters of the same video game (Super Mario Bros.).

I see us from behind, the backs of our heads, three in a row on chairs pulled close in front of the television. Adrienne, the blonde one. Tom, the youngest. And me. Ignoring our mother when she ignores us, failing to hear us beyond the voices in her head. Turning to this other place inside the television, to the freedom of its two-dimensional universe. I have the gray rectangle of the Nintendo controller in my hands. Hands on buttons, they stay that way for five years. The houses change, the rooms change, the TV grows and shrinks and turns color as one model is swapped out for another. The games change too, but Mario is the hinge on which all the rest hang, the alternate reality that introduces us to the idea of alternate realities.

When you play the game, Mario becomes a sort of doppelgänger, enacting your thoughts in his block-and-pixel world. When you punch (Button A), he punches. When you run (Button B), he runs. You live his adventures along with him, and yet you are never quite inside them. You see him only and always in profile. He is linked to you and yet he is not you. So it is with brothers. Mine sat beside me year after year, face to the screen, eyes on the action. (Disregarding the foil balls our mother placed on the antennae, disregarding her warnings about cosmic rays.) Telling me which brick to punch to get the secret fire flower, or the vine that unfurls up into clouds and golden coins. Outgrowing his shoes, saving the princess, outwitting the games—version 2, version 3. One day his hands were bigger than mine.

In Mario’s world, the straight line of his horizon extends ever to the right, while what is behind him to the left vanishes with each step he takes forward. Mario’s past is forever irretrievable. If he turns to go back, the edge of the screen refuses to give way. This is also the case with me, as I will learn. I will learn, as I grow taller (as Mario grows taller when he finds a giant mushroom)—I will learn, as I reach the prime of youth and taste invincibility (as Mario becomes invincible when he captures a flashing star)—I will learn that turning back to the left and returning to the castle at the end of the previous level (the one in which you threw fireballs at the tortoise-dragon until he fell through his drawbridge into red lava) is impossible for me just as it is for Mario and Luigi.

This does not at first seem to be the case. It seems that in my memory I can travel anywhere I have ever been. I can conjure those brothers and my own with ease. I can sense the shape of Tom’s fingers and the quality of his inward gaze, and I can feel madness like a ghost in the walls. But then comes the day when I wish to go back, to truly go back, not just to approximate that last castle but to inhabit it again. The moment comes when I hurl the telephone down onto my bed and watch it bounce to the floor, and I find myself thinking that we must rewind this, we must return to the previous moment. The minute happens when I call my husband and when he asks what’s up I say, “No no no no no no no no no.”

It has occurred to me that life is not the existence of a body in space but its movements within space. An animal that is animate is one that is alive. Every cell is engaged in the flow of molecules within and between the tissues, and without that movement a creature is dead. I thought about this as I imagined my brother, post-autopsy (required, confirming the suicide), lying on a shelf in a freezer that I could not visit to see him one last time. So I zoomed in closely in my thoughts, trying to catch again the curve of his jaw, the width of his nose. I zoomed all the way down into his cells, where I saw that no osmosis churned ions across membranes. No ribosomes dutifully transcribed RNA into proteins. No neurons pulsed electrical signals. Never had a stillness been more complete.

The thing about the game is that when Mario dies it is you who decides what happens next. As in life, you do not die with him. You remain young and strong and fully composed of flesh and bone and sinew. But then you press the Start button and he appears again. As before. And you go on, and you begin to believe in endless second chances. That in every way the logic of a game will reach beyond the screen. That there is and always will be another opportunity for your pain, for your brother’s pain, to be redeemed. 

image: Aaron Burch


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