Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "The Depressed Person"

From Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 75.

Here's the most emblematic story of Wallace's c. 2000 fiction-writing style: a clinically written, circuitous, and emphatic third-person narrative about the self-torture that comes from losing an ability to empathize with and trust in the world around oneself. "The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror," begins the story. We hear of the various medications she's been on, without effect, and learn of the horrifyingly petty Blame Games her divorced parents played over the costs of raising her, a childhood that has vestigially shaped the way she is now, with specific regard to her inability to blame anyone but herself. This is true to the extent that when she calls her Support Group -- her long-distance "friends" -- she spends as much time apologizing for her interruptions and pitiable behavior as she does attempting to talk about the formative traumas in her life, a vicious circle in which she feels demeaned by her attempts to feel less demeaned. (For example, she is mortified by the amount of money she spends to "force" her therapist to listen to her -- not because she doesn't have the money [and this reminds her of how her parents haggled over the principle of raising her] but because it re-enforces that she is the type of person who has to pay someone to be her best friend.)

So far as stories go, it's an excellent mood piece: we feel clutched at by the depressed person's intense needs, in the sense that we are almost dragged down with her, reaching the point at which we want -- like her friends -- to hang up the phone and stop listening. And yet we are also fascinated by the intricacies of her thought process, in which everything has a coded secret meaning; we are forced to wonder what it might be like to worry so much about how others see us, to be unable to forgive or forget or simply Be There (the code that she ignorantly uses to describe her Support Group's support). The unappealing nature of the story, which is really dryly written, in the flat tones of the depressed -- i.e., those who cannot feel/connect with themselves or others, but do, sadly, realize and fret over this (as opposed to psychopaths) -- shows that the story is having a successful effect on the reader. You sort of have to judge/see for yourself:

...resulted in the emergence of the depressed person's Inner Child and a cathartic tantrum in which the depressed person had struck repeatedly at a stack of velour cushions with a bat made of polystyrene foam and had shrieked obscenities and had reexperienced long-pent-up and festering emotional wounds, one of which being a deep vestigial rage over the fact that Walter D. ("Walt") DeLasandro Jr. had been able to bill her parents $130 an hour plus expenses for being put in the middle and playing the role of mediator and absorber of shit from both sides while she (i.e., the depressed person, as a child) had had to perform essentially the same coprophagous services on a more or less daily basis for free, for nothing, services which were not only grossly unfair and inappropriate for an emotionally sensitive child to be made to feel required to give form but about which her parents had then turned around and tried to make her, the depressed person herself, as a child, feel guilty about the staggering cost of Walter D. DeLasandro Jr. the Conference-Resolution Specialist's services, as if the repeated hassle and expense of Walter D. DeLasandro Jr. were her fault and only undertaken on her spoiled little snout-nosed snaggletoothed behalf instead of simply because of her fucking parents' utterly fucking sick inability to communicate and share honestly and work through their own sick, dysfunctional issues with each other.

Part of the reason this isn't necessarily The Most Fun To Read is because it seems so authentically what a character might actually be thinking, particularly in the close third-person narrative that the sentence slowly becomes (her voice/dialogue taking over with the italicization and curses). And, unlike other interior monologues, Wallace hasn't polished the voice to be clever or glib -- she doesn't make the sort of wry observations from which an audience can laugh alongside with (though Wallace is capable of doing so, and does, in fact, do so in other stories), but instead makes the sort of real and critical observations -- over and over again -- about her own self. This is what it feels like to be depressed, goes the story; this is what it feels like to be trapped, listening to her. (And for the record, you may remember Walter D. DeLasandro Jr. from "Yet Another Example of the Certain Porousness of Borders (VI)"; I've a strong suspicion that Wallace had lengthy and detailed back stories for all of his characters, no matter how minor, and that his use here is meant, in some way, to signify that we all have hurts, whether we get to talk about them or not.)

We've seen in Wallace's other stories, particularly from this collection, a running theme of characters struggling to express themselves, to explain something that they cannot find the words for. We've seen it in Wallace-as-a-character ("Octet") and Wallace-as-an-author ("Adult World (II)"), and we've seen it stylistically throughout in Wallace-as-a-writer (particularly in the dense, difficult to read "Church Not Made With Hands"). Knowing what we now know about Wallace-as-a-person, Pop Quiz #10: is it harder to read "The Depressed Person," recognizing that the man behind the curtain was suffering to describe a very real hurt himself? A story like this -- which asks you to suffer a little through the pace, but which still manages to be enlightening/interesting throughout -- gives me great confidence in The Pale King's ability to limn boredom.

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