Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) and "The Depressed Person"

I've been reading many of the reactions to the terrible news that broke over the weekend of David Foster Wallace's death. And somehow, it hasn't surprised me that "The Depressed Person," the only one of the author's stories I ever read--not because I discovered it in the O. Henry collection it became part of (1999), but rather because one of the kindest, sweetest members of my own "support system" copied it and mailed it to me right after she read it in Harper's 10 years ago (and just maybe, Harper's will soon have the heart to make the story freely accessible online), and if you know anything about "The Depressed Person" you'll know that it's not exactly a compliment to have one of your dearest friends think of you when she reads it--surfaces so often amid the shock and sadness online.

There's so much I want to say. I can still see myself, sitting there in my old apartment in that awful and seemingly endless era when I was, frankly, a "depressed person," reading this story. I can remember the moments of identification. I can remember, too, the moments of awe and admiration for the sheer artistry of the writing, what I later thought of as equivalent to executing a triple anything on a blank sheet of ice. That's what the sentences were like, ambitious and graceful and oh-so-perfectly-landed, and several years after I first read "The Depressed Person," when I was writing a psychotherapeutically-inflected story of my own, one very long sentence spilled out, and even though I stumbled in its writing (and editors later broke it up into nice, manageable shorter sentences), I recognized almost at once that I was, in some way, trying to do what I'd seen David Foster Wallace accomplish with such apparent ease.

David Foster Wallace was not one of my favorite writers: I faithfully bought a copy Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, but apart from rereading "The Depressed Person" I absorbed none of it. Still, David Foster Wallace wrote one of my all-time favorite stories, a story that has been lodged in my heart and mind for ten years. That depression was something Wallace evidently "knew" so intensely in his own lived experience, and that he won't equally know what it is to emerge, scarred but safe, from that personal hell, makes me terribly sad, and inarticulate.


Frances said...

Harper's has posted a PDF version of the story on their front page now.

Erika D. said...

Thank you for letting us know that, Frances.

Jarrett said...

Bravo, and thanks for linking to my considerable more emotional tirade on DFW.

Your comments on "The Depressed Person" are interesting, because when I first read it, I was struck mostly by the formalistic move, the use of a clinical, ostensibly objective, and frankly quite boring voice. It captured how boring medical discourse can be, but in the end it also captured, from the inside, how boring depression is.

Do read the first scene of Infinite Jest, and then see if you can put it down.

All the best, J

Erika D. said...

Thanks, Jarrett.