Photograph: Fireflies in Niimi, Japan (detail) Tsuneaki Hiramatsu
I PRINTED OUT Michiko Kakutani’s review of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, and I took it with me to my therapist’s office. I’m not seeing her all that much these days, once a month, and I plan to stop altogether at the end of the year. These days, we talk leisurely about what it means to live a worthwhile life. I am holding on to her a little longer than I need to, after slowly emerging in June from three months of what Wallace calls “The Bad Thing.”
“The Bad Thing.” I like this phrase because the state it describes doesn’t deserve a more nuanced name. The Bad Thing is not nuanced. The Bad Thing is a compassless darkness; it is the bottom of a foul deep well whose view of sunlight exists only to taunt. But even as I say this I know it’s too poetic. There’s nothing poetic about depression. This is why, most of the time, it’s no fun to read about. No matter how gifted the writer, nothingness — not the philosophical kind, but the experiential — is not much of a subject.
Wallace hanged himself in 2008, at age 46. Kakutani, who had not been generous to Wallace while he was alive, tacitly acknowledged the tragedy of his death by quoting liberally from his O.E.D.-length novel Infinite Jest, curating the sentences in which Wallace described the weatherlessness we call clinical depression.
A level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it
a double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible
a nausea of the cells and soul
Descriptions as powerful as these stand apart from most other writing on this subject. Wallace’s mind was quicksilver; it animated everything it touched, no matter how lifeless or unloved. The author’s staggering acuity contributes to the almost absurd length of his novels, and thus, in turn, probably the antagonism of some professional book reviewers.
Wallace’s short stories are what first won me over. One of his best, “Forever Overhead,” takes place at a crowded swimming club, mostly inside a boy’s head as he waits in line at the diving-board ladder to attempt his virgin plunge. Having decided that fear is caused by thinking, the boy is determined to keep his mind blank, but his senses vibrate with awareness. Eventually he is on deck, one foot on the ladder, a stocky woman above him, preparing to jump. A bald muscular man waits behind him. The boy knows there is no going back. He starts to climb.
The rungs are very thin. It’s unexpected. […] You taste metal from the smell of wet iron in shadow. Each rung presses into the bottoms of your feet and dents them. The dents feel deep and they hurt. You feel heavy. How the big woman over you must feel.
Near the top of the ladder, he is eye level with “the red, hurt-looking callus on the backs of her ankles.” He watches her go:...read more