Short story: “The Depressed Person”

by look i have opinions

“The Depressed Person,” by David Foster Wallace

Formerly available as a PDF on the Harper’s website (link broken); apparently first published there in 1998; online here (footnotes seemingly missing) and here (for a price) and also here (scroll down; footnotes converted into end notes); collected in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

4,418 words

I love this story. I’ve noticed that even people who like it usually describe it as boring and unpleasant, but I find it really pleasurable, like picking at a painful scab, and the opposite of boring.

This is one of the few stories I know that consists almost entirely of narration rather than scene—all “telling,” no “showing”—and works beautifully. I’ll admit that I do see now why people say not to do this. It’s smothering. From the richness of the narrated details (the buckskin pelisse, the virulent neuroblastoma), you get the feeling there’s a whole world out there beyond the wall of words. That’s what makes the story work so well for me: the trap it builds. It’s the kind of trap that works really well on people who live mostly in their heads.

Reading the story, I have to keep several mental threads going at once. I understand the therapeutic language literally, as an earnestly precise description of an emotional life, and I also hear its absurdity in the context of fiction. I consider the depressed person sympathetically and critically and even make a few feeble attempts at assigning blame; I hear her shrillness, her patheticness, the smallness and cheapness of her self-pity. The story tries to anticipate all possible reactions and so does the depressed person herself. The effect is to defuse my reactions without halting them. I can see that the depressed person’s explanation of her problem is completely accurate, intellectually, and I can see that all her verbal escape strategies are doomed from the outset, and I can see that my escape strategies are no better than hers. Every possible move is plotted out and they all lead to stalemate. The mind is a machine that can wear itself out.

Apparently several people wrote to Harper’s to complain about this story’s portrayal of mental illness, which they found cruel, mocking, and victim-blaming. It’s hard to argue with them. The story is cruel, relentlessly cruel. (I once advised an anxiety sufferer not to read it unless she were in a particularly robust mood.) But it would be a mistake to call it sadistic. A little sadism would be a relief. At least sadism is a form of genuine human connection.

A phrase I learned from this story that I find strangely chilling: “terminal graduate degree.”