Monday, August 31, 2009


The David Foster Wallace story in the new issue of Tin House is an old one--his first published story, in fact, written while still an undergraduate at Amherst College. Perhaps the closest thing we have these days to the voice of a generation, Wallace committed suicide in September, at the age of 46. His death was a tragic development, but hardly a shocking one: he had tried to kill himself several times before. Suicide was also a recurring theme in his fiction.

This new old story, entitled "The Planet Trillaphon as it Stands in Relation to The Bad Thing," is being republished, ostensibly--there is no editor's note*--to shed some light on his suicide. In the story, "the planet Trillaphon" refers to the condition of being on antidepressants, "the Bad Thing" to the protagonist's clinical depression. Wallace notably went off his meds--meds he had been swallowing regularly for two decades--just a few months before he died.

"I've been on antidepressants for, what, about a year now, and I suppose I feel as if I'm pretty qualified to tell what they're like," the story begins. "They're fine, really, but they're fine in the same way that, say, living on another planet that was warm and comfortable and had food and fresh water would be fine: it would be fine, but it wouldn't be good old Earth, obviously. I haven't been on Earth now for almost a year, because I wasn't doing very well on Earth. I've been doing somewhat better where I am now, on the planet Trillaphon, which I suppose is good news for everyone involved."

Later, the character describes his depression--the Bad Thing--this way, "Everything in you is sick and grotesque. And since your only acquaintance with the whole world is through parts of you--like your sense organs and your mind, etc.--and since these parts are sick as hell, the whole world as you perceive it and know it and are in it comes at you through this filter of bad sickness and becomes bad. As everything bad becomes bad in you, all the good goes out of the world like air out of a big broken balloon. There's nothing in this world you know but horrible rotten smells, sad and grotesque and lurid pastel sights, raucous or deadly-sad sounds, intolerable open-ended situations lined on a continuum with just no end at all...

And then all of a sudden it sort of dawns on you...the Bad Thing is able to do this to you because you're the Bad Thing yourself! The Bad Thing is you. Nothing else: no bacteriological infection or having gotten conked on the head with a board or a mallet when you were little, or any other excuse; you are the sickness yourself. It is what "defines" you, especially after a little while has gone by. You realize all this, here. And that, I guess, is when if you're all glib you realize that there is no surface to the water, or then you bonk your nose on the jar's glass and realize you're trapped, or when you look at the black hole and it's wearing your face. That's when the Bad Thing just absolutely eats you up, or rather when you eat yourself up. When you kill yourself. All this business about people committing suicide when they're "severely depressed," we say, "Holy Cow, we must do something to stop them from killing themselves." That's wrong. Because all these people have, you see, by this time already killed themselves, where it really counts...When they "commit suicide," they're just being orderly. They're just giving external form to an event the substance of which already exists and has existed in them over time."

If you haven't read Wallace's Kenyon College commencement speech from 2005, you can find it here. It's hard to overstate the piece's brilliance. Wallace writes like someone trying to convince himself--and thus you--that living is ultimately worthwhile.

* UPDATE: Rob Spillman actually did write, in the Editor's Note for the entire issue: "Our premiere issue featured a story by David Foster Wallace, whom we miss. In the spirit of coming full circle, we present a story written in the budding stage of his brilliant career, previously seen only in his college literary magazine and published here with the blessing of Wallace's widow." Oops.

1 comment:

  1. "They're just being orderly." I really like that.