Tuesday, September 16, 2008

globeandmail.com: The shadow of depression

September 16, 2008 at 4:50 AM EDT

It is hard to believe that a highly treatable illness could stop the prodigious voice of the U.S. novelist, short-story writer and essayist David Foster Wallace, just 46 when he took his own life last Friday by hanging himself. His suicide is a reminder of the depredations of mental illness, and in particular of how depression can still be, in spite of medical advances, an overpowering and potentially fatal disease.

His entire career, it seems, was conducted in the shadow of this illness. For 20 years, according to his father, he took medication for depression. A 1996 profile of him in the New York Times Magazine reported that he had tried to commit suicide at least once. Like any good writer he made his illness into material; depression is omnipresent in his 1,079-page tour de force, Infinite Jest.

Mr. Wallace's short story The Depressed Person begins, "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." His achievements, in light of his illness, seem all the more remarkable.

While his work was notoriously demanding of readers (it most resembles that of the postmodernist Thomas Pynchon) and not always entertaining or satisfying in the ways many readers have come to expect good fiction to be, there is no denying the originality and scope of his talent.

Mr. Wallace made his mark early, publishing The Broom of the System, his first novel, at age 24, followed by a short-story collection, Girl with Curious Hair, and then at just 34 the colossal Infinite Jest, which helped him earn a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" of $230,000. "Wallace is, clearly, bent on taking the next step in fiction," Sven Birkerts wrote in the Atlantic Monthly. "He is carrying on the Pynchonian celebration of the renegade spirit in a world gone as flat as a circuit board; he is tailoring that richly comic idiom for its new-millennial uses."

Whether he would have been the same artist without his illness is not known; perhaps he would have produced a whole shelf of 1,000-page novels, or perhaps he would have turned to a less lonely profession. To note that he overcame depression to create works of originality and beauty, and that depression ultimately overcame him, is to stand in awe both at his singular achievements and the remorseless power of the disease.

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