On ghosts

David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King appeared trailing clouds of hagiography when published in 2011. References to his suicide were frequent but circumspect, usually alluding to his use of anti-depressant medication, of which Foster Wallace himself was reportedly too ashamed to speak.

Foster Wallace appears to have lived with what is usually described as ‘depression’ since he was a child. Recognising a profoundly depressed child is a very disturbing experience. It’ll haunt you – and it should.

Being depressed is not just a state of being very, very sad, as anyone living with depression will struggle to tell you. Depression has a malignancy to it, and can become so entrenched that it begins to look like a kind of psychosis in which the person inhabiting, or being inhabited by, depression becomes resigned to the absolute nature of their condition and the pitiless accuracy of their insight. Depression supplies its own proofs of itself, which is why living with depression or a depressed person can be so frustrating and deadly boring and heartbreaking all at once. Depression can look like an unending, slow-motion breakdown, a breakdown always failing to happen.

‘Mental illnesses’ often get coded in simplistic ways and then bombed with medications. That’s why, when working with those deemed to be ‘ill’, collaborations on re-descriptions of so-called ‘symptoms’ can be helpful, even powerful. For the depressed, something has often gone badly amiss very early, something for which, one might imagine, the writing of huge novels might be an attempted cure or re-description.

Suicide has a powerful capacity to haunt the living, as if the one thing the person who suicides didn’t count on is that they would become a ghost. Suicide can be an act of cruelty directed at someone living, or an attempt to get away from oneself or an intolerable situation, a way of off-loading one’s unbearable state onto others and even a strange kind of mistake, as though there was a belief that one will wake up dead and feel a lot better.

Sometimes it can be none of those things.

At any rate, those left behind by the suicide – abandoned or forgotten or targeted – undergo an experience they can’t read. The only person who can definitively speak about the event, who can decode the text, is dead. In attempting a final statement – a definitive attempt at the absolute – they only cause questions to proliferate.

Maybe Foster Wallace just got sick of being a writer and wanted to put a halt to the thing that kept churning out fiction: his mind. It’s easy to see how that could happen. Smashing one’s laptop, trashing backup files and burning manuscripts could become a necessary exercise in survival. As the American writer Jenny Offill said earlier this year, writers never ‘reach a point of mastery where you can say, right, now I understand how this is done. That is why so many talented people stop writing. It’s hard to tolerate this not-knowing. It’s hard to tolerate feeling like an idiot or an imposter’.

But there’s a difference between trashing one’s own head and trashing the weird ideas in which it’s trapped. In that gap floats the question that no-one living can answer.

Depression, in its malignancy, doesn’t tolerate flaws in the narrative. It is like a search for the perfect story. Arguing with depression – either from the outside or the inside – can be exhausting and dispiriting, because it is so relentlessly persecutory. One is either attacking the world or oneself. As Proust noted just before he dunked the madeleine, the only thing good about today is that tomorrow will inevitably be worse.

The wish to construct a narrative with a seamless linearity, a perfect work of fiction, seems a weird and disturbing thing. I sometimes wonder if writing fiction is a way of not speaking about the things that really want to be said, a way of leaving out the crucial event, that thing that the writer can’t see, the critical state that he or she would be too demoralised to acknowledge. As psychoanalyst Charles Rycroft observed in The Innocence of Dreams, ‘Whenever we talk – or write – we convey more information to our audience than just the specific, intended meaning we have uttered.’

To construct a staged and coherent symbolic order seems both too fraught and too neat, as if something were secretly buried and marked with a headstone that bore no relation to the contents of the grave. If you ask someone to tell their life story and they present a smooth narrative sequence, well badged with symbolic events, you know they are a pathological liar and the garden is filled with bodies.

Maybe fiction writers are people with an addiction to mendacity.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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