Like a lot of people, I was shocked to hear that Tom Disch killed himself last weekend. I have to confess that I think I’ve spent more time listening to him at Readercon than reading his works. Most of it is too challenging for me. I mean, I’ve only seen the movie of “The Brave Little Toaster.” I found The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of to be thought-provoking, but it’s a while since I read it. The Disch story that most impressed me is the first one I ever read, in one of those searing experiences where you remember exactly where you were when it happened: “Descending.”
In light of the circumstances surrounding his death, it raises eerie resonances to read it now. It’s a tale of a man who has run out of money, who’s in trouble with his landlord, and who’s worried about starving. In “Descending,” the narrator takes his already over-extended credit card and buys more food, thinking he can delay the day when he has to pay the bills. He has a lovely time in the department store, until at last he’s ready to go home and he opens a book to read while goes down the escalator.
The reader hears all sorts of alarm bells ringing when things start to get weird. But the narrator, like a frog in slowly boiling water, keeps rationalizing things away and burying himself in cheap entertainment. By the time he accepts that he is descending what appears to be an infinite chain of escalators, it’s too late to turn back. He tries to go back, but no, it’s too late. He slowly goes mad, even hysterical at times, all the while congratulating himself on how well he’s dealing with it.
It’s a simple premise, worked out in all possible angles, down to the chilling end. And while the story seems simple, the imagery stays with you. After all, aren’t we all trapped in a situation we never asked for? Sure, you started out okay, but it’s been steadily getting worse long before you noticed. Trying to escape only makes things worse, as you spiral downward, without explanation, without appeal, to the implacable end. You know, life.
It won’t cheer you up, but you can find a fantastic reading of it from MindWebs, courtesy of the Internet Archives.
One thought on “Re: Descending”
Disch was one of those strange animals we need more of, a literary writer and poet who focused on sci-fi. I should pick up “The Dreams Our Stuff…” again. Several years ago I needed it for a quick reference to quote something Disch had written, but overall I found the book terribly superficial, so I only really read a few sections that were relevant to my work at the time.
I only found out today that Disch and I share an unusual piece of formative influence: we both dropped out of The Cooper Union. (Which, I should point out in both our defenses, is nearly as difficult to do as getting into it in the first place.)
Also, I loved his idea of a calendar filled with famous suicide dates. One has to give a nod of appreciation to that kind of sense of humor.
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