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.