28 September 2006

"Descending" by Thomas M. Disch

I haven't read as much of the short fiction of Thomas M. Disch as I should. I have read a couple of his novels and a lot of his poetry, and have admired and enjoyed much of it. Yet I've only read parts of 334, a collection of linked stories some people consider his masterpiece, and at most two or three other stories.

Now that I have read "Descending", one of his earliest published stories, I am amazed that I haven't paid more attention to Disch before. It is good, perhaps, to discover writers with large bodies of wonderful work that is unfamiliar to you, because it means there are tremendous riches to be encountered, but there is also a certain sadness, even an anger: How could I have been so stupid as not to appreciate this work until now?

James Schoffstall has written perceptively about this story already, and so I don't feel compelled to revisit its themes and subject matter, because why add to what has already been done so well? What I'd like to point out about "Descending" is how excellent it is purely on a technical level, because this is a story I would use with aspiring writers as an exemplary model.

What most impresses me about "Descending" is how much Disch wrings from his premise. Often the difference for me between short stories that impress me and short stories that seem merely competent is not the difference between a good idea and a bad idea, but rather it is the difference between a story that has a good idea and doesn't do a lot with it and a story that takes an idea -- perhaps even a somewhat lackluster idea -- and explores it to the utmost. Of course, other things matter -- style, characterization, etc. -- but those other things are intimately related to the complexity with which the premise is handled.

Cleverness is not enough. None of us need to read any more stories that are merely clever. A less sophisticated writer than Disch would have created a clever and inconsequential story from the central idea of "Descending": a man gets on an escalator that never ends. From this idea, Disch builds a story that can be seen as an allegory, as a study of psychological breakdown, as a social critique. It does not scream a meaning at us, but it is rich with careful details that suggest as much as they say. Samuel Delany, in his introduction to Fundamental Disch, points out how well lists are used as a method of characterization, and this is, indeed, true, but the virtues of the story don't simply rest on that technique, because the situation of "Descending" enhances the characterization as well, and the choice of complications all reveal more about the character's personality. The lists are not only for characterization; as Schoffstall points out, they support the themes as well. Many elements of the story similarly serve multiple purposes -- they keep the action moving, they reveal aspects of character, they lend texture to ideas and implications, they evoke mystery from concrete imagery. "Descending" is a little bit more than 4,000 words long, but it is vastly more fulfilling than many stories of 10,000 words, and that is entirely because the premise is elaborated so carefully.

After first reading "Descending", I thought immediately of Kafka's "Metamorphosis", not because I think Disch's story is the equal of it, but rather because Kafka's is a story I have long considered a perfect example of a tale that explores its premise fully. "Descending" is perfect in its own, more modest, way. It is consistently surprising and yet rewards rereading.