"Descending" by Thomas M. Disch: An Appreciation by John Schoffstall
"Descending" is a horror story. Superficially, it is about a man who takes the 'Down' escalator in a department store and finds he can't get off. More deeply, it is about credit and debt, and the lure of jam, jam, jam today. Credit cards, second mortgages and other easy ways to leverage ourselves into trouble are common nowadays. But in the early 1960's, when "Descending" was written, many people didn't even have one credit card. Easy 'revolving credit' was a new element in the interface between the individual and the world of commerce and consumption. Like the psychological manipulation by advertising that Kornbluth and Pohl explored in the 1950's, and the intellectual property, privacy, and bioscience issues that crop up in sf stories today, easy consumer credit was an interesting and potentially dangerous new social force in the early 1960's. In this sense, "Descending" can be seen as social science fiction. It is significant that the protagonist reads Thackeray's Vanity Fair through much of the story, a novel whose anti-heroine, Becky Sharp, is also an unprincipled exploiter of credit, much to the damage of those around her.
But on its deepest level, the theme of "Descending" is more general than social criticism: it is tragedy, the story of a fall, of an individual who tumbles out of society for any reason, and the lies he tells himself to ease the pain of falling. The protagonist's descent, first socially and economically, later physically, down the endless escalators, mirrors any behavior that has escaped from our control: alcohol or drug abuse, sexual or gambling addiction, pathological collecting, and so forth. Like the addicted individual who loses friends, jobs, alienates his family and ultimately may wind up homeless, the protagonist of "Descending" has exploited others to maintain a dysfunctional existence, and now finds his links with the rest of humanity broken beyond repair. His own brother won't return his letters; he is unable to find employment: "He had been a grasshopper for years. The ants were on to his tricks." Every contact with other human beings he has in the course of the story
is purely economic. He is the economic man gone awry, and he meets his doom in the temple at which he has worshiped, a department store.
The prose is flawless. Often it is simple and transparent, but sometimes it rises to elegance: "He whitened the sepulchre of his unwashed torso with a fresh, starched shirt and chose his somberest tie from the rack." This sort of bold wordplay is typical of Disch, and one of the things that makes his prose, as well as his storytelling, so enjoyable. The storytelling is relentless. First strangeness, then menace, then fear, then horror, no let-up, no relief, no requiem, no cavalry at the end. Disch tramps all over the motherhood statement. The emotion of 'hope', as a response to crisis, is frequently lauded in popular media; Disch shoots it dead. At the end we find the protagonist, near death, still lying to himself that he might have escaped.
One of the reasons for this story's impact is that Disch always takes his protagonist seriously, and always respects him. This does not mean he likes him or admires him. Disch makes it clear the protagonist is an awful failure, who has made bad, self-indulgent life choices. But Disch never makes fun of him for it. Fate is cruel to the protagonist, but the author never is. This reduces the distance between the reader and the protagonist. We are not led to sneer at him, but to sympathize with him, and perhaps see aspects of ourselves in him, disturbing as that may be to us. "Descending" can be taken as a morality tale, a series of Hogarth paintings of the Spendthrift's Progress, in which the true horror is that with little effort we may imagine ourselves in the Spendthrift's place.
"Descending," published in 1964, was among Disch's first professionally published stories. For the product of a writer in his early years, it is astonishing in the excellence of its prose and structure. Its unrelieved bleakness is typical of Disch's early work. His later stories and novels would find at least a few rays of light in the world, but in the clarity and cleverness of this story's prose, its lack of sentimentality, its clear-sighted, unblinking look into character, "Descending" is a fine specimen of Disch's work, and points the way towards the future of his writing.
Link to story.