With “The Depressed Person,” Wallace crosses into Mary Gaitskill territory—territory Gaitskill herself hasn’t claimed since her Two Girls, Fat and Thin. What starts out as parody, with the clinical narrative itself parodied by endless pedantic footnotes, soon turns absolutely claustrophobic. Wallace has a great talent for taking a bad situation and making it worse, upping the ante of a bet that was a mistake from the start, and here he slowly pulls out all the stops. Yet as the story seems barely to move forward, the woman at its center—the depressed person whose lifeline consists of nightly phone calls to acquaintances she hasn’t seen for years, people she has conned into sitting still for her monologues—grows increasingly frantic, and you skip ahead to see where the story ends: twenty-two pages to go. You could get off the line, close the book right now, but this monster of self-pity and blame has got you just as she’s got everyone else. You stop wondering why so many sentences end with prepositions and why that seems to move every such sentence just a bit off its mark, making it just a bit creepier. It’s a testament to Wallace’s control of his material that even as you might focus on details of how the story has been put together—hoping that by doing so you could reduce its ugliness, its force—there’s less and less sense of an author; the story seems to be running on its own power, as if not even its author could stop it.
Esquire, June 1, 1999