Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky. (slithytove) wrote,
Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky.

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Thomas M. Disch

I subscribe to The Weekly Standard, a journal of conservative political opinion. I was surprised to see, in the May 7 issue a review by Thomas M. Disch of a new book about Southern poet and man of letters Alan Tate, and the new release of a book of Tate's essays. The review is online, and you can read it here, at least until the link expires, which may be soon.

I had heard of Tate — it's hard to get a liberal arts education in the South and not hear of him — but didn't know much about him. Most of his work is now out of print. If Disch is right, I'm not interested in learning about him either. Disch seems to admire his poetry, and sees him as trying to reconcile 1920's Modernism with the romantic/tragic themes of traditional Southern writing, a problem which doesn't especially interest me. To make matters worse, Tate also seems to have been an apologist for white racism, at a time when it was acceptable to publicly express racist sentiments in the South.

What is more interesting about this essay is to find Tom Disch doing it! Disch is a poet, but is probably better known as a science-fiction writer. His first novel to catch fans' attention was Camp Concentration which, to my astonishment, is still in print after 33 years! Camp Concentration is the story of an experiment conducted on political prisoners in some near-future dystopian America. The experiment attempts to to raise their intelligence, but slowly kills them in the process. It succeeds, terrifyingly. It's an epistolary novel, told in the diaries of one of the prisoners. As a writer, Disch is a stylist, and his prose is a delight, as is his incredibly wide-ranging knowledge of all things under the sun. I fell in love with his writing after reading this book.

His next major work was 334, a collection of novelettes and interconnected short stories revolving around the occupants of a public housing project with the street address of the title, in New York City, around the year 2020. Again, he paints a bleak future. The book is a wonderful read, with astonishingly evocative prose, gritty characters, and a complex, believable world. Here's the start of the short story 'Angouleme':

There were seven Alexandrians involved in the Battery Plot—Jack, who was the youngest and from the Bronx, Celeste DiCecca, Sniffles and MaryJane, Tancred Miller, Amparo (of course), and of course, the leader and mastermind, Bill Harper, better known as Little Mister Kissy Lips. Who was passionately, hopelessly in love with Amparo. Who was nearly thirteen (she would be, fully, by September this year), and breasts just beginning. Very very beautiful skin, like lucite. Amparo Martinez.

"Very very beautiful skin, like lucite." Does that remind you of anything? How about "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."? That, if you don't know, is the opening of William Gibson's groundbreaking novel Neuromancer. (And if you haven't read Neuromancer, why haven't you?) Disch's line was written about eight or ten years before Gibson's, but it has the same flavor: the natural world is described with a simile referencing technology, reversing the usual practice of writers since, well, forever. Reified technology has taken the place of nature as a standard against which things are measured. Another example of this is in the the story in 334 titled 'Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire': "By never for a moment relaxing at the effort, she had made herself at pretty as a Chevrolet and as mindless as a cauliflower."

Although I hestiate to use phrases like 'the triumph of the human spirit' about so dark and cynical a writer as Disch, one of the characteristics of his writing is the fascinating, complicated, even lovable characters who inhabit the dystopias he creates, who live, work, and love in them. Humanity, Disch seems to say, persists and thrives, whatever disasterous society individuals may find themselves in. The major thing of importance in the lives of individuals will always be their relations with other people, for good or ill, although those relationships will be altered by the social and technological circumstances in which they find themselves. And of course, the way technology and society shape individual lives, relationships, and ways of thinking, is one of the major themes of science fiction.

334 dates from the mid 70's. I haven't kept up with all Disch has done since then, but I can recommend On Wings of Song, a fable that imagines that when people sing, just right, their souls can fly free of their bodies, and The Businessman: A Tale of Terror, which is now out of print.

I was surprised to find Disch writing a review for The Weekly Standard. I know nothing of Disch's politics, but always assumed he was a standard issue liberal. Camp Concentration has a strong anti-establishment flavor to it, and On Wings of Song sometimes seems to be a rant against Middle America, the Midwest in particular, and has some campy homoerotic flavor to it. On the other hand, 334 seems to be fairly skeptical of government's ability to create an humane society by central planning. The world of that novel is clearly an outgrowth of the antipoverty programs of the 70's, and is clearly a dystopia. Disch may still be a liberal, there's no reason The Weekly Standard couldn't hire him to do a book review no matter what his politics, but political journals usually farm out their book reviews to writers of the same political persuasion as the journal. You wouldn't expect to find David Horowitz writing reviews for The Nation, for example. So, I wonder what Disch's politics really are. It's curious.
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