Saturday, September 27, 2008

Thomas M. Disch, 1940 - 2008

Thomas M. Disch, 1940 - 2008

The man shot himself, presumably over the burden of many recent adverse events--but then he'd always been fascinated with suicide, and can have a friendly, even mordantly flippant attitude towards it.

So loud was the outcry over his passing that I missed this obituary (or was too busy to notice it) for over two months. No surprise; he's a writer with a special flavor, one not meant to please as many people as possible--only those with particular palates. 

I remember first reading Camp Concentration back in college (I think), and noting how fine the writing was; even the cruder jokes had wit (graffiti found on a wall: "THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD," only with the space between "PEN" and "IS" eliminated). One of his earlier works, Camp Concentration, had a pleasing structure (diary of a political prisoner divided into two halves, with an entire central section devoted to a series of chaotic, near-lunatic entries written during a period where the prisoner learns he'd been infected with a fatal, intelligence-enhancing disease) and a neat twist of an ending, something Disch would make less use of in his later works--they would feel more unpredictably lifelike, less satisfactorily conclusive, would mimic the lulling rhythms of the everyday punctuated by sudden bursts of high drama. The twists when they came had a more random quality to them--while there were surprises in Camp, you could look back at previous pages and note the carefully laid details foreshadowing what was coming (in something like The M.D. the only hint would be the prophecy of an untrustworthy god).

I think 334 was his masterpiece (no surprise there); the novel is difficult to describe because it encapsulates an entire and entirely persuasive world of flawed people living recognizably humdrum lives, blind to the grand scheme of which they are part. You actually get to see the grand scheme in the novel, when at one point they print a three-dimensional diagram tracing the lives and interactions of various characters under different modes ( don't have the book with me, so I can't actually list down said modes).

It sounds like an intellectually pretentious exercise but Disch is a tremendous writer--his prose (he's an accomplished poet, and what little I've read seems excellent) is precise, dry in tone yet emotionally evocative when needed (Mrs. Hanson's final monologue is, to my mind, one of the most heartbreaking arias I've ever read). The characters flitting in and out and sometimes making guest appearances in other stories grow on you to the point that they seem like next-door neighbors you greet with delight when you see them again, or wonder about when you don't; I say this of even the worse of them, which is one pleasure of fiction--the most repulsive characters are bearable because they don't live next door to you.

If there's a recent equivalent, it would be Krzysztof Kieslowski's TV series Dekalog, with ten occasionally interacting stories dealing (in a complex manner) with the Ten Commandments. The series' characters share the same setting (a drab housing project that could have been modeled after the giant apartment building in 334) and the series itself uses a similar emotional palette (though arguably Disch's is the more astringent): often dreary, at times despairing; sometimes sharply, blackly funny; on occasion able to lift itself up into unforgettable flight.

The Prisoner, an adaptation of the legendary science-fiction TV series starring Patrick McGoohan I can barely remember much of, except that I enjoyed it very much, and Rover (the balloon sentinel that menaced McGoohan) had a more vivid, more terrifyingly anthropomorphic demeanor in the book.

A growing number of readers consider On the Wings of Song, the picaresque odyssey of a young man across a future America, his masterpiece. I remember three things about the book: that it was the first time I realized Disch was gay (and not shy about it), that its vision of a religiously conservative middle America (Iowa as a theocracy) seems to have been chillingly realized in the past few decades; and that Disch in the novel creates a terrifyingly persuasive vision of the afterlife, heavenly in its beauty, hellish in its random and absolute lack of purpose or meaning. I'd had strong hints before in 334 and Camp Concentration, but it's with this book that I realized Disch was a scary, scary writer. 

If one knows Disch at all, it's probably for The Brave Little Toaster, about a Sunbeam, an electric blanket, and a number of other common appliance who decide to set out and find their long-absent owner. Creating empathy, even pathos out of inanimate objects is possible, possibly easy (Poe did it; so did Twain and Hemingway); Disch's accomplishment was to do it within the confines of children's literature (later adapted into an animated feature, with even a sequel written, and an animated feature made out of that), keeping it ostensibly light while hinting at the darker implications behind planned obsolescence, and abandoned appliances.

The Businessman: A Tale of Terror is I believe (someone correct me if I'm mistaken) his first explicit work of horror (if I remember something he'd written or had been written about him, he'd abandoned science fiction for a hopefully more lucrative genre--a sad development). Elaborating on the metaphysical world of On The Wings of Song, Disch creates an often comic, often horrifying world of wandering suicides and demon children spawned by ghosts and their murderers (a first in fantasy literature, Disch claims, though I think Joss Whedon tried for something similar years later (the spawn of two vampires) in his TV series Angel).

Something I'd love to try is Disch 1987 computer game Amnesia, intriguingly described as accurately modeling the streets and buildings (and even opening and closing times of various businesses) of Manhattan. It's one of the rare interactive games written by a major writer, even if half of Disch's novel-length prose was cut due to the disk's limited storage space (Now that I'd thought to look for it, the game can be downloaded. Oh goody!).

He'd written more, but The M.D.: A Horror Story is the latest of his I'd read. The story revolves around Billy Michaels, a young boy who comes into possession of a stick with magic powers (albeit powers imaginatively circumscribed by a specific and even logical set of rules), and what he does with it. Disch shows us the step-by-step process by which Billy grows in skill and power, and eventually becomes a world-famous figure upon reaching full adulthood. It's an American success story that opens up into a modern-day horror epic, with worldwide consequences and chilling echoes of the AIDS epidemic (remember, there were whispered rumors that AIDs was a created disease, designed to wipe out homosexuals).

Disch has always tended towards horror (witness On the Wings of Song, of all novels, where the descripton of a simple whirring gadget and its effect on a wandering spirit had me breaking out in cold sweat); here the tendency blooms in all its nightshade glory. Stephen King in an introduction to the paperback edition notes the kind of chills inspired by such simple material as a kite and its string, but for me arguably the most powerful episode involves the fairy-tale irony of a blessing Billy bestows on his younger brother, granting the unborn child unfailing health--never felt before or since have I appreciated the power (and danger) of wishes, that they might come true.

What makes the novel truly memorable though is that one never loses one's sympathy for Billy, even at his most flawed, even at his most powerful. Disch shows us the traumas and disappointments, the hopes and dreams that shaped him, and how this was all involved in creating the monster that he's become. And he is a monster; Billy by novel's end is given a chance to articulate his full rationale for doing what he did, and it's a reasonable, even logical rationale, but nevertheless monstrous. We understand him, even if we're horrified by him.

Disch is an important American writer; I believed that when I read him, and still do. That his passing is so little noticed--well, he's always been an ironic writer, and his subtly nuanced stories (rendered in sharp prose and believable detail) have always been stiffened with a rigorous appreciation of the absurdity found in life and in human thinking--even in his own thinking. I think he would have enjoyed this final joke as well.


dayuhangkayumanggi said...

I see...Sam Delany wasn't the only major SF writer to come out of the closet

Noel Vera said...

Nope. Tho personally speaking, I much prefer Disch.