Discussing J.G. Ballard in this space two months ago, I said that he was, by most conventional measures, not a very good writer. With Thomas M. Disch, Ballard’s near-contemporary of the 1960s New Wave, there’s the opposite problem. Disch was a consummately capable writer, attentive to character and style as well as to his place in the wider world of literature. Yet he was pretty consistently underappreciated and mistrusted by the SF field, even when he was producing his major works in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Why?
Camp Concentration, his most well-known novel, is surely the place to start. Serialised in Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds, it tells the story of Louis Sacchetti, a semi-successful poet in a near-future US. Imprisoned for his opposition to his country’s wars, Louis writes a diary, which becomes the text of the book. It rapidly becomes clear, though, that his incarceration is not normal. He receives an inoculation of ‘‘what seemed like several thousand cc’s of bilgy ook,’’ and is then transferred to an unusual prison called Camp Archimedes. There he has, to his delight, a decent library, pleasant accommodation, and fellow-prisoners whom he feels he can talk to. He begins to write again after a long silence, in a manic state of excitement. He’s aware, though, that his acts are being monitored. Both the prison governor, Haast, and a psychologist, Dr. Busk, are taking a close interest in what he says and does.
Eventually, Louis begins work, with some of his fellow prisoners, on a staging of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. However, one of the others collapses and dies during the performance. He had been injected with Pallidine, a drug based upon syphillis. Pallidine brings the subject vastly increased intelligence – which explains some of the other things Louis sees at Camp Archimedes – but it also causes physical deterioration and, ultimately, death. Louis’s own play, Auschwitz: A Comedy, is finally completed and staged just at the point where Louis realises what most readers will have done far earlier. He too has been injected with Pallidine, and is heading for the same destination as the other prisoners.
In the second half of the book, Louis’s diary becomes fragmentary, composed of non-sequitur parables or obscure allusions, refusing to describe the day-to-day world around him. After a while his narrative reasserts control over itself with an immense effort. A lot has changed in the camp. Dr. Busk has gone, many of the other prisoners are dead, and Haast seems strangely distracted. A set of explanations does eventually emerge for these things – almost too-conventional a set of explanations, in some ways. What sets the book apart, though, is Disch’s attempt to render in first-person narration the consciousness of someone radically more intelligent than any human being has ever been. It’s not the only work in the genre attempting this feat – think of Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave (1953), Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon (1966), or Ted Chiang’s ‘‘Understand’’ (1991). In Disch’s rendering, intelligence permeates every element of Louis’s being. It affects how he perceives, how he makes connections, how he experiences the world. Of course, in this particular narrative, Louis’s experience of his intelligence is tied to his experience of his physical decline. As in Flowers for Algernon, what intelligence brings is a clearer apprehension of the bad news that’s to come. What Disch manages, more thoroughly than any other depiction of the subject I’ve read, is to describe through the story what intelligence actually means: how it operates in the world, how it affects the individual and the group. It’s a virtuoso display.
334 (1972) is a very different book, in structure, subject, and style. It’s set in a near-future New York, and through six linked stories depicts the lives of those excluded for one reason or another from what this world has to offer. The title refers to the address of a public housing block, 334 W 11th Street, around which much of the action revolves. The first character we see, for instance, is a young man called Birdie. He is hearing a lecture about Dante that seems utterly irrelevant to him:
Shit, Birdie thought with great precision.
It was all a pile of shit. He wrote Shit in his notebook, then made the letters look three-dimensional and shaded their sides carefully. It wasn’t as though this were really education. General Studies Annexe was a joke for regular Barnard students. Milly’d said so. Sugar on the bitter pill of something-or-other. Chocolate-covered shit.
Now Ohrengold was telling them about Florence and the Popes and such, and then he disappeared. ‘‘Okay, what is simony?’’ the proctor asked. No-one volunteered. The proctor shrugged and turned the lecture on again. There was a picture of someone’s feet burning.
Apart from anything else, it’s worth considering the economy of this passage. Birdie isn’t even in the same room as the professor giving the lecture. He’s removed not only from the subject of it, Dante’s Inferno, but from the one person who seems to care about Dante. The proctor, shrugging, seems just as bored. So does everyone else in the class, since no one volunteers to answer his question. And simony, a pretty obscure sin these days, seems pretty far removed from the rest of Birdie’s world. It’s not just that there are invisible lines of class here, though there clearly are. There are entirely different worlds of discourse, with nothing to say to each other.
As the panorama of 334 expands, and we see more and more of this world, we also see more and more of the mutual incomprehension that exists in it. Perhaps one of the reasons Disch’s work was uncongenial to some in the SF community is that he posits no way out. There have been technological advances in this future, but nothing that fundamentally alters the facts of poverty. At various points in the book, some characters seem to have ideas that will take them somewhere else. Crime might provide excitement or money that mundane life does not; so might virtual reality or cryonics. But ultimately, the characters are as stuck as their counterparts now.
There is, however, one way out that becomes more and more a presence in the last story, ‘‘334’’. Death is always something of a presence in Disch’s work, but here it becomes more overt. ‘‘334’’ follows a number of the book’s protagonists through a mosaic of perspectives from 2021 to 2025. By the end one of them, Mrs. Hanson, very clearly longs for death – not as any kind of route to transcendence, but simply for itself. It’s a punishing ending: perhaps a realistic one, but one that goes against the grain of much SF.
I would suggest a unifying theory of Disch’s work: there are four ideas that can, to some extent, be found in everything he wrote. The first is irony. It’s ironic, for instance, that despite his intelligence, Louis doesn’t figure out that he’s been infected with Pallidine until much later than everyone else. Irony implies a sense in which the author is above the fray, observing at a distance. As a result, there’s sometimes a chilliness to Disch’s work that can seem off-putting. The second is art: the work of being an artist (like Louis), and the way art permeates lives and lives on independent of the artist. The third is America, the set of ideas as much as the country; a set of ideas that Disch regards with some scepticism. The last is death, which haunts and ends many Disch novels and stories.
All of these come together in On Wings of Song (1979). Its story is of a young man, Daniel Weinreb, who grows up in the conservative Midwest but finds his way to New York City, where he can become a kind of artist. Once again, we’re in the near-future, though in a world where it’s possible for individuals, in certain circumstances, to fly. This is frowned upon by a repressive government, but Daniel nonetheless discovers its joys.
Flying, then, could stand as a metaphor for any number of things – for art, for forbidden sexualities, for transgression and individuality. All of those are part of Daniel’s story, but flying isn’t reducible to any of these things. One of the things that marks out Disch’s work is a kind of richness, an openness to a range of interpretations. He also, particularly in this book, presents his ironies in a tone that verges on the arch. (This is an even stronger trait in some of his short fiction, such as ‘‘The Roaches’’.) For instance, here, from On Wings of Song, is another of Disch’s long series of unsympathetic teachers:
On average, twenty percent of each year’s graduating class failed Social Studies and had to take a make-up class to get their diplomas. All her known enemies were failed, of course, but so might be, it seemed, just about anyone else. Her Fs fell, like the rain, on the just and the unjust alike. Some even claimed that Mrs. Norberg drew the names out of a hat.
It’s that penultimate sentence, with its Biblical unction, that gives the passage its special punch. We can see not only that this is someone who exercises their power arbitrarily, but who tries to justify it by recourse to her society’s supposed values. The same is true of the final, devastating page of On Wings of Song. I won’t spoil it except to say that it presents a thoroughly foreshadowed atrocity justified by the most American of values.
In the ’70s and ’80s, Disch spent some time pursuing activities outside the SF field. He was a distinguished poet, wrote theatre criticism, designed a computer game, and became a figure known outside the SF field as much as within it. He also wrote a history of SF – The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (1998), whose twin arguments – that the genre is founded on lies, and that it has become a cynically exploited commodity – were not guaranteed to win him friends. But he continued to write genre work, most prominently with the Supernatural Minnesota quartet of horror novels. To me, the most important of these is The M.D. (1991).
Each of the Minnesota novels is titled for a profession (The Priest, say, or The Businessman) that is central to, and valued in, American life. It then shows us an example of that profession who embodies the opposite values to those we’d like to see. In the case of The M.D., the protagonist Billy Michaels makes a Faustian bargain early in his life. As a child, he encounters the god Mercury in a snowstorm and is given a twisted stick – a caduceus – that Mercury tells him has magical powers. Billy can use it to cause good in the world, but only if he uses it to cause an equal amount of harm elsewhere. Billy starts off in the bosom of his engulfing family, and his first caduceus experiments affect its dynamics. (Midwestern families, and their claustrophobic closeness, are a recurring motif in the Minnesota books.)
However, the book soon shifts to a couple of decades hence. Billy is a grown man now, a doctor, and very successful. But he lives in a country that’s been shaped by caduceus-induced cataclysms. ARVIDS, an even more terrible successor to AIDS, is ravaging the population, and camps have been set up to deal with its effects. Now known as William – another neat distancing device – he presides over his empire of consequences. The M.D. is probably the most plotted novel Disch ever created. (One might argue the same for his pseudonymous Gothic novel Clara Reeve (1975), but there the plot emerges partly from the conventions to which he’s paying homage.) Billy’s story is closed down for reasons that are thoroughly prefigured and that emerge artfully from the family situation we saw at the start.
After The M.D. came a few other novels, but not at the rate Disch had been writing previously. The latter stages of Disch’s life are by now well-known. His partner Charles Naylor died in 2005 after a long and devastating siege of cancer. He was threatened with eviction from his home, and other disasters followed. Disch established an online journal in which, like Timon of Athens, he railed at a world that he felt no longer cared about the things he valued. The distance necessary for irony had collapsed; he could no longer consider himself above the fray. He killed himself on Independence Day, 2008.