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The Main Disch

Two Science-Fiction Reissues Resurrect the Best Work of a Major Minor Author

By Scott Carlson | Posted 8/11/1999

Nevermind the critical hyperbole: Thomas M. Disch is one of the greatest unknown authors of our time. A writer of poetry, literary criticism, children’s books, libretti, plays, and short stories, he’s also been an arts and Op-Ed contributor to The Washington Post, an editor at The Nation, a two-time O. Henry Award winner, and a nominee for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

You’ll find his novels, however, in the trashy sections of your local bookstore—back there on the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror shelves, under the shadow of the life-size cardboard cutout of Darth Maul. His latest, The Sub: A Study in Witchcraft, shows the master in a quiet prime. This entertaining “horror novel” is as much about big topics—original sin, feminine power, sexual dysfunction—as it is about malignant ghosts and hocus-pocus. For years Disch has challenged the conventions of the genres in which he hides. And he makes it look easy—maybe too easy.

But 30 years ago, Disch’s trash was scrappy, pungent, and poetic. Vintage Press just brought back two of Disch’s long out-of-print SF novels: the fragmented, experimental 334 and Camp Concentration, which sets the Faust legend in a dystopic alternate America.

Today the two novels consistently make SF critics’ best-ever lists, but back when they were written, Disch was a science-fiction oddity, if not a downright threat to the genre. He was part of SF’s literarily affected “New Wave” of the late ’60s. Traditionally SF was idea-driven and optimistic, written in clear, journalistic prose, à la H.G. Wells. The New Wave—which included Disch, Samuel Delany, J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, and others—challenged genre conventions with experimental prose, a pessimistic tone, and a shunning of science, previously the prime mover in SF plots.

Disch’s novels are driven by an element often lacking in genre fiction: the fully fleshed, lifelike character. Even plot—the backbone and, often, most crafted component of pulp fictions—takes a backseat. Disch prefers to imagine flawed characters in fantastically bad situations, which he lets run their course. With a lover’s tenderness, he paints the fine details of a character in one paragraph and serves up meanspirited cracks about that character’s intellect, fashion sense, body type, or eating habits in the next. He has the timing of a clockmaker and the aim of a sharpshooter.

334, written in 1974, is built almost entirely on a showcase of characters. In his attempt to imagine the future of the welfare state, Disch doesn’t contrive a traditional plot arc; he simply perches above the lives of various tenants of a public-housing project at 334 E. 11th St. in 21st-century New York. Of course those lives are hampered and endangered by all of the trappings we’ve come to recognize in futuristic dystopias: fake food, ultraviolent preteens, licenses for childbearing, and rampant disease. The characters yearn for the good life—an education, or just the right to bear children—even as their hopes sink into the quagmire of abject poverty. For some characters, television provides the most life they ever experience.

These vignettes give Disch the chance to play with a handful of personalities. One chapter, “Bodies,” focuses on Ab, a low-paid hospital attendant who hawks corpses to necrophiliacs for a hot wad of bills. The money burns through his pocket before he even gets home to his wife Leda, who’s bedridden with lupus. After the sale of a body, Ab goes to a flea market:

Used clothing fluttered limply from rack after rack, as far as the fountain. Ab could never pass these stalls without feeling that Leda was somehow close at hand, hidden among these tattered banners of the great defeated army of the second-rate and the second-hand, still silently resisting him, still trying to stare him down, still insisting, though so quietly now that only he could hear her: “Goddamn it, Ab, can’t you get it through that thick skull of yours, we’re poor, we’re poor, we’re poor!” It had been the biggest argument of their life together and a decisive one. He could remember the exact spot, under a plane tree, just here, where they had stood and raged at each other, Leda hissing and spitting like a kettle, out of her mind. It was right after the twins had arrived and Leda was saying there was no help for it, they’d have to wear what they could get. Ab said fuckshit no, no, no kid of his was ever going to wear other people’s rags, they’d stay in the house naked first. Ab was louder and stronger and less afraid, and he won.

The Sub: A Study in Witchcraft by Thomas M. Disch
Knopf, 304 pages, $24
334 by Thomas M. Disch
Vintage Press, 258 pages, $12
Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch
Vintage Press, 184 pages, $12

The writing is downtrodden yet lyrical; you can see why SF’s blissful, techie dreamers shunned this stuff. The notion of SF about welfare moms and ghetto kids—it’s a strange twist, even by today’s standards in the genre. But, more so than much of the old-fashioned SF, 334 still resonates today with its human stories and pessimistic premonition.

Equally gloomy and fiercely literary, Camp Concentration first appeared as a serial in the SF magazine New Worlds in 1967. In an alternate 1970s America, President McNamara has declared war on the rest of the world, and poet Louis Sacchetti sits in prison as a conscientious objector. Sacchetti is transferred to Camp Archimedes, a top-secret facility where the army conducts tests in “intelligence maximization” on prisoners; he is asked to document the effects of Pallidine, a syphilis-derived drug that shoots the prisoners’ IQs off of the charts, then kills them slowly and horribly nine months later.

Written in the form of a diary, Camp Concentration addresses the nature of genius. The prisoners are enigmatic and solitary—poor social skills, Sacchetti observes, seem to be a side effect of huge intellects. Some of the camp’s megalomaniacal researchers inject themselves with the drug to gain this superhuman intelligence, gambling that they’ll solve the riddle of the cure before they die. The Faustian undertone is fairly obvious—selling one’s soul to gain knowledge—but Disch loads the text with other literary puzzles: references to classic poets, the writings of Thomas Aquinas, Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts (alluding to the key role syphilis played in the work), and ancient alchemy, which one prisoner claims is the key to a cure.

A dictionary might help you navigate Camp Concentration, but you’re still likely to step away from the book with your head spinning. I’m not giving away much in revealing that Sacchetti becomes infected; his intelligence burgeons, his health deteriorates, and his journal spins out of control into terse, enigmatic entries which question everything in humanity, philosophy, and religion.

Science-fiction fans always had a thing for the strange and esoteric, but not for something like this, and while other writers loved Disch, he never really caught on with SF fandom. He left the genre in 1979 for serious poetry, criticism, and the occasional horror novel. Perhaps he saw the writing on the wall with the ascent of the escapist (and heavily marketed) Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, the endless serial pulp, and the bottom-line preoccupation of publishers. In his scathing 1998 critique of science fiction, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of (Free Press), Disch wrote that staying alive in today’s SF market meant staying “forever young”—and, he implies, forever dumb. The erudite Disch was already wise when he wrote Camp Concentration at age 27. In the decades since, so many shiny SF paperbacks have hit the shelves and eventually found themselves at the bottoms of boxes at garage sales. Disch’s reissues are a vindication, and his rebellious prose is as potent as ever.

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