Remembering Thomas Disch
Jan 1, 2009
17 Min read time
The poet and fiction writer Thomas M. Disch died on July 4, 2008, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was sixty-eight years old, had long been in poor health, and was threatened with eviction from the rent-controlled Manhattan apartment where he had lived for decades with his partner, Charles Naylor. (They had put the apartment in Naylor’s name, supposing that if Disch were to predecease him, Naylor, whose income was the lesser, would be able to stay on. Naylor died of cancer in 2005 and Disch had no claim on the place. One of the small, bitter consequences of the absence of gay marriage rights in New York State.)
Tom Disch, as we all called him and as he called himself when publishing poetry, was a friend of mine. In many ways he was as different from me as could be, not least in that he was about twice as large. But in other ways, both important and trivial, we meshed. He was an early mentor to me in the science-fiction genre we both began our careers in, and we sat together on the remarkable night in 1980 when The American Book Awards ceremony was televised. He was nominated in the SF category for his novel On Wings of Song, and I for Engine Summer. That was the year the publishers of America revolted against the mandarins who gave the National Book Award each year to one person in a small number of categories and instead threw an Academy Awards-like party, giving out statuettes or plaques not only for fiction and poetry but also for young-adult novels, cookbooks, memoirs, and mysteries. The winners were chosen by, among others, librarians and the general public. Unfortunately, the publishers soon caved and returned to the status quo ante; that one gowned and tuxedo’d night has a distinctly alternative-history or just-imagine feel in memory.
The science-fiction label was one that Disch neither accepted entirely nor tried to leave behind. He was a considerable figure in the genre, a representative of a new style (new content too—SF is necessarily about the content) that transformed SF in the late 1960s—as rock music and comic books were also at that time being transformed—into a realm of innovative personal art, attracting not merely good talespinners and good projectors, as it always had, but good writers tout court. Even now SF doesn’t have to be well-written to be good, but after that time it could be.
In 1986 the International PEN Conference in New York City, chaired by Norman Mailer and certainly the most uproarious in recent memory, featured for the first time a panel on science fiction. Susan Sontag, with whom Mailer had wrestled on various topics, asked Disch to recruit members for the panel. Disch decided that such a panel ought to include the major writers of science fiction history. Since the history of science fiction in the United States was so short, many of the major figures were still alive. But, for various reasons, he couldn’t get Robert Heinlein or Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov or their like, so he ended up with an odd assortment consisting of himself, Leslie Fiedler (a critic interested in SF), John Calvin Batchelor (a new writer, author of The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica, and at that time researching a novel based on the Russian space program), and me. There may have been another participant I’ve forgotten.
The panel was fascinating. The theme of the conference that year was “The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State.” Many of the attending writers denied that the state or any collective could have an imagination; Mailer, however, stated that the imagination of the American state could be shown in the project of reaching the moon, which was both imaginative and collective. I don’t know if Tom Disch heard him say that, but his opening remarks at our panel were similar and yet more far-reaching. If the state—the American state particularly—could be said to have an imagination, he said, it lay in the plans and projects of all the middle-level technocrats and engineers and scientists not only of NASA but of the RAND Corporation and DARPA and the science institutes, whose speculations would become plans that the state might enact. And what writers, he asked, shaped their imaginations? What had they read as boys (almost all of them were men)? Why, science fiction: a kind of writing that, to a degree greater than any other, posits worlds different from our own that we believe are possible and think we might bring about.
In Disch’s fiction, nothing is resolved, but nothing is reduced to black and white; people are often foolish and self-serving but they grow too large to dismiss.
At the Plenary Session, when we working writers lined up for our chance at the mic, I tried to state Disch’s point about SF and the imagination of the state; the only writer on the dais who responded was Czesław Miłosz, who said—in effect—ah yes, Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, very important visions.
I don’t think Disch was surprised at the brush-off. Like all writers attempting to make a living in that genre, he knew very well what status it had in the great world of literature—a separate file drawer, Kurt Vonnegut remarked, that critics seem to mistake for the urinal. On the other hand, Disch held no real brief for the form as it came to him from the masters—quite the opposite. His 1998 dissection of SF, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, was a general demolishment of the ancients and the moderns from Poe to Ursula Le Guin, and at the same time showed how the standard elements of older SF, the people-shaped robots and intergalactic spaceships, the telepathy and the alien visitations, had extended their reach throughout our culture—without having come any closer to actuality. His own writing continually expanded beyond the genre, not only into related forms such as horror and Gothic, but also into historical fiction, children’s books (the wonderful The Brave Little Toaster), and poetry, the genre in which he most desired to succeed His last books would have to be called philosophical romances, a genre to which many speculative writers are drawn after the duties of worldbuilding and character-creating have grown tiresome. The Word of God: Or, Holy Writ Rewritten; The Voyage of the Proteus: An Eyewitness Account of the End of the World—the titles suggest the contents.
It would be a narrow view, then, that took in only Disch’s science fiction, but it’s what I’ve been thinking about as I now reread the book he regarded as his best published work: 334, first published in the United States in its totality in 1974, just as we were first meeting. I find 334 more strange and beautiful now than when it originally appeared. My response arises from the loss of my friend, whose voice I hear again in the book; but it has, perhaps, as much to do with SF in general and the powers and pleasures of fiction and the writing life.
334 is set in New York in 2021. The great issue is overpopulation, the bugbear of the 1970s (see, e.g., the 1973 film Soylent Green). Huge buildings house teeming populations in tiny apartments supported by MODICUM, acronym of the national social control and distribution agency. Only those testing at sufficiently high levels of achievement in various fields (military service, physical strength, intelligence) can get permits to have children. The book’s many characters largely inhabit tiny spaces at 334 E. 11th St., built in “the pre-Squeeze affluent ’80’s” and adapted by MODICUM to hold 3,00 tenants. By 2021, 334 is architecturally “on a par with the pyramids—it had dated very little and it hadn’t changed at all.”
As in many futurist novels of that time, there is a great deal of television (“teevee”) and drugs, much gender bending avant la lettre, moral vacuity, a distant endless war fought by “gorillas” (ours). What there is not is a revolution in information. A dozen years from now society will be managed by huge government computers but there will be no personal computers, no ATMs, no cell phones, no email, no printouts, no DVDs, no PINs, no MP3s, and no Internet. Young Birdie Ludd, a lumpen-citizen, attempts to get himself a higher social score by researching and writing an essay, and heads for the library:
The place was a honeycomb of research booths, except for the top floor, 28, which was given over to the cables connecting Nassau to the uptown branch and then, by relays, to every other major library outside of France, Japan, and South America. A page who couldn’t have been much older than Birdie showed him how to use the dial-and-punch system. When the page was gone Birdie stared glumly at the blank viewing screen.
Of course, Disch was not the only writer to miss this turn of events just around the corner; the whole field of SF missed it, and went on brooding about the bomb and overpopulation until William Gibson and cyberpunk came along to reflect, not to imagine, that new world. The future cannot be described in advance, and because it cannot, every greatly successful science-fiction vision of the future has to pass through a period of failure, when it becomes obvious that no, things are not going to be like that after all. Critics and readers who take science fiction seriously will thereupon state that SF projections are not really about the future at all; they are allegories of the times in which they are written, which is fine but somewhat deflating for readers who hoped for compelling predictions. Most such visions simply evaporate at this juncture into fantasy or “alternative reality,” perhaps remaining gripping or delightful to some degree.
But if the author is both good and lucky, a futurist novel can later regain status, revealing itself to be neither a book about our shared future nor about the present it was written in, but a vivid personal vision. In differing ways, this happened to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, which gained power as fiction while losing it as prediction, and the book derived from it, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which remained powerful as critique though wrong in its particulars. The problem for such books is whether readers who were uninterested in them as science fiction will ever rediscover them on the far side of this process. Orwell and Huxley were at an advantage here, having a claim on a general readership beforehand. A writer beginning in SF, like Disch, takes his chances.
Certainly, 334 is, among other things, a heightened portrait of Tom’s and my New York as it was in 1974, where pay phones take dimes and Negroes are scary to whites, where violence and an ugly stupidity are pervasive and everything is worse than it was before. The streets are squalid, the popular entertainments vapid, the population hopeless. Birdie goes off to fight the endless wars in Southeast Asia; his girlfriend Milly works as a stewardess for Pan Am.
In those years, many books that shared the SF shelves with 334 posited similar declines and corruptions and made similar bad guesses. What differentiates Disch’s novel is how unthrilling it is. Science fiction delights in collapse and chaos because a feral world permits, even demands, rude and self-gratifying behavior—Mad Max, Escape from New York. 334 is strangely quiet; it is, at bottom, not tendentious, which is unusual for a futurist novel. Most of what happens in the book is, in one way or another, domestic, not only in that it deals with the lives of families in their habitations but also in how it concentrates on feelings of baffled love, or fulfillment in children, or in children’s contempt for or fear of parents, the longing for escape versus the dissolution of needed connections. If it tends increasingly toward hopelessness and the pull of death, this seems less a thesis about the decline of the world or the City than one of the permanent possibilities open to a creative mind living feelingly: Beckett or the Shakespeare of Lear.
And now and then—almost, it seems, against its author’s wishes—334 begins to trend away from the crowded and degraded future that it is committed to portraying and into a world of the author’s own, made for his delectation and as a test of his powers. It is hard to believe that Disch intended the section of the book he titles “Angouleme” to picture the future at all, though it is deracine and strange enough. A rich kid alienated from his gay father (who has come to call him Little Mister Kissy Face) hangs out with his friends—the Alexandrians, as they call themselves—all students at the Lowen School for smart kids. Together they plan a random Crime and Punishment murder (they’ve all read the book) of a bum in Battery Park, which they fail to bring off. Instead, they loaf, goof, practice at sex, dance.
They found Terry Riley’s day-long Orfeo at 99.5 on the FM dial. They’d studied Orfeo in mime class and by now it was part of their muscle and nerve. As Orpheus descended into a hell that mushroomed from the size of a pea to the size of a planet, the Alexandrians metamorphosed into as credible a tribe of souls in torment as any since the days of Jacopo Peri. Throughout the afternoon little audiences collected and dispersed to flood the sidewalk with libations of adult attention.
These are not break-dancing kids; they are not kids of 1974 or 2021 or of any world or time, but somehow immemorial summer children in a world of Disch’s own, in a net of his own cultural reference, more Edenic than dystopic. It seems important that when Little Mister Kissy Face tries to commit the murder without the others (using his father’s antique pistol), he, too, fails at the last moment.
Another 334 inhabitant, Shrimp, is addicted to getting pregnant and having her babies taken away after a few weeks, loving the loss as well as the love; she is also addicted to the movies—“the therapy of a double feature (The Black Rabbit and Billy McGlory at the Underworld).” In a future without DVDs, she sees her movies in theaters:
She saw: A Girl of the Limberlost and Strangers on a Train; Don Hershey as Melmoth and Stanford White; Penn’s Hellbottom; The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle; Escape from Cuernavaca and Singing in the Rain; Franju’s Thomas l’Imposteur and Jude; Dumbo; Jacquelynn Colton in The Confessions of St. Augustine; both parts of Daniel Deronda; Candide; Snow White and Juliet; Brando in On the Waterfront and Down Here . . . Loren and Mastroianni in Sunflower and Black Eyes and Lemonade; Rainer Murray’s Owens and Darwin; The Zany World of Abbott and Costello; The Hills of Switzerland and The Sound of Music; Garbo in Camille and Anna Christie; Zarlah the Martian . . . The Best of Judy Canova; Pale Fire; Felix Culp; The Greek Berets and Day of the Locust; Sam Blazer’s Three Christs of Ypsilanti; On the Yard; Wednesdays Off; both parts of Stinky in the Land of Poop; the complete ten-hour Les Vampires; The Possibilities of Defeat; and the shortened version of Things in the World.
The delicate wit of this list (and its links to the book’s core) earns it a decoding, as pages of Joyce do. Don Hershey and Jacquelynn Colton are stars of the future, in weirdly unlikely projects (Hershey also plays Whitman in a teevee program.) Disch’s friend (and 334 dedicatee) Jerry Mundis gets his novel filmed by Arthur Penn. The latest edition of the book regards The Greek Berets of the original as a misprint, but what about Franju’s Jude, not Judex? It’s just as likely this is Tom Disch’s otherworld of movies, where a George Eliot Renaissance novel can be filmed in two parts, a film can be called Felix Culp (cf. “felix culpa”), and Norman Grisewood’s 1909 thriller about airships on Mars can be a beloved movie. This is self-conscious worldmaking, inside made outside in the forge of wish fulfillment.
So if this is what Disch was up to, why did he need the scaffoldings of futurist fiction? We might guess that if he were beginning a writing career now, with dozens of writers taking up and inventing personal worlds in irrealistic modes and nobody minding, he wouldn’t need SF. But I think he was always haunted—and vivified—by the awful and the apocalyptic. In creating the world of 334, he had the grand sweep of decline and fall, featuring numberless populations and quick-time disasters, that would allow him to admit a competing tendency to generosity and humility in dealing with individual hurt and longing. Posit a future that is cruel enough to be convincingly the future of this bad present—a hard shell for the tender snail of self—and you can bring out from it what matters most to you: the shortened version of things in the world.
Writing fiction, perhaps poetry too, is in an important sense the integration of oppositions—integrations that are hard-won, temporary, unsuccessful perhaps, but apparent nonetheless. Oppositions that the writer sees at times as within himself or herself and at other times as in the world. As a writer ages, the integration of those opposites can achieve a transcendent unity that still acknowledges tension or difficulty: Shakespeare’s union in The Tempest of freedom with order, of power with the surrender of power. The tension evident within Tom Disch between delight in destruction (including self-destruction) and a weird tenderness toward the weak and the foolish (including himself), gave great power and poignance to his best work in fiction, which include 334, The Businessman, and On Wings of Song, with its hapless narrator, earthbound while others can fly. In those works nothing is resolved, but nothing is reduced to black and white; hilarity is tempered with poignance and pity; people are often foolish and self-serving (Disch has a knack for characters who can fool themselves for their own benefit) but they grow too large to dismiss.
I think that as he grew older, he found this harder; the oppositions within him drifted farther from one another; as he experienced less delight and more sorrow, he saw the world increasingly in exaggerated forms of division and combat, and adopted some repellently extravagant views on matters such as immigration, disability, and social welfare programs. Living alone and at threat didn’t ameliorate his opinions. He made enemies, conceiving that those who had not helped him had conspired to hurt him; he fought back publicly at slights and imagined sabotages as though to make certain that no one would ever stand by him, and for years kept up feuds with people who had largely forgotten or never noticed his gripe with them.
But to the end he was also much loved, and he often could be generous and delightful, and pull together his wit and his pity for himself and others at surprising moments. At my suggestion—I’d done it, and was enjoying it—he wrote a blog, and there published his near-daily output of poems: some forgettable, some wonderful. He found comfort in the responses he earned. Of course, blogs and the Internet being what they are, that blog remains where he left it—which, IT-challenged though he was, Disch had himself predicted in an astonishing late poem that might stand in for the last note that he cruelly forbore to leave. He called it Ghost Ship.
There must be many other such derelicts—
orphaned, abandoned, adrift for whatever reason—
but few have kept flying before the winds
of cyberspace so briskly as Drunk Driver
(the name of the site). Anonymous (the author)
signed his last entry years ago, and more years passed
before the Comments began to accrete
like barnacles on the hull of a ship
and then in ever-bifurcating chains
on each other. The old hulk became
the refuge of a certain shy sort
of visitor, like those trucks along the waterfront
haunted by lonely souls who could not bear
eye-witness encounters. They could leave
their missives in the crevices of this latter-day
Wailing Wall, returning at intervals
to see if someone had replied, clicking
their way down from the original message—
April 4. Another gray day. Can’t find the energy to get the laundry down to the laundry room. The sciatica just won’t go away. —through the meanders and branchings
of the encrusted messages, the tenders
of love for a beloved who would never know herself
to have been desired, the cries of despair,
the silly whimsies and failed jokes, to where
the thread had last been snapped,
only to discover that no, no one had answered
the question posed. Because,
no doubt, there was no answer.
Is there an “answer” to the war
wherever the latest war is going on?
If one could get under the ship
and see all those barnacles clinging
to the keel, what a sight it would be.
Talk about biodiversity! But on deck,
so sad, always the same three skeletons,
the playing card nailed to the mast,
frayed and fluttering weakly, like some huge insect
the gods will not allow to die.
I think the penultimate line should read the sails frayed and fluttering weakly, but much as I would like to, I can no longer suggest that change to him. Nor can he make it.
January 01, 2009
17 Min read time