The Curmudgeon


Friday, July 11, 2008

Thomas M Disch

I do not recall my first encounter with the work of Thomas M Disch; which is strange, given that all his books are so very distinctive, not only from those of other writers but from one another as well. When I say "all his books", I mean all those that I have read, which is to say several volumes of science fiction and three of the satirical horror novels he produced from the mid-1980s onwards. Disch also wrote poetry, children's books, a computer game, and collaborated with his fellow science fiction writer John Sladek on a non-SF novel, Black Alice, under the campy pseudonym Thom Demijohn.

It's possible that the first I knew of him was the entry in the Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural, in which his novel The Businessman: A Tale of Terror is highly recommended. The Businessman is the story of Robert Glandier, an executive whose corporate sycophancy extends to deliberately ruining his own health so he can join his superiors in their ulcerated Olympia. Glandier has murdered his wife, whose ghost begins to haunt him from his own hypothalamus.

Then again, perhaps my first Disch book was the brilliantly titled, brilliantly executed Camp Concentration, in which a US government of the near future (led by a President McNamara), searching for fresh approaches to World War III, attempts to manufacture genius by producing a mutation of the syphilis germ and testing it on a motley collection of military and political prisoners. The finale is unconvincing, and owes far too much to a certain episode of the television series The Prisoner, for which Disch also wrote a tie-in novel; but for the most part Camp Concentration shows Disch at his formidable best. Narrated by poet, glutton, semi-lapsed Catholic and conscientious objector Louis Sacchetti, it also manages to be highly literate and allusive - references to Faust, Thomas Aquinas and the psychological theories of Arthur Koestler - without descending to pretentiousness or self-parody.

Others of his books had less impact. The M.D.: A Horror Story was another Faustian story, this time with reference to the AIDS epidemic; but it does not seem to have left much of an impression. I read 334, about the residents of a city apartment block in the 2020s, when I was about nineteen, and grew impatient with what then seemed the soap-opera mediocrity of the characters. That, of course, was the whole point, or part of it anyway; like Philip K Dick, but without Dick's indiscipline and pulp conventions, Disch chronicles the future's losers and failures. I shall have to give 334 another try.

A bit more like normal science fiction was the end-of-the-world novel The Genocides, in which the entire Earth is utilised by technologically advanced extraterrestrials for the purposes of efficient agricultural production. But for all the conventionality of the premise, the story remains Disch's own, and retains his customary tight focus on human weakness and insignificance. The ecosystem is transformed to make way for the aliens' produce, with human beings and all their concerns reduced to the status of, at best, minor garden pests. The aliens themselves are never seen; the few remaining people have more than enough to do coping with the invaders' agronomics. There are no mercies, no great discoveries about the aliens' vulnerabilities, and no fresh starts. A shorter, maniacal variant on the same basic premise is the story "Fun With Your New Head", a hilarious alien sales pitch for a highly amusing product.

Disch wrote other tales with just as much bite. "Linda and Daniel and Spike" is a charming tale of motherhood and family values which draws parallels between childbirth and cancer. In "Casablanca", the catastrophic end of American power is seen through the eyes of two American tourists whose lives collapse once their credit cards are worthless. "Thesis on Social Forms and Social Controls in the USA" details a psychopathic utopia worthy of J G Ballard, but instead of Ballard's visionary hyperbole Disch presents an academic paper by "a third-year Administrative Trainee". In "Moondust, the Smell of Hay, and Dialectical Materialism" a stranded Russian cosmonaut waits for his oxygen to run out and tries to make sense of his death; at the end, the narrative states that "though he did not know it, there is never a good reason for dying". Disch committed suicide on 4 July.


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