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The Supreme Ironist

Thomas M. Disch’s books are hard to find but worth the effort. No other writer can so thoroughly reconcile the stuff of pop lit with the standards of serious writing.

Book review, August 26, 1993

Americans, it's often said, are not ironic. We don't like irony in our books because the successful ironist has to know what he is doing. We soon start to worry that he may know more about it than we do.

Thomas M. Disch, the most successful ironist in contemporary pop lit, always knows what he's doing when he writes, and the result is that nobody can stand him – neither the fans of the genres he works in nor slumming intellectuals. (The high lit establishment, of course, has never heard of him.) Right now much of his best work is out of print and very hard to find. There are rumors afoot that this sad state of affairs is about to change, but right now, I'm afraid, a reader interested in his books is condemned to a long rummage through the secondhand stores. It's worth it: there is no other writer who can take the materials of pop lit and so thoroughly reconcile them with the standards of the best serious writing.

Of course, the first question has to be why anyone would want to do that. Pan of the answer is serious writing itself these days. The big names have all produced their masterpieces (Ancient Evenings, Letters, et al) and the masterpieces have all turned out to be turkeys. Pop lit may be the only option left. But what pop lit is good art is cheap thrills – or, if you prefer, unpretentious entertainment. That's fine, but if one accepts the wild hypothesis that art is still somehow better than trash, the only way cheap thrills are going to become art is through irony.

There is irony, however, and something better described as "irony." Even TV newsmen know about "irony" – they tell us every night how 'ironic' it is that the economy is improving while people are still unemployed. Disch was more sophisticated than this even from the start, yet his early books (which date at approximately 1962-66) now look sadly "ironic." The Genocides, The Puppies of Terra, Fun With Your New Head – they are the last of his books to read first, and they are, "ironically," the easiest to find. For the most part they take standard science fiction and horror formulas and turn them inside out, so that in The Genocides the alien invaders win and everybody dies, and in The Puppies of Terra slavery turns out to be much nicer than freedom.

This is as far as most people get with irony, which is one legitimate reason it's fallen into such disrepute. A genre formula wouldn't exist if it didn't have some kind of power – otherwise the worst hacks couldn't get the mileage out of it that they do. A serious writer, however, just can't be seen making honest use out of such infantile material. So Disch inverts it, as a way of exploiting this formula while still keeping his hands clean. This early work isn't worthless – even the least story is stylishly written – but it can get to be as dreary as the clichιs it's out to destroy.

Fortunately, Disch set out to do something more tike real irony once he had the craft: Camp Concentration, which was serialized in the British magazine New Worlds in 1967 and has been sporadically reprinted ever since. Camp Concentration takes a standard formula, what it would be like to have secret mental powers, and, instead of inverting it, tries to make it believable. Disch reimagines the formula from scratch, and writes as if mega-reams of trash hadn't been dumped on it already. The cutting edge of irony is in the "as if," because of course the bad writing does exist and most of Disch's audience has read it; he has to come up with a new twist on the formula while still making sense to people who've never read a word of science fiction. It's an almost impossible task, and he almost pulls it off.

I don't need to say much (yet) about the formula itself: the fantasy of Secret Mental Powers is obviously open to any lonely teenager. The hacks who pander to teenage daydreams offer a choice of glories: the mental superman can cither conquer the universe (as he docs in Frank Herbert's Dune) or else die tragically (for which sec Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon). Disch begins with choice B. Camp Concentration is about an experimental drug called Pallidine, a mutant strain of syphilis that directly attacks the central nervous system. The result is soaring genius followed very shortly by death.

The basic problem in reimagining a formula like this is explaining why the drug would ever get used in the first place. (There is, needless to say, no need to justify it in a daydream.) Disch's solution is straightforward: desperation. The near-future America of Camp Concentration is caught up in a Vietnam war gone permanently wrong, and the system is about to capsize under its cost. So an unnamed corporation puts into ruthless practice that liberal-capitalist clichι about the mind being our greatest resource: they shoot up a bunch of Army hard cases and psychos with Pallidine and hope for the best.

The drama of Camp Concentration is in is richly realized description of the induced geniuses' lives. Crammed full of Western Civ by their wardens, they create a hyperabstract parody of culture in their underground encampment, all the way down to team croquet. The book consists mostly of brilliant talk – about alchemy, Flemish painting, modernist poetry, avant-garde music – souped up to manic intensity by the imminence of death.

Constantly the talk returns to the Faust legend – an understandable preoccupation: the prisoners even stage Marlowe's version. But Disch presses further, and makes Faust central to his book. The basic equation of genius and syphilis is taken from Mann's Doctor Faustus, and the structure of the book itself even follows Goethe's two parts of Faust, – the first part harmonious and smooth, the second deliberately jagged and difficult.

I'm not sure (the first sign of trouble) why Disch pushes this parallel so far, since the prisoners didn't know what they were getting into and the essence of the Faust story is that he knows only too well. It seems to be a forced marriage between the formula and a high lit theme. Disch compounds the problem with his narrator, who serves as an intermediary between the geniuses and the reader. (The device is another borrowing from Mann). Disch partially redeems him with a fine trick revealed about two-thirds of the way through, but the plot doesn't really require him. For the most part he's there only so Disch can crowd in more symbols and allusions.

The impressive thing about Camp Concentration is that doesn't crumble under these burdens. Scene after scene burns into the mind – from an alchemical rite on Midsummer's Eve to a scientific administrator explaining why he wants to end the world. The book holds lit and the formula together with remarkable dexterity, all the way up until the last ten pages. And then the book promptly tears itself apart in a flimsy and preposterous surprise finish.

I won't go into the details. I do, however, have to explain why I think the collapse was inevitable.

Disch sets up the basic situation of the book so that the fatal action of Pallidine is known at the start. In other words, it's part of the premise, not of the plot. If there's even going to be a plot, Disch has to find an alternative to the seemingly inevitable deaths of all the characters. (That's fine with him, since he isn't much of a pessimist.) Bui the formula is rigid: the only alternative it offers is transcendent victory. Disch tries to put off for as long as he can, but he's trapped, and at last has to deliver a victory, transcendence and all, that he does not for one moment believe in.

Science fiction fans may want to stop reading right here, because the obvious question is why the formula is so rigid, and they won't be thrilled with the answer.

The meaning of the formula finally comes down to this: an adolescent colliding with the adult world. The teenagers for whom science fiction holds the greatest appeal are confused and uncertain about how they fit into society, and this particular formula offers a daydream in which they don't have to. It might seem, then, that Disch just picked the wrong formula. AIas, it's not so simple. One can argue – in fact, Disch does – argue, in his essay "The Embarrassments of Science Fiction" (in Science Fiction at Large, edited by Peter Nicholls) – that the theme of Adolescent Versus Society is at the core of every science fiction formula.

Maybe it doesn't matter; there's nothing wrong with daydreaming. But it is an absolute assumption of adult literature that an individual is connected to society. If all the formulas and conventions of science fiction exist only to deny the connection, then there is an unscalable wall between the genre and literature. Disch's book has to break apart.

Camp Concentration left Disch up against the wall, and he wasn't sure what to do about it. He wrote very little in the two years after the book was finished. His principal accomplishments were a quickie novelization of the TV series The Prisoner and a very disturbing novella called "The Asian Shore."

I can't make any great claims for The Prisoner, though it's better than it has any right to be (and Disch's subversive reworking of the show's theme should be of interest to anyone who still thinks it profound). But "The Asian Shore" is something else again; I think it's the wedge that allowed Disch to get through the wall and write two masterpieces.

"The Asian Shore" is about a young American intellectual living in Istanbul who finds his sense of identity under a mysterious and increasingly relentless attack. The small details of life – ticket stubs, afternoon rain showers, photographs – begin to conspire against him. As the story quietly moves toward its completely unnerving finish, it increasingly seems as if the city itself is trying to erase him from existence and replace him with someone more to its liking.

The story is horror, not science fiction, but it's obviously the formula presented in the strongest terms Disch can muster. Istanbul in all its chaotic richness stands in for the strangeness of adult society; the central character's secret power is a fashionably abstract theory of architecture and urban design that, in effect, denies that the city can have any claim on anyone: "Once the lintel had been put on top of the posts, anything that happened after that was gratuitous." And the threat, as it is in the real world, is assimilation.

The one thing that becomes luminously clear, when the formula is made this unfantastic, is that the hero cannot possibly win. I mean, what's he going to do, get elected mayor? The only choices are surrender or death. Disch is, I repeat, nor a pessimist; it is his own horror at the formula's consequences that makes the story so frightening.

If there are going to be other choices, then it's the formula itself that has to change. In real life, after all, what happens is that we grow up. Why can't science fiction (or horror, for that matter) deal with adults?

It can't because that would gut the stories of their mythic, daydreaming power, or so the answer usually runs. But his assumes that latent fantasies vanish the moment they're brought into contact with adult material – in other words, that teenagers are always more interesting than adults. The real damage is done to the science fiction framework. Without a hero to oppose it (or escape into it) a future society doesn't have anything to hold it together. Subtract the hero from a science fiction novel, even the best of them, and what's left almost always looks lame and patchy.

Philip K. Dick, science fiction's native genius, did without heroes by laying on the patchiness: he made his futures so freakishly arbitrary that they became a pretty fair metaphor for the real world. Disch was, and is, a great admirer of Dick's writing, but he wisely stayed away from imitating it. Dick was an authentic visionary, and there's nothing sadder than a secondhand vision. Instead, Disch went in the opposite direction; in a new series of stories (published mostly 1970-72) he made his future world as naturalistic and everyday as possible. The more substantial such a future world becomes, the less need there is to set a hero against it; ideally, the hero could disappear entirely and one could write about ordinary lives within a community.

The six stories of 334 describe the community within a housing project at 334 E. 11th St., NYC – a near-future New York further down the road to collapse yet still (as always) somehow alive and functioning. Each story can stand on its own, but is subtly, and sometimes deviously, interwoven with the rest, and each opens out to view a different side of the society – a hospital morgue and an electronic classroom, an old woman getting evicted and a bunch of rich prepubescents plotting a gratuitous murder. The Welfare State presides over the world of 334, but Disch is very careful not to make the system into an Orwellian nightmare. In some respects, life in the project is even an improvement over today. The bureaucracy isn't a monster of inefficiency and corruption (its minions are presented as generally decent people in a bad situation) and the 334 project itself, while no paradise, is wonder of wonders, safe to live in.

The same ironic complexity extends to Disch's characters – characterization is always a sore point in science fiction. No one in 334 is cardboard; all of them are illuminated by Disch's unpredictable, curiously edgy compassion. There are no heroes, but several of them come close to being good.

This absence of straw men has disturbed a lot of readers. (The hard-core fans, of course, just think it's too depressing.) Disch's message seems to be hovering just out of reach; his ironies won't stay in place. The elusiveness of the book is beautifully illustrated by this passage, in which the rich kids decide where to commit their murder:

"They settled on the Battery because, one, none of them ever were there ordinarily; two, it was posh and at the same time relatively, three, uncrowded, at Ieast once the night shift were snug in their towers tending their machines. The night shift seldom ate their lunches down in the park.

"And, four, because it it's beautiful, especially now at the beginning of summer. The dark water, chromed with oil, flopping against the buttressed shore; the silences blowing in off the Upper Bay, silences large enough sometimes that you could sort out the different noises of the city behind them, the purr and quaver of the skyscrapers, the ground-shivering mysterioso of the expressways, and every now and then the strange sourceless screams that are the melody of New York's theme song; the blue-pink of sunsets in a visible sky; the people's faces, calmed by the sea and their own nearness to death, lined up in rhythmic rows on the green benches. Why, even the statues looked beautiful here, as though someone had believed in them once, the way people must have believed in the statues in the Cloisters, so long ago."

Samuel Delaney wrote an entire book (The American Shore) exploring the interplay of voices in this story; I will content myself with pointing out how perfect that one word "mysterioso" is. The kids think they've seen through the city's magic but are still awed by it; the narrator sees through the kids but grants that they have a point, so he finds the perfect word to synthesize the genuine and the bogus, both in the world view of the kids and in the city itself.

But there is something very curious here. The ironies arc perfectly realized in that one word, yet at the same time they can't be resolved into some larger and more banal meaning. The equation is made, and holds, but the terms keep shifting. This is pretty much the way the whole book goes. Each story is rounded and complete, while on a deeper level it is deliberately Ieft open-ended. Disch writes as if he were a Chekhov of the near future who's moved into the housing project to with stories about the people there. No message, no moral, just: this is how life is.

Now we get to the heart of Disch's method, the point at which his unfolding irony begins to touch on genius. The book obviously can't be how life is, since it's set 50 years in the future Disch is up against the same problem he began with: why, without a daydream hero, the imaginary society should exist at all. There is still that last divide between the genre and lit. His solution is to bring the divide into the book: by not resolving his ironies, he keeps the question open. The book becomes a perfect mirror of its subject matter: the permanent and constantly renegotiated connection between the future and the present, a human being and a city, fiction and the world.

334 is, as far as I'm concerned, the best book to come out of science fiction. I don't think the formulas can be brought any closer to real lit. Disch himself seemed to agree: after the book was complete (it was published in 1974, but was essentially done two years earlier) he dropped the genre for several years.

Whether 334 finishes off science fiction or not is still an open question. The only serious criticism I've heard of it is that, in the end, its society is too close to the present. It's true that 334 presents several radical changes – such as the disappearance of conventional sex roles – as already complete and institutionalized. But there are also scattered hints that the future that follows from 334's present will simply stop making sense in our terms, and it would be nice, so the criticism runs, if the book took place a little farther along the line. It would be interesting to see the same rich imagination brought to bear on an essentially alien situation.

All the same, I'm not sure the criticism would have come up if Disch hadn't published a few tantalizing fragments of another novel before he settled down to work on 334. This novel, The Pressure of Time, seemed to be describing a very strange future society in precisely those terms. But even though it was several times announced as nearly finished, or ready to be published, the book never came out. Disch didn't publish another novel under his own name until 1980.

His disappearance, it now proves; was inadvertent. He spent several years writing a novel, not science fiction, that his publisher insisted come out under a pseudonym: Clara Reeve by "Leonie Hargrave." A lot of his fans think it the best thing he's done (though to me it's a toss-up with 334) and at least one critic guessed that the writer behind the pseudonym was Gore Vidal.

It's not easy to talk about Clara Reeve, since most of what there is to say involves its conclusion – Disch once again tried a surprise ending. But while Camp Concentration's ending was distant and ineffectual, Clara Reeve's is point-blank and altogether devastating. I'm not stupid enough to go into it. But it may not be too much to say that the book does have a formula, one that Disch outlines in his essay "The Uses of Fiction" (reprinted in the not quite accurately titled Fundamental Disch):

"Few of the ladies who devour gothics are in serious danger of being pushed off a cliff in Cornwall for the sake of their legacies, yet the analogue of the fiction they buy to their real predicament is close. Every gothic reader must ask herself whether her marriage is worth the grief, the ritual insincerity, the buried rancor and sacrifice of other possibilities that every marriage entails. To which the gothic writer replies with a resounding Yes! it is worth all that, because deep down he really does love you. Yet to the degree that this answer rings hollow the experience must be renewed. Poor Nan must return to the dark castle of her doubts, and the doubts must be denied. And again."

Disch's genius in Clara Reeve is to fulfill this formula to the letter, while simultaneously, and definitively, exploding it. But the book is not a satire on gothics, even if a summary of the plot nould make it sound that say (there are mysterious goings-on in a dark castle, and even a woman in a nightdress running barefoot across moonlit moors). It is a full-blown 19th century sentimental novel, as richly plotted as anything by Wilkie Collins, and maintained by a fierce perfection of tone that makes its nearest competitors (e.g., The French Lieutenant's Woman, A Bloodsmoor Romance) look like amateur hour.

Disch's impersonation is so relentless that Clara Reeve can look at times like a private, terminal nightmare of sex and gothicism. But one shouldn't be fooled. Disch is never out of control for a moment: the underlying irony is as deadly, and as modern, as the tone is Victorian. Like 334, Clara Reeve exhausts its genre by taking the implications seriously; and there is very little in recent high lit that can compare with either of them.

They should have made Disch's reputation, but that's fame for you. 334 was published to little or no fanfare as a paperback original, and for years led a sort of phantom existence in the publisher's catalogs: they apparently had copies, but the bookstores didn't. Clara Reeve did get a lot of promotion, and pulled down some great reviews, but its publisher was convinced the book wouldn't sell unless it were signed by a woman. Disch obliged, and Leonie Hargrave got the credit. (Perhaps to make it up to him, the publisher did bring out an excellent collection of his short pieces, Getting Into Death – death and short stories never sell, so their courage is to be commended.) Eventually both 334 and Clara Reeve faded out of print.

It's Disch's own fault, really, since he has so far refused to do anything mass-marketish to get attention. Since Clara Reeve, most of his output has been as small-press and small-sale as possible: poetry, anthology editing, reviewing, even the composition of opera libretti. He does all of these things well (and it is a pity that a very gentle and sun-flecked historical novel he wrote with his longtime colleague Charles Naylor, Neighboring Lives, never even got a paperback reprint), but at the same time none of it had a chance of ending up on the front page of the NYT Book Review.

He returned to science fiction in 1980 with On Wings of Song, his mellowest and most accessible novel. I think (predictably, I suppose) that it's not his best, but I may be wrong – if the only one to get any kind of award within the genre. The book is, in his words, a "success story" set in an America sunk into terminal decay. The hero starts as a schoolboy dreaming of glory while adrift in the fascist heartland; he progresses through the degradations of that modern Sodom, New York; and at last becomes a nationally famous singer, whose return home proves to be his destruction. Disch sets up some very simple oppositions – Iowa versus New York is only the most obvious – and reconciles them with perfect harmony in his controlling metaphor: because in this future world, the singer is released from the body by the power of song and takes flight as pure spirit.

The problem, Disch has said, was "how to write about flying without trivializing it into a Superman fantasy. I didn't want to end up looking like Dumbo." He solves the problem happily; in fact, he solves every problem of the book so well that I don't really understand why he bothered. It's not as if he needed to prove anything.

But I don't want to look ungrateful. On Wings of Song may be a return to the kind of irony with which he began his career! But it is a triumphant return. On Wings of Song is that rare thing, an ironic – even "ironic" – novel with no trace of smugness; it does what it set out to do with exhilarating, commanding ease.

That same mastery plays over Disch's next collection, The Man Who Had No ldea. Several stories, including the serenely witty title piece and a nasty little fable called "Josie and the Elevator," strike me as flawless. (It's a shame, though, that Disch's instant classic of hardware adventure, "The Brave Little Toaster," couldn't be included; I'm told it's going on to the big time as an animated short.) If there's nothing in the book as impressive is "The Asian Shore" or 334's "Angouleme," the pleasures of On Wings of Song – the beautifully deployed irony, the unflashy grace of the prose, the steady imagination that makes the most whimsical notion convincing – are repeated hear in miniature.

But still, but still… These two books aren't going to convince anyone that science fiction can be anything more than sophisticated entertainment. Granted, that's better than the old public image, but it's not enough – science fiction, along with the rest of pop culture, is in the middle of a phase best described as retrograde: the leading writers combine to an exquisite degree reactionary politics and artistic ineptitude. The marker strategists who've taken over publishing aren't going to improve things any; the field right now is putting a premium on slavish imitation, thus hastening our culture's seemingly irresistible slide toward a state of pure TV.

Disch's work has long served as a corrective within the genre, but where once his irony intensified the power of his vision, now he uses irony to reconcile and amuse. The drift of his recent work has been, in his own words, "towards laughter, satire, and responsible adult concerns." This is because, he says, he is much happier than he used to be. Only a churl would suggest he was better off wretched; I can't even claim that the quality of his work has declined since the new spirit set in. He began as one of the best writers in science fiction, and he is now without question one of the best writers in America. I'm just convinced, meanly I'm sure, that a little more darkness from him might lighten the gloom all around.

Fortunately, that's not where we have to get off. He has a new novel coming out next spring from Harper & Row. The Business Man, which is about what happens to us after we die. Its subtitle, A Tale of Terror, suggests that the experience isn't likely to be nice. That's all to the good, as far as I'm concerned, and I'm even more pleased that, God and the marker strategists willing, The Pressure of Time, at last completed, will be published perhaps a year later.

I'm not, however, going to stake my claims for Disch on books he hasn't published yet. Read him now: you will have the rare pleasure of knowing about a literary master before the high lit establishment finds out about him.