Thomas Disch gives me nightmares. But I keep coming back for more.
Vintage Books has recently republished 334 and Camp Concentration, two of Disch's early works, in handsome new editions. Reading them is like walking into a black, windy, rainy night, or exploring the decaying sub-basement of a government office without any idea of how to escape its winding corridors. They're images of a future that should never be, dystopian musings on society's trends.
334 is about city life, the complicated meandering paths that people take to avoid its intolerable closeness and ugliness. Residents of building 334, an outpost of the all-encompassing New York City welfare state, live out their lives over the course of several years and several narratives. Stylistically, it's an interlinked collection of novellas written from different characters' points of view. The chapter structure keeps it from becoming a Faulknerian swamp of flashback and introspection, but the main "character" seems to be the web of social relations that make up modern city life. The best parallels I can think of are Cortazar's Hopscotch, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, and Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio.
334 begins its journey with a character named Birdie Ludd listening to a professor lecture about Dante. Ludd proceeds to immediately discard everything he learns as irrelevant to his current situation, which is that he is in lust with a girl. He jumps through all sorts of hoops -- bureaucratic, literary, and intellectual -- to attempt to win his love, but in the end he fails. Like the Luddites of old, Birdie Ludd is pushed aside by the technological society he finds himself in, and cannot find solace in religion (Dante) nor its modern-day equivalent, the welfare state.
For 334 is an image of the welfare state gone awry, where a federally-mandated MODICUM keeps the citizenry in line with free housing and survival wages, and the position of a street sweeper is a coveted job due to the possibility of tips. The government has established regulatory control over most of the "vices" of today's society: public sex classes are performed for schoolchildren, homosexuality and prostitution are legal, and Pfizer sells euphoric drugs to the world. Social workers, the "official" interface between a government and its citizenry, fail to connect with the people they are supposed to help: one retreats into the arid fantasy of being a Roman matron to avoid engaging in reality, while another cynically exploits the system to gain his PhD and job security, denying his client in her moment of need. There's no escape from the system and no help within it.
The expansion of the state has also come at the expense of personal dignity and connection to the natural world. Fertility is regulated through eugenics laws administered via an intelligence test. Natural food is no longer available and government-controlled factory farms in the sea are destroying the ecology of the oceans. The basis of the psychoactive chemical that medicates society's ills is a chemical ingredient originally extracted from a species of pollution-doomed oyster, now extinct. The future exists only at the expense of the past, and there's no going back. Even art fails to provide an escape. In one of the most bleak stories, privileged but jaded art students plot the murder of an elderly man, just to introduce some excitement into their lives.
334 tells us that technology and urbanization will not make us more human, that the State cannot substitute for the richness of human contact. Ending with various acts of self-destruction after a woman is abandoned by her family and evicted from the title building, the novel is brilliant in its darkness.
Camp Concentration has the same nightmarish feel. The title location is Camp Archimedes, a facility administered by the United States Army. The inmates of Camp Archimedes have been injected with Pallidine, a venereal disease derived from syphilis that induces genius, madness, and inevitable death in those it infects. Jailed as a conscientious objector, accomplished poet Louis Sacchetti is brought to Camp Archimedes as an observer, to interact with the prisoners and provide insights on the experiments being undertaken there, and the novel is in the form of Sacchetti's journal.
Camp Concentration is a difficult novel. Sacchetti is a genius, and not one given to clarity of thought. Sacchetti's journal, being produced for people he hates, is salted with obscure references just to piss off its (fictional) readers, with the (actual) readers being caught in the crossfire, slogging through disquisitions on alchemy, Paul Valery, Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann, and Gerrard Winstanley. Parts of the journal, reflecting a period of madness by Sacchetti, descend into a stream-of-consciousness aphorism soup not unlike Nietzsche's Ecce Homo. The florid effusions of syphilitics are beautiful but baffling, and once again, as in 334, the style and structure of the book are as interesting as its story.
The novel also needs to be read closely, because among Disch's criteria for genius is that genius must be able to express itself subtly and obliquely. In a setting where their every word is being monitored, the residents of Camp Archimedes resort to arcane techniques to hide their plans from the State (and therefore the reader). Messages are transmitted through mislaid books, mispronunciations, unintelligible handwritten diagrams, off-hand memoranda, and cryptic last words.
Man's intellect and artistry are of little use, as in 334. The genius that the campfolk develop slowly kills them. Alchemy and religion are sleights of hand: dodges that promise future salvation but ultimately lead nowhere, only to further parasitism and predation. Art is another dodge, a code that conveys information but is useless in itself as a solace or remedy. Sacchetti did his doctoral thesis on Winstanley, a radical preacher of the Puritan Revolution who led a band of agrarian socialists, the Diggers, in a plan to take over some unused land and farm it collectively. They were crushed by the State. Sacchetti's principled, conscientious offender stance is an attempt to use the same principles as Winstanley: nonviolence and cooperation, an appeal to international brotherhood. While his techniques do have some persuasive success, Sacchetti's fellow prisoners in the end decide that, faced with the coercive power of the State, they have to abandon nonviolence, strike back with the powers of their genius, and take the lives of their oppressors.
Camp Concentration was originally published in 1968. I first read this novel 10 years ago, before the X-Files, before government conspiracy theories became popular, and I found the idea that our government would imprison and experiment upon its own citizenry much more shocking then. The vein of ironic humor and sly wit that currently surrounds the ideas of men in black and secret government experiments these days robs the story's background of some of its power. But the harrowing personal journey of Sacchetti still packs a punch.
One feature of Camp Concentration which is immediately arresting is the putative spread of the pallidine to the population of the United States: hardest hit are the artists and those who engage in homosexual sex. The parallel with AIDS is striking. And like AIDS, Disch's pallidine problem has no easy solution, no quick end to the misery it causes.
Disch's novels put his characters in the middle of situations which are irretrievably corrupt; they suggest that technology and intellect will be unable to solve the problems of future life due to the centralized evil of a modern bureaucratic civilization. There's no Ellisonian Harlequin single-handedly holding off the forces of repression.
It's tough for me, and probably for a lot of science fiction lovers, to read these books, because I'm a firm believer in the power of technology to improve the human condition. One minor example of this is the spell-checker, which makes the Vintage edition of these books a significant improvement over their earlier counterparts.
Characters in 334 and in Camp Concentration are flawed human beings, and their flawed nature comes through in their literary productions. The texts of these novels contain neologisms, malaprops, and intentional spelling errors which serve to advance the plot. So when you run into a nonstandard spelling in the old paperbacks it takes a while to decide whether or not it was intentional or not. The older editions that I own are just crawling with typos, much more than the (lamentable) standard in SF. These newer, cleaner editions are a definite improvement.
The new Vintage books bring Disch back to the market in a glorious way. They're fairly inexpensive, and the artwork on their slick new covers is properly minimalist and depressing. One warning: the paper yellows quickly -- the Vintage paperbacks came out in 1999, and copies in bookstores already show signs of dinginess. But even with yellowed pages, the story still comes through loud and clear. The message remains the same, but now the medium is purer.
334 and Camp Concentration are both marvels of literary craftsmanship, but that's not why they're worth reading today. They're visions of the future that can't be allowed to become reality. Disch doesn't propose solutions to society's problems -- he accentuates them and tells us what could happen "if this goes on." Someday, we'll be able to look on these books as dated reflections of society's misguided fears. Until then, they're important to read and remember.
Fred Bush will be starting graduate study in English Literature at the University of Rochester this fall. His previous appearance in Strange Horizons was a review of the SciFi Channel's Frank Herbert's Dune.
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