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The Wall of America, by Thomas M. Disch, Tachyon Publications, 2008, $14.95.
TOM IS IN the next room but one, calling out. He's working on his novelization of The Prisoner, and wants to read a paragraph to me. November light pushes through my bay window to lie quietly expiring on the floor. Down in the yard I see the mounds of leaves he raked together earlier, then abandoned. Deciding to leave the Selectric running, I go up and down the three stairs, through the narrow hallway, to his office.
Thomas M. Disch died, of suicide, this past Independence Day. Recent years had been hard ones for him, I gather: a sense of lost readership, considerable physical pain such that he became virtually housebound in his New York apartment, an ever-deepening depression following the death of his partner Charles Naylor. There at the end, Tom's bitterness, the ragged trailing edge of the ambition that so animated him, seems to have broken through, though still liberally seasoned with wit and self-deprecation.
Endings are seldom pretty. Tom knew that. He knew that not very much is pretty, in fact, once you scrape away the hype and patina.
Except the arts. Tom was a great patron not only of poetry and fiction but also of opera, music, painting, and sculpture. I don't think that he believed our arts would magically save us, but he was pretty damned sure they were our best bet, perhaps our only bet—even if they, like everything else in life, might well be taken with a sprinkling of salt, a dash of cynicism, and half a cup of good-natured fun.
Searching for words here (in silence, blink of the cursor having replacing the Selectric's hum), I remember our sitting on the porch in Milford discussing a change from "could" to "would" in one of his poems. I recall the growing list of HARD WORDS he kept over his typewriter for years and wonder if he ever got the chance to use them all. I remember him, Pam Zoline, and John Sladek trading nonce words back in London, "epithesis" being a favorite. And later, his childlike joy at the sound of the word "micturation," his delight at our describing a lawn game to be played "with mallets and forethought."
And now we have Tom Disch's last collection, The Wall of America, nineteen stories published from 1981 to 2008 in venues ranging from original anthologies to Omni, Playboy, and The Hudson Review. Four, including the title story, first appeared here in F&SF.
It would prove all too easy to read these stories—imbued as they are with anomie, death, and disillusion—in light of Tom's suicide, as more than one post-7/4 commentator has done, some proceeding to "interpret" Tom's entire life and the very wellsprings of his creativity in such light. But let's leave Epimetheus looking through the want ads, and not hire him on as critic. True, Tom's work was always generously spiced with darkness—but also with comedy, high and low. In one late poem he envisions us running down the hill with arms waving as we shout "Death, Death, we're over here!" That's Tom—forever bidding for attention, forever poking at what hurts most, his beautiful, classic pas de deux capped with a quick tap step or pratfall.
So reductivism will not do. Tom was a complex man, complex in the same manner as his work: brilliant, silly, boasting, sly, tender, cruel, revealing, evasive.
The Wall of America is, all told, a wonderfully representative sampling of Tom's work in his many modes, tongue clucking away in some stories, firmly lodged acheek in others, giving way to the occasional ululation.
It was the general understanding that the world was falling apart in all directions. Bad things had happened and worse were on the way. Everyone understood that—the rich and the poor, old and young (although for the young it might be more dimly sensed, an intuition). But they also understood that there was nothing much anyone could do about it, and so you concentrated on having some fun while there was any left to have.That's the start of it all, the opening of "The White Man," set in a near-future Minneapolis collapsing in upon itself, a story inhabited by Somali refugees, Pentacostal preachers, shifty census takers, and (possibly) vampires.
"Ringtime" sounds the source and sequelae of artistic life. Experiences are recorded in toto by the artist (and thereby lost to him) for vicarious replay by others. This is mimesis taken to the last full stop, of course, calling into question the very idea of imitations of life, art as purloined experience, the cost to the artist of a lifetime of such work:
The fun past, the yummy past, the past one sings of on New Year's Eve—all that is unrecapturable, sold off in weekly and monthly lots. There is one entire year, my twenty-ninth, wiped from the slate of memory.… I began unwisely to live higher off the hog and, at the same time, to sample my own tapes.Not surprisingly, the arts are central to many of the stories, from the long rimshot that is "Canned Goods" (selling art masterpieces with society and most of human life in shambles about seller and buyer) to "The First Annual Performance Art Festival at the Slaughter Rock Battlefield" with its cheery view of mass murder-cum-art. Here, from "The Wall of America," is an artist on the verge of apostasy: "Now, as with a dream, he couldn't remember any of the details. The big insights, the droll anecdotes, the shy confidences of what he hoped he might be able to accomplish." Here, just before the shopping spree of her life, a latter-day Scheherazade kept alive by her whorish stories and fed up with the whole process: "And then, with a sense that she was revenging the grievances of every hack writer who'd ever lived, she beheaded the Emir of Bassorah."
The writing life jumps to the headlines in others stories such as "The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or, A Shameless Lie," in which a failed heroic-fantasy writer gets hired to write an alien-abduction story about his fictive daughter, and "The Man Who Read a Book," which grabs up a bargain lot of fish and flotsam in its net: writer's colonies, publishers, criminal rehabilitation, work-at-home scams, motivational seminars, arts grants, celebrity.
Having given us in "The Asian Shore" one of the finest stories of obsession ever written, Tom revisits the theme in "Voices of the Kill." Others (the Scheherazade story, "The Owl and the Pussycat," "Torah! Torah! Torah! Three Bible Tales for the Third Millennium") carry on Tom's longstanding love for recasting folk tales and myth.
The bitterest and funniest story here, "A Family of the Post-Apocalypse," may be also the most representative.
It was cheaper living in the danger zone, which was why they'd settled there after everything went haywire. Dad and Mom and the three Big Babies. All this was after the Rapture and the Second Coming (which they never got to see), and the only people left on Earth were the people who hadn't been saved.So there in the suburbs life goes on pretty much as it had before—as it will—with Mom and Dad bickering as they watch the Antichrist's news bulletins on TV, with the septic tank getting ready to explode, with time stuttering into loops. Until the locusts arrive.
Big ones, and dressed, according to the prophecies, pretty much like the bikers in Mad Max, except that instead of riding Harleys their bikes were incorporated into their exoskeletons. It was the whirring of their huge wings that sounded like the revving of unmuffled engines.Horror stories, fey comic tales, parables of the artistic life and of suburbia, biopsies of religion…. Pretty much everything we expect from Tom Disch. Any Disch collection, from Under Compulsion on, is a bazaar: strange sights and sounds, furtive movements at the edge of vision, funky old clothing and sparkling new magic tricks, damaged toys like those you had as a kid, plastic flowers alongside fine silk shawls—make an offer. And finally, as with Montaigne's essays, we read these stories (for all their craft and art) not so much to gain information about our world as to observe the play of an intellect across a subject.
It was quite an intellect, quite an extraordinary sensibility.
Breakfast at our hotel in Notting Hill Gate, Tom on his way in from Turkey to settle a while, my having recently moved to London. Tom has just published Camp Concentration in New Worlds, I've come to help edit the magazine. I remembered his stories from Cele Goldsmith's Amazing and Fantastic, read his first novel. A correspondence ensued, and it was his example, a living, working writer, that more than anything else convinced me to give it a try myself, that such might be possible.Pictures on cave walls, fiction of both low- and highbrow caste, history, opera, and musicals—it's all a way of remembering, which is all we can do, finally. It's what I've been doing since learning of Tom's death. Both difficult people, we moved and grew apart; the braid of our lives unraveled. I thought of him often, read virtually all his books as they came out, fondly knew how important he had been to me.
Here's what else I know: He was a great writer.
Outside the science fiction world, little notice seems to have been taken of Tom's death. Not that he fit at all comfortably in that world either, mind you. He was, finally, one of a kind, possessed of a particular, quirkily American genius, forever on the fence between the literary and the pulpish, poetry and fiction, realism and the fantastic, genteel and aggressive, uptown, downtown.
He wrote some of the best short stories ever put to page. Many of the best short stories ever put to page. And his novels, especially Camp Concentration, 334, and On Wings of Song, for their quality and their influence, merit a place among the classics of science fiction. Add on reams of astute criticism, hundreds of poems, marvelous romps like Black Alice.
Making their way to the inmost chambers of caves, bypassing other interiors that seem to us just as suitable, our ancestors covered walls with their paintings. We've little idea what purposes (social? religious?) the chambers served, all those detailed renderings, those grand animals. But there in privacy a few invented, for us all, the entire vocabulary of our arts: image, narrative, celebration, form. They speak to us still: We were here. This is what we saw. This is how we experienced our world.
So it is with each individual writer or artist today.
Style is not about word choice, cadence, sentence structure, point of view, momentum; finally, it's not even about writing well. Style is, ultimately, the direct reflection of how the writer connects with his or her world, the way in which he or she lets us see our world anew, new perspectives, new visions, new glimmers of comprehension here in darkness.
Tom has left the cave.
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