Land of the free and marginalized
He WAS a misunderstood prosodist living hand-to-mouth with a wily intelligence and a savage wit. He lived in New York, but his talents were largely ignored by the literary elite. His strikingly original books, spanning speculative fiction and poetry, were frequently confined to the mid-list dustheap. Many of his collections, such as “Burn This,” could not find American publishers.
He’d lost his longtime partner to cancer. He was fighting to keep his modest apartment. He suffered from depression, diabetes and sciatica. He had written such blistering novels as “Camp Concentration” (1968) and “334” (1974); mainstream readers bristling from his tough truths could find a speculative compromise in his 1986 children’s book “The Brave Little Toaster.” But above all, he wanted to be known as a poet. He turned out prolific elegies on his blog (one posted less than two weeks before his death was titled “Why I Must Die: A Film Script”), but he had stopped sending these poems out to literary journals.
On Independence Day this year, Thomas M. Disch put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He was 68.
It is difficult to plunge into Disch’s posthumously published short story collection, “The Wall of America,” without considering this act and Disch’s insecure relationship with his homeland.
Performance artists, vampire hunters and cultural philosophers are just some of the marginalized misfits dangling over the rough edges of Disch’s America. In the title story, an artist is pushed literally to the brink, hanging his paintings on a concrete divide bordering America and Canada, choosing “the least densely hung stretch that they’d offered him, not so much because his paintings needed room to sprawl but because he did.” Disch’s characters need love, money and other essentials that they can’t seem to ask for. They toil in a nation that refuses to find a place for them.
Several of these stories feature telltale allusions to death. In “The White Man,” the protagonist reports her suicidal tendencies to a medical official and is prescribed “purple pills as big as your thumb.” In “The Owl and the Pussycat,” a sweet and irreverent reimagining of Edward Lear, a woman kills herself by mashing up sleeping pills into rocky road ice cream. Many stories conclude with characters disappearing, lost to “the wilderness’s own video arcade” or waning with corporate memos that “slowly faded from the page, like the smile of the Cheshire cat.” In Disch’s wicked wonderland, the underlying cause doesn’t matter as much as the harsh reality. Make no mistake: People who don’t fit into the grand scheme will be crushed. As the mother at the end of “A Family of the Post-Apocalypse” puts it, “It isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s just the times we live in.”
Survival, as Mr. Weyman says in “Canned Goods,” is all that matters. An impoverished man tallies up his failures in “Ringtime,” telling us: “Most of my unmarketable memories are just dull -- so many soft tasteless noodles in the soup of the past.”
But there remains the anarchic comfort of nature. One striking story, “Voices of the Kill,” follows an English teacher spending his vacation in “the primeval, pre-Yankee wilderness.” He is wooed by a cooing Nereid at night and, like the “beautiful pea green boat” in Lear’s poem, she appears by day as a girl in a pea-green swimsuit.
Some stories give Disch a chance to take gleeful revenge on the literary establishment that in turn spurned him. Disch once performed a devastating critical vivisection on the alleged UFO abductee Whitley Strieber. Here, in “The Abduction of Bunny Steiner,” Disch unpacks his scalpel again, chronicling a corpulent hack caught within “the latest, lowest nadir of a career rich in nadirs,” who is commissioned to write a get-rich-quick Strieber rip-off.
One of the book’s best stories is “The Man Who Read a Book,” a branch-rattling excoriation of the publishing industry that takes potshots at publishing giant Knopf, the Yaddo artists’ colony, the Pushcart Prize and a writer named “Bret Eastern Alice.” The story’s hero is hired by “Mr. Yaddo himself” to read books for cash, where his apparently vital thoughts on such books as “A Collector’s Guide to Plastic Purses” will be celebrated by the appropriate publisher.
If this Disch collection lacks the Kafkaesque pyrotechnics of “The Squirrel Cage” or the phantasmagorial brio of “Getting Into Death,” it nevertheless remains a worthy volume from a writer who we really needed to be alive today, skewering hypocrisy and sometimes unearthing the sunny side of suffering.
Edward Champion hosts a cultural website at www.edrants.com. He conducted the last in-person interview with Thomas Disch in June.