Sunday, July 13, 2008

Thomas Disch R.I.P.

Today, I learned that on July 4th, one of my favorite modern American authors, Thomas Disch committed suicide at the age of 68 in his apartment in New York.

The novelist Thomas M Disch once observed: "America is a nation of liars, and for that reason science fiction has a special claim to be our national literature." However, the power of reality so intruded that Disch took his own life at the age of 68, leaving an array of work, from stories a few sentences long to a sprawling horror novel by way of witty poetry, children's fiction, opera librettos and an offbeat way with criticism as he leapt "from one literary frogpond to another".

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, where his father, Felix, sold magazines, he was partly educated by his mother, Helen, and brought up in Fairmont and St Paul, Minnesota. He readily memorised poetry at high school and discovered that "the golden age of science fiction is 12, the age when we begin to read it". A variety of jobs included being an undertaker's nightwatchman before he moved to New York, where army service intervened in 1957.

Out of kilter with that, he endured a few months' psychiatric incarceration before return to Manhattan. That experience, combined with brooding upon childhood Catholicism, fuelled stories written while working as a theatre usher, among other things, before an insurance job funded architecture studies at the Cooper Union and New York University, from which he dropped out in 1962 when Fantastic Stories accepted a piece.

After two years' copywriting, Disch wrote full time as "a beachcomber on a semi-global scale" in Mexico, London - as one of the "new wave" SF writers published by Michael Moorcock's New Worlds magazine - Italy and Turkey. His first novel, The Genocides (1965), anticipated current concerns: "Nothing gave the yield per acre that corn did; nothing but rice gave as much nourishment per ounce. Land was at a premium now." The Earth is covered by one huge, hideously rooted plant, and a surviving, feuding group of humans forage like "worms, crawling through an apple".

In Camp Concentration (1968), conscientious objectors are given a form of syphilis, the theory being that it heightened their creativity even if it shortened their lives. While 334 (1972), chronicling a dystopian New York of the 2020s, is not as engaging, The Puppies of Terra (1966) describes a mankind under others' leash by means of "pure electromagnetic phenomenon" while taught by one Roxanna Proust, whose skin "scrunched into a great delta of wrinkles, as though from the pressure of squeezing out the tears". During the confused narrative of Echo Round His Bones (1969), a clone is instantly "manmitted" to Mars.

Throughout the 1960s Disch continued to publish stories: The Asian Shore (1970) was an apparent travelogue that mutates splendidly, at some length, into a man's becoming fully Turkish after donning a local outfit made from "a heavy wool-rayon blend of a sickly and slightly iridescent blue, the muted, imprecise colour of the more unhappy breeds of pigeon". Brief, complete stories included Vapors (reprinted in the collection Getting Into Death, 1974): "She wondered, as she stepped into the tub, whether he had told her his real name. Was it only his resemblance to the other one that made her feel like this? Had she only, perhaps, dreamed the whole splendid thing?"

Further leapfrogging included poetry, gradually recognised for such witty conceits as A Turkish Holiday, formed entirely from book titles, while Edwardian book spines lend "our walls their rich red-browns/As of fence posts steeped in creosote".

Disch lived with fellow poet Charles Naylor, first in London, and then in Manhattan from the 1970s. They collaborated - somehow - on a solid, historical novel, Neighbouring Lives (1980), about the Chelsea of Thomas Carlyle, of which Anthony Burgess wrote: "The very devotion which they expend on their multiple subject matter makes for a reluctance to move on, clip, slash, subordinate detail to the elan of true fiction."

With The M.D. (1991), Disch attempted Stephen King-style horror, but the words slackened across 550 pages, unlike the truly shocking The Businessman (1984): unable to shake off his murdered wife, Bob Glandier sires a child upon her, the hideous foetus itself soon a ghost, all far from Disch's popular children's book The Brave Little Toaster (1980, filmed by Disney in 1987).

Few might enjoy all of Disch, and he always looked forward, even creating a computer text adventure game, Amnesia (1986), not wanting to become somebody who, Norma Desmond-like, haunted conventions in hopes of continued recognition. Beset, however, by Naylor's death in 2005, an upstate home's flooding, a fire, illness and an eviction threat, he shot himself. One can only echo his ode on Philip K Dick's suicide "with so much juice/Still to be squeezed, with all that doom could do /To force new bloom from the pollardings/Of late middle-age".

Disch, who leaves three brothers and a sister, once wrote a charming ballad about a rattlesnake in Christ's manger; The Word of God, a novel told by the deity, has just been published.

I can only recommend that if you are interested in great but difficult writing, full of dark imagination and speculations about man and our future, you could try to find some of his work. His novel, Wings Of Song published in 1978, was a masterpiece but was mostly returned. In it you will find a future America, a land of disintegration that somehow manages to evoke our present. His novel 334 is still to me like what Dickens would have written if he had written speculative science fiction. In the last few years, he wrote a blog and it is fascinating to glimpse the rich darkness of his imagination and the elegance of his writing. It still is on line.

· Thomas Michael Disch, science fiction writer, born February 2 1940; died around July 4 2008

The Art of Dying

Mallarmé drowning
Chatterton coughing up his lungs
Auden frozen in a cottage
Byron expiring at Missolonghi
and Hart Crane visiting Missolonghi and dying there too

The little boot of Sylvia Plath wedged in its fatal stirrup
Tasso poisoned
Crabbe poisoned
T.S. Eliot raving for months in a Genoa hospital before he died
Pope disappearing like a barge in a twilight of drugs

The execution of Marianne Moore
Pablo Neruda spattered against the Mississippi
Hofmannsthal's electrocution
The quiet painless death of Robert Lowell
Alvarez bashing his bicycle into an oak

The Brownings lost at sea
The premature burial of Thomas Gray
The baffling murder of Stephen Vincent Benét
Stevenson dying of dysentery
and Catullus of a broken heart

-- Tom Disch

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