Thomas Disch is dead

by Henry Farrell on July 7, 2008

I didn’t know him, although I did know and love his novels – Patrick Nielsen Hayden knew man and work both, and has “more of substance”: to say than I ever could. John Clute “reviewed”: his most recent book a couple of weeks ago, and quoted a poem that he published in the _Paris Review,_ “The Moon on the Crest of the New-Fallen Snow.” I liked it a lot.


Has its place—and pity, too—but it is not here.
Here all is calm and cold and luminous.
The snow has smoothed over the tracks of the deer.



bob mcmanus 07.07.08 at 3:57 pm

Here is where I start an argument with Puchalsky.
If I say PKD is vastly overrated, it is because there is a long list of contemporaneous writers I consider at least as good. Sladek, Lafferty, Effinger, and near the top Thomas Disch. It has been interesting to watch the elevation of PKD over his betters, and I consider it some sort of indictment of the times,the nation, and academia. What is it in PKD that makes him so…comfortable.

I say with ironic understatement, Disch, at his best, challenged his readers & his SF community with the just reproach.


Sam 07.07.08 at 4:30 pm

Disch was a giant. Terrible loss.


Hidari 07.07.08 at 4:36 pm

The best SF writer de nos jours (excepting those that ‘crossed over’ like Ballard and Vonnegut) is Barry Malzberg. The fact that most of his work is now out of print says a lot about most ‘readers’ of contemporary SF.


bob mcmanus 07.07.08 at 4:56 pm

3:Malzberg would indeed be on my list in 1, and I didn’t mean to slight by exclusion.

I went thru some Amazon reviews of On Wings of Song, and sometimes, in an arrogance that amazes me, I think I am the only one who “got it”
It is on one level a compassionate, even spiritual treatment of otherness and outsiderness and tolerance, and on another simultaneous level a totally hilarious ridiculous Swiftian vicious indictment of such sentiments and victimology. It is also an attack on SF.

And an attack on its readers. By increments and small narratives we are led to the final stage act of cross-dressing anti-fundamentalist spiritual fairies (and whatever, it has been years). I remember laughing out loud that Disch had managed to pull off such a stunt, that the readers could not only find the end plausible but morally serious and enlightening. But of course, in his irony, it is.

A masterpiece among his other masterpieces. Disch is far better and more important than Gide, for one.


bob mcmanus 07.07.08 at 5:01 pm

The man who wrote 334 wrote a book about fairies? Yeah, he wrote it with blood and sulfuric acid.

I think I loved that man.


rea 07.07.08 at 6:01 pm

The man who wrote 334 wrote a book about fairies?

Don’t forget his most famous work:


jre 07.07.08 at 6:02 pm

Disch was preceded in death by another of my favorites, Algis Budrys, for whom Disch wrote a less-than-sensitive eulogy.

As PNH has noted, Thomas Disch was not the nicest guy you’d hope to meet, but his stuff was brilliant and moving, and he will be missed.


Alison P 07.07.08 at 6:40 pm

I liked the first review of Brave Little Toaster on Amazon UK: ‘I found this book thoroughly delightful, and am hoping it is an introduction for me of a thoroughly delightful writer.’ Oh dear.


Hidari 07.07.08 at 8:27 pm

Yes Algis Budrys was also very good: ‘Who’ is an excellent novel: I still remember the pay off scene. It was made into a weird and not very good movie with Elliott Gould.


Ray Davis 07.07.08 at 9:31 pm

PKD, nothin’ — it seems at least as absurd that reviewers should have so closely attended the Amises while Disch was available. As a satirist his mordacity was crocodilian in its breadth, but his tears seemed genuine enough. Besides the pieces already mentioned, I often think about The Genocides (his first novel, characteristically calculated to offend community standards), his American gothics The Businessman and The M.D., and his short story collections, with the most slippery-toned stories my favorites: “The Squirrel Cage,” “The Master of the Milford Altarpiece,” “Getting Into Death,” “The City of Penetrating Light,” ….


bob mcmanus 07.07.08 at 9:55 pm

Here is a pretty good Interview from SF Studies, 1983. Camp Concentration, irony, Kafka, NY literary scene.


Anderson 07.07.08 at 10:36 pm

His blog certainly reads like the blog of someone who is contemplating suicide.


Matt McIrvin 07.08.08 at 4:11 am

What is it in PKD that makes him so…comfortable.

I don’t think it’s anything inherent in him or his work; it’s just Hollywood. The belated cult success of Blade Runner shortly after his death (which really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with Dick’s book) made Dick a name that movie people knew, and Total Recall made it a trend. Before long everyone was trying to adapt Phil Dick stories, usually in hard-to-recognize form. When he was good, he was really good, but his posthumous fame is essentially arbitrary.


Martin Wisse 07.08.08 at 6:37 am

Barry Malzberg “the best SF writer de nos jours”? Get real.


MR Bill 07.08.08 at 10:20 am

One thing that makes PKD ‘comfortable’ is that most of his work holds out the possibility of redemption, and even, in later works like ‘Valis’ and ‘The Divine Invasion’ a form of Christianity.
Disch held out no such potential. His work was Swiftian in it’s savagery. It was always a hard sell, and always reflective of a life with every slight and insult deeply felt..


J Thomas 07.08.08 at 12:04 pm

PKD was kind of unpretentious. He was willing to be a moderately-bad writer telling a good story, and he had whole books where no character was in control of much.

I kind of liked reading Disch but somehow when I finished a Disch story I usually felt kind of dirty.

Malzburg was uneven, I read some of his work that wasn’t very good first and never got around to the better stuff.

Lafferty was a seminal genius, but he wrote for himself and for the people who were willing to take him on his own terms. He couldn’t get real popular that way.

I dunno. I’m glad they all got published. Too bad Lafferty became unpublishable. I hear he has thousands of pages that will never be published even in small press.


jre 07.08.08 at 7:21 pm

I hear he has thousands of pages that will never be published even in small press.

Undoubtedly, but that is the perversely delightful aspect of a hunt for Lafferty. I have, probably, dozens of these weird little Lafferty chapbooks, and I know I have found only a small fraction of what there is.
Gene Wolfe once said something to the effect that, while most writers struggle to be original, Lafferty could no more have been unoriginal than he could have stopped breathing. True, and (for me at least) Lafferty’s unflinching originality made it more than worthwhile to put up with his stylistic quirks and often impenetrable personal vision.
With Budrys and Disch shuffling off within a month, it feels like we are leaving the age of titans. But I guess it always feels like that after you pass a certain age.


J Thomas 07.08.08 at 9:00 pm

Science fiction really has changed.

A generation ago Samuel Delany could write a quick 200 pages and publish it with Ace or DAW and get a quick $300 to $500, equivalent to maybe $1500 to $3000 today. He could write pretty much whatever he wanted and they’d publish it. Science fiction was whatever paperback was on the shelves with a picture of a bug-eyed monster on the front.

Now there are a lot of readers and a lot more writers. A clear sense of what style is acceptable. Far more gets published than any one person could possibly read, and the community is large enough that word of mouth won’t help an unknown book much before it’s out of print.

New ideas now wind up being so unfamiliar that people boggle at them.

Aliens like intelligent cats: not new.
Aliens like intelligent oak trees: hard to understand.

War using space armadas and planet-busters: not new.
War using genetically-modified humans who will cause genome collapse in 20 generations: hard to understand.

Maybe the new ideas were just as hard to understand back then, but the stories didn’t have to introduce them smoothly while following interesting characters having interesting believable social interactions in a believale society that feels familiar while being fundamentally different and also exploring deep philosophical dilemmas.

The field has matured. It’s hard for a writer to be good at everything at once. But to get out of the slush pile, he needs to write well and have interesting characters first. Originality is on the list but it’s pretty far down.

So the writers who’re particularly original will tend to move on. Science fiction isn’t so attractive for them any more.


Matt McIrvin 07.08.08 at 11:53 pm

…As for Disch, the one book of his I’ve read was 334, which was masterfully written but kind of forbidding–maybe best taken as a long, mostly gloomy futurist essay with character sketches rather than a novel as such. I can easily see that it wouldn’t be that commercial.

Of the guys Bob mentioned, I think the one I actually miss the most is John Sladek.


Gary Ostertag 07.09.08 at 1:22 am

I only know Disch through his poetry and his criticism, not through the novels. In 1990 I saw an unforgettable performance of his blank verse monologue “The Cardinal Detoxes” at the RAPP theater in New York City’s East Village. (The Archdiocese of New York attempted, unsuccessfully, to close the play, since they owned the building housing the theater.) This work was included in The Best American Poetry 1994 and once again in Harold Bloom’s “Best of the Best” (1988-97) collection. His book of criticism “The Castle of Indolence” was pretty illuminating about the state of poetry in the 80’s and 90’s.


bob mcmanus 07.09.08 at 1:34 am

17:While the novels were idiosyncratic to opaque, Lafferty was just funny as hell in dozens of short stories. I have no problem recomending “Continued on Next Rock” or “Slow Tuesday Night” or the collections.


roac 07.09.08 at 3:02 pm

Neil Gaiman has an excellent Lafferty pastiche in one of his story collections. It is a measure of the man’s uniqueness that I read the first sentence and said “Lafferty!”


J Thomas 07.09.08 at 4:19 pm

“Neil Gaiman has an excellent Lafferty pastiche in one of his story collections.”

_Fragile Things_ “Sunbird” is one.

I’m not sure I would have known it was Lafferty from the first sentence.

“They were a rich and a rowdy bunch at the Epicurian Club in those days.”

That’s suggestive but I wouldn’t have been sure. I wouldn’t have been sure until the beginning of the fourth sentence.

“There was Augustus Two-Feathers McCoy, ….”


roac 07.09.08 at 4:31 pm

OK, OK. I guess it probably took me the whole first paragraph. Nothing is more dampening to the amateur literary critic than being taken literally all the time.

Certainly by the time you get to Zephaniah T. Crabcrustle there is no longer any doubt.

By the way, how would you explain Gaiman’s affinity for Catholic reactionaries (Chesterton being the other instance)?


Henry 07.09.08 at 5:07 pm

By the way, how would you explain Gaiman’s affinity for Catholic reactionaries (Chesterton being the other instance)?

Not to mention Gene Wolfe (whom he’s actually collaborated with). I suspect it isn’t an affinity so much as a reflection of the fact that for whatever reason, a disproportionate number of the really good writers in this genre are Catholics or ex-Catholics (the subject of this post; Paul Park).

Matt – I miss Sladek too. Recently re-read _Tik-Tok_ – that is one funny book. His non-fiction, _The New Apocrypha_ is a brilliant take down of cultish nonsense (I have his two James Vogh books on my shelf, but haven’t had the courage to read them).


MR Bill 07.09.08 at 10:09 pm

I always wondered if the character “Droney Laffety” (an necrophiliac with a job related means of getting, uh, ‘dates’) in Alfred Bester’s Golem 100 was supposed to be R. A. Lafferty.


J Thomas 07.10.08 at 4:15 am

Sorry, I didn’t mean to criticise you for saying you saw it with the first sentence. I wasn’t even certain it was the same story. Gaiman could have done more than one Lafferty pastiche. Gene Wolfe has done at least one.


Nigel 07.10.08 at 12:01 pm

Have you read Black Alice by Disch and Sladek? (Sometimes as by Thom Demijohn?) Wicked, wicked kidnap thriller set in the American south. Brilliant.


roac 07.10.08 at 2:11 pm

I didn’t mean to criticise you for saying you saw it with the first sentence.

No apology called for. I figured your tongue was in your cheek, as was mine. I hate emoticons but there’s something to be said for them.


J Thomas 07.11.08 at 2:18 pm

Good! I didn’t want to dampen an amateur literary critic. I don’t want to be just having fun when somebody else thinks I’m peeing on them. ;-)

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