Thomas M. Disch Essay - Disch, Thomas M(ichael)

Disch, Thomas M(ichael)

Disch, Thomas M(ichael) 1940–

Disch, an American, is the author of many science fiction novels. He has also written short stories—both sci-fi and "straight." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

One doesn't have to read far in [Getting into Death] to discover that Thomas Disch is a genuine writer: his story "The Asian Shore" (subtitled "A Tale of Possession"), in which an American exiled in Turkey turns gradually into a Turk, proves this. Unfortunately, there is another side to Disch—a soft hippy sitting round pads with cronies who have all dropped out of English literature courses. This persona produces jokey and solipsistic anecdotes about nothing in particular (and certainly not SF) which have their apotheosis in the section of the book devoted to "The complete short stories"—twenty-five little efforts mostly a few lines long. Sample:

            "Can you ever forgive me?"
            "Can you ever forgive me?"
            Neither of them could help it—they
            had to laugh.
                         The End

One might call them pretentious if one could guess what they were pretending to be. The crystallized opacities and visions fugitives of marijuana are all very well, but literary reputations can also go up in smoke quite easily. Mr Disch would do well to remember that he has a perfectly respectable talent but that it is probably not proof against unlimited foolishness. If he wants another piece of sanctimonious advice, he should have a stab at getting into life instead of into death: it's a lot more difficult but it's worth it if it produces stories like "The Asian Shore"—this volume's single solid achievement. (p. 163)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), February 15, 1974.

It is one thing to cerebrate; to narrate is quite another. On the evidence of [the] 16 collected tales [of Getting Into Death and Other Stories],… Thomas M. Disch … can do both…. [His stories] adhere to a bizarre present that only the likes of Lewis Carroll or John Collier could produce.

Thus in The Colors, the stages of a love affair are portrayed as a psychedelic journey through the spectrum of the rainbow, from red to violet to the annihilation of white…. In other modes, Disch shows how terror can arise through the disturbances of ordinary life. In The Asian Shore, a young American scholar living in Istanbul keeps bumping into a bedraggled Turkish woman who seems to know him. It is, he decides at first, a simple case of mistaken identity—until some frightening events make him suspect that the mistake is his own. (pp. K12, 84)

Occasionally Disch eschews eeriness and plays it straight—with a twist. The Joycelin Schranger Story is both a witty send-up of seedy Manhattan cineasts and the disconcerting tale of a projectionist trapped in a laughably bad movie. Getting Into Death, the collection's longest and best story, follows a writer through the last weeks of her fatal illness. On paper she is two writers: Cassandra Knye, a successful purveyor of gothic romances, and B. C. Millar, author of esoteric murder mysteries. Chain-smoking cigarettes and wisecracking with a stream of hospital visitors, she searches stoically among her own past fictions for the kind of lie that will prepare her for her final scene with death.

Unless it is yoked to technology, the past or the future, fantasy makes many adults nervous, as if they had discovered imaginary toads in their real gardens. Disch shows that an unfettered imagination need not be childish or frivolous. His stories show just how serious fancies can be. (p. 84)

Paul Gray, "Imaginary Toads," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), February 9, 1976, pp. K12, 84.

[Disch] is a virtuoso, capable of many different styles, all of which he obviously relishes. At times [in "Getting Into Death and Other Stories"] he sounds like a soft-spoken contributor to The New Yorker, at others like Jerzy Kosinski, and at still others like Jules Feiffer. One diatribe is written from the point of view of a bird, and an equally silly piece places Greek gods in contemporary Manhattan…. It's all exhilarating and not terribly serious. One persistent problem with the collection, however, is its polished, even prissy diction….

Contrast [the] fancy talk with the thrilling diction of the science fiction story in the book, "The Planet Arcadia." Here the energy is so high that it almost explodes the transformer….

[Disch] has the makings of a first-rate writer of fiction. (p. 6)

Edmund White, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 21, 1976.

[Getting Into Death is composed of sixteen] lifeless, plotless, characterless, senseless stories by one of the more pompously literary authors of what is euphemistically called speculative fiction. Disch, whose major literary devices are mixed metaphor and poor diction, has fashioned allegories of the Meaning of Life so platitudinous that he has had to clock their plastic hulks in sesquipedalian veils. Among the gratuitous words, often used incorrectly, in Disch's thesaurus are: aedicule, auspex, bibelots, daedal, exergue, furbelows, geanticlinal, hypostasis, ianthine, mensuration, millesimal, mortling, orological, perduring, quiddity, quincunx, quotidian, rhematic, superogatory, supervenient, tincts, virescence, numinal (sic, of a phenomenon), numinous (of a veal chop), otiose (of a candelabra), and lituus (of a quiff). My own thesaurus is shorter but more apropos: excrementitious. (pp. 96-7)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1976, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 52, No. 3 (Summer, 1976).