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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500

Camp Concentration is a vital meeting of several forces. Thomas M. Disch, though living in the United States, was much influenced by the British New Wave writers who were exploring the inner space of human consciousness through literary experimentation. Camp Concentration is a conscious variation on Thomas Mann’s monumental Doctor...

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Camp Concentration is a vital meeting of several forces. Thomas M. Disch, though living in the United States, was much influenced by the British New Wave writers who were exploring the inner space of human consciousness through literary experimentation. Camp Concentration is a conscious variation on Thomas Mann’s monumental Doctor Faustus (1947), in that it deals with the price of genius and is set against a background of wartime tyranny, which sharpens the novel’s moral aspect. The novel is set during a war in the future, but it is a very near future (attested by the presence of President McNamara, presumably the 1960’s secretary of defense). This is clearly a novel about the illegitimacy of the war in Vietnam and the methods of the military research establishment.

The novel’s most important aspect is its experimentation with literary style. Sacchetti is a poet and litterateur from the start (he cites Fyodor Dostoevski’s The House of the Dead [1915] on the first page of the text), but his literary allusions become far more pronounced as his intelligence and reading accelerate as a result of the syphilis. Others, like Washington, bring in Arthur Koestler’s definitions of genius, and there are extensive references to the alchemical masters and great writers who have had syphilis. As Sacchetti’s illness advances, his journal disintegrates into a literate, allusive stream of consciousness in which he quotes or mentions such diverse figures as Heinrich Himmler, Saint Augustine, Hans Yost, André-Georges Malreux, and John Milton, along with citing the Bible. The texture gives a rich, complex speculation on disease, genius, and death.

The text has an overriding tone of moral confrontation. Sacchetti, an intellectual Catholic, has become a conscientious objector to the war and is aware of the issues surrounding what is happening to him and the other subjects. Skilliman, who seems at first to be injected into the latter part of the text only to fill the void created by the deaths of the earlier group of subjects, is the immoral practitioner of science—the man willing to use his increased intelligence for personal fame and to create weapons of destruction. Sacchetti engages in a series of dialogues with him and his young assistants and emerges victorious in moral fact (and in winning over the assistants), although it appears that he has lost in physical and practical terms. Washington-Haast’s murder of Skilliman and Sacchetti’s escape into a healthy body re-establish the balance, but it is arguably a deus ex machina ending.

The idea of a plague spreading from the evil machinations of military research, of the moral sickness of the society becoming a physical sickness unto death, is a marker of the conscience of the text. Even the surprise ending has moral implications: Several of the infected prisoners choose physical death over the act of sentencing to death whomever they could have exchanged bodies with. Camp Concentration is a brilliant, tough book, bringing broad issues and complex literary continuity into science fiction.

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