Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 526

There is little doubt that Disch is central to any understanding of the New Wave in science fiction. His style exhibits much of the same literary strength found in the works of J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, and even Thomas Pynchon. The mature vision of The M.D. builds on such...

(The entire section contains 526 words.)

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There is little doubt that Disch is central to any understanding of the New Wave in science fiction. His style exhibits much of the same literary strength found in the works of J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, and even Thomas Pynchon. The mature vision of The M.D. builds on such earlier successes as Camp Concentration (1968) and 334 (1972) and cynically focuses on people’s place in an absurd and cruel universe.

Characteristically, the book is challenging insofar as it upsets a schoolboy’s fantasy with dark consequences. Michaels plays with magic as would any boy, and makes it a real part of his own life. Disch is not strictly concerned with fantasy as whimsy, however, though he certainly recognizes this aspect. Instead, The M.D. turns toward the material effects of magic and considers the impact on victims and magicians alike, exploring how spells have side effects beyond all control. The strength of The M.D. lies in Disch’s convincing descriptions of working-class drudgery and family life. These make the eruption of supernatural powers and events all the more disturbing and sinister.

In challenging the limits of science fiction and fantasy, Disch invests his work with an intelligence and moral seriousness that give gravity to the subject. Michaels’ first use of the caduceus leaves his grandmother bald, an event Disch plays for comic effect. This is subsequently tempered with the reduction of his brother Ned to a vegetable. This terrifying prank places events in a new light that Disch masterfully explores. Ned literally lies at the heart of the book, serving as a permanent reminder of Michaels’ guilty conscience. It is perhaps no surprise that Ned eventually destroys his brother and the caduceus in an act that plays out the drama of crime and punishment, damnation and salvation.

Like a young Victor Frankenstein (whom he plays at a Halloween party), Michaels shapes the world around him, blurring the lines between humans and gods. As Disch vividly points out, people are people and gods are gods for very particular reasons. Mercury functions as a being without ethical or moral values, fulfilling his end of the bargain as a messenger, pure and simple. Without the help of a teacher, Michaels fails to grow responsibly with his power and remains a spoiled, willful child throughout. Although he becomes a savior through his discovery of the AIDS vaccine, his actual creation of a modern Black Death for his own aggrandizement only highlights his appalling lack of regard and judgment.

The M.D. is unbalanced and rushes too quickly to its apocalyptic resolution, neatly tying up the loose ends. The slow, gloomy domesticity that gives the novel its power shifts to a slicker pace that leaves too much to speculation. Despite this, Disch’s aim essentially is clear. It is every boy’s dream to have magical powers, but these dreams come at a price. In The M.D., it is Michaels who must pay the price in full. His horrible death emphasizes this point. His final destruction with his illegitimate son, Judge, is not a victory for moral absolutes but a quietly cynical observation that one reaps what one sows.

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