Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1482
Two themes recur frequently in Thomas M. Disch’s short fiction and dominate his best work: the desperateness of the battle to establish and sustain a meaningful identity in a hostile and mercurial world, and the uneasy metaphorical relationship between sex and death. The former theme has various manifestations in his work, motivating both sober and nightmarish stories such as “Descending” and “The Asian Shore” and more delicately satirical, sometimes even playful, stories such as “Displaying the Flag” and “The Man Who Had No Idea.” The second theme, however, is restricted to the display of a narrower spectrum of ironic unease, characteristic of such stories as “Death and the Single Girl” and “Let Us Quickly Hasten to the Gate of Ivory.”
“Getting into Death”
Disch’s two main themes are merged and presented most explicitly in “Getting into Death,” in which a female writer tries to reconcile herself to her impending death from an incurable illness. She reflects on the various roles she has played as wife, mother, and writer while she studies more closely and critically than ever before the daughter and sister who visit her in the hospital. She is also attended in her death-watch by a series of religious officers, having checked all the available categories under the heading “religion” on her admission form. She finds the solace which they offer almost useless, and they refuse to satisfy her curiosity about the strategies which their other charges use in facing their final hours. Now that she is about to die, she finds herself curiously uncertain as to who she is and has been; even as a writer she has been both B. C. Millar, author of rigorous and rather esoteric detective stories, and Cassandra Knye, author of highly popular and emotionally lurid gothic romances.
Cassandra comes to see new significance in both these kinds of literary endeavor. Her detective novels come to be images of a reified world in which death is the central feature of a puzzle to be solved. (She begins work on a new B. C. Millar novel, a murder mystery told from the viewpoint of the corpse.) Her gothics, meanwhile, become parables in which the threat of sexual violation is symbolic of the threat of mortality. Her eventual reconciliation with the idea of death emerges from a strange inversion of this symbology, when she comes to see death in the same terms as sex, as a “medium in which relationships may exist.”
“Let Us Quickly Hasten to the Gate of Ivory”
The relationship between sex and death is further explored in the story which follows “Getting into Death” in the collection of that name: “Let Us Quickly Hasten to the Gate of Ivory.” In this story a brother and sister unconsciously subject to incestuous desires go in search of their parents’ graves and find themselves lost in an infinite cemetery, alone with each other in an ocean of memento mori.
“Death and the Single Girl”
Death is the ultimate loss of identity, but it is far from being the only threat to the integrity and security of consciousness. In “Death and the Single Girl” the demoralized heroine calls Death on the telephone and asks that he should visit her with his fatal orgasm. Unfortunately, Death can no longer cope with the demands placed upon him by modern America, and he proves to be impotent. After several unsuccessful attempts to arouse him she settles for “the next best thing” and becomes his receptionist and switchboard operator.
“The Asian Shore”
In “The Asian Shore,” perhaps Disch’s most powerful story, it is not death but alienation of a fearfully literal kind which threatens the protagonist. He is an American tourist wintering in Turkey who finds himself haunted by a miserable woman and a young starveling, who call out a name when he passes them by. Despite the length of his stay his suitcases remain unpacked, and he cannot tear down the emblems of personality abandoned by the previous occupant of his room. Gradually he allows himself to be spiritually absorbed into his environment, unable to assert himself sufficiently to maintain his own identity against a subtle but relentless pressure. He simply does not have the psychic strength to sustain himself against a new personality that possesses him—a personality whose need to exist is, it seems, far stronger than his own. In the end he is claimed by the alien shore that waits on the far side of the Bosporus and by the woman and her child.
“The Joycelin Shrager Story”
The attempt to discover in life a meaning which it does not possess, and the futility of trying to impose spurious meanings, are the themes of “The Joycelin Shrager Story,” in which an aging member of the avant-garde film community becomes infatuated with a girl who is making her awkward and unremarkable existence the subject of an endless, continuing film called The Dance of Life. To woo her he praises her endeavor and exerts pressure on his friends and acquaintances to back up his pandering with fake appreciation and applause. At first this is merely a ploy intended to maintain the sexual relationship between them, but he gradually becomes fascinated by the film as he assumes a leading part in it. In the end he has to face a crisis induced by the prospect of a wedding night surrounded by lights and cameras, when his pretenses are tested to destruction. If a genuinely realistic account of everyday existence does not constitute art, and if in the end everyday life cannot bear the strain of such exposure, what justification is there for either the way one lives or the ways in which one tries to transmute experience into art?
“The Man Who Had No Idea”
Disch’s later work recovers something of the iconoclastic enthusiasm of his earlier works. “The Man Who Had No Idea,” first published in 1978, is set in a magnificently absurd future America in which free speech—even casual conversation—is a privilege that has to be earned. Licenses to communicate must be won, initially, by passing examinations geared to test adolescents for articulateness. Having been provisionally awarded, they must win two endorsements from established talkers in order to be made permanent. The hero of the story is a marginal case whose struggle to win his full license is a difficult one. His conversational skills seem adequate enough, but he is cursed by the fact that he has nothing to say—he simply is not very interesting to talk to. The world would hardly be impoverished if he were condemned to eternal silence, but his own social prestige and self-esteem are entirely bound up with being licensed.
The Brave Little Toaster
Disch’s short fiction of the 1980’s continued in the same relaxed satirical vein as “The Man Who Had No Idea.” The Brave Little Toaster is a subtle parody which gently extrapolated the anthropomorphic method of moralistic children’s animated movies to an absurd extreme. The substitution of household appliances for animals was presumably supposed to highlight the fact that cinema audiences were ridiculously eager to have their responsive buttons pushed, but it proved that the threshold of skepticism was even lower than many people had supposed. This was not the first of Disch’s parodies to be so straight-faced and so accurately targeted as to be mistakable for the genuine article, but it eventually proved to be the most successful, finally published in book form in 1986, when it was made into an animated film by Disney, as if it were no more and no less than an earnestly cute heroic fantasy. Disch delightedly sallied forth into even more remote hinterlands of parodic excess in a sequel, The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars, although a projected third story, The Brave Little Toaster Splits the Atom, never materialized.
Much of Disch’s short fiction of the 1990’s reverted to a more caustic vein of satire in which he scathingly lampooned and lambasted various individuals and collectives who excited his ire. “Abduction of Bunny Steiner: Or, A Shameless Lie” (1992) pulls no punches in parodying the best-selling accounts of the alleged abduction by aliens of horror writer Whitley Strieber and his son. Other fashionable targets on which Disch zeroed in during this critical phase included television-based personality cults, which are subjected to mockery in “Celebrity Love” (1990); millenarian cultists joyously looking forward to the end of the world, whose wishes are ironically granted in “A Family of the Post-Apocalypse” (1993); and emotive fundraising campaigns, whose exploitative tactics are spoofed in “The Children’s Fund to Save the Dinosaurs: A Charity Appeal” (1997). Such sharply pointed tales serve to underline the fact that Disch gradually moved in the course of his career from being a writer of offbeat fantasies and surreal science fiction to becoming one of the leading Swiftian satirists of the twentieth century’s close.