(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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,”...

(The entire section is 1482 words.)