The Plot

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658

From childhood, Daniel Weinreb longs to fly, but in the police state of Iowa flying is illegal. Whirling fans trap the disembodied “fairies” who have left their material forms behind, hooked to life-supporting apparatuses. Fairies achieve escape velocity by singing, so in Iowa all music except simple hymns is suspect....

(The entire section contains 1185 words.)

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From childhood, Daniel Weinreb longs to fly, but in the police state of Iowa flying is illegal. Whirling fans trap the disembodied “fairies” who have left their material forms behind, hooked to life-supporting apparatuses. Fairies achieve escape velocity by singing, so in Iowa all music except simple hymns is suspect. Radio broadcasts and newspapers from outside are forbidden because they trumpet the joys of flying and advertise the means for doing so. Daniel eventually makes his way to New York City with his bride. They register at a flying emporium, and she takes off, leaving Daniel grounded and hiding out from his father-in-law. Try as he might, he cannot fly. For fifteen years, Daniel survives on the illicit fringes of New York, scraping together enough money to pay for his wife’s life support and hoping someday to fly.

At the novel’s opening, Daniel arrives in Iowa with his father, a dentist, following his parents’ divorce. Iowa is a good place to raise a boy because of its fairly reliable food supply. After his mother returns, having failed in her quest to fly, the family settles into a semblance of middle-class security. Daniel has a paper route, but when the Des Moines Register folds and Daniel begins carrying the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, a paper forbidden because it comes from outside the state, he puts himself in jeopardy.

At the age of fourteen, when he and his best friend Eugene Mueller sneak off to Minneapolis for a holiday, Eugene disappears from the theater where he and Daniel have seen a movie about flying. Eugene’s father is powerful enough so that, in retaliation for his son’s disappearance, he is able to get Daniel arrested and convicted for distributing the illegal newspaper. Daniel finds himself at the Spirit Lake prison camp for eight months. There, in a corrupt justice system, he is put to work macerating genetically altered termites to make protein extenders for human food, and he learns about flying at first hand from people who have experienced it. He also hears his first great singer and resolves that he too will sing well enough to fly.

Back at Amesville High, the handsome young Daniel becomes a mysterious legend. He catches the eye of the wealthy, cosmopolitan, and well-traveled Boadicea Whiting. Her father, Grandison Whiting, is the patriarch of Worry, a neo-feudal fortress near Amesville. Daniel’s sense of social inadequacy is allayed when Grandison unexpectedly commands a marriage between the two young lovers. Daniel books a honeymoon trip to Europe through New York in order to experiment secretly with flying during the layover. Boa, a young woman of intense enthusiasms, takes off with her first song and does not return. Their continuing flight to Rome leaves without them and explodes over the Atlantic, and the newlyweds are reported killed.

Daniel disappears into the crowds of New York’s seamy underclass using an assumed name. Even in his most desperate circumstances, he pays the rising cost of keeping Boa’s withered body alive. Eventually he finds himself in the bizarre world of bel canto opera, where castrated men are lionized for their soprano roles and white people who cosmetically alter themselves to look black curry favor from renowned singers. Daniel becomes increasingly degraded in pursuit of his goal of flying. He concentrates all of his efforts on perfecting his singing voice and achieves popular success in a music revue. By the time he learns to sing, however, he has lost the will to fly. Boa unexpectedly returns after having been caught in her father’s fairy trap for years. She decides to leave her body permanently with her next flight. Instead of following her, Daniel pursues fame and wealth with a stage show in which he fakes flying during a song. On a visit back to Amesville, his ultra-fundamentalist high school history teacher shoots him dead at the climax of his act, while he is pretending to fly.

Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 142

On Wings of Song uses science-fiction elements, but seems to discuss contemporary society, and uses medieval fantasy and the structure of a Victorian novel. The fantasy enables Disch to create exaggerated symbols of aspects of society. For instance, "flying" represents the efforts of many people to escape the realities of life through inane entertainments or silly cults that promise ecstasy at the cost of a person's humanity. The bizarre mixture of genres also gives Disch flexibility in his novel; he may at once comment on present-day society and suggest what the future of society may be, all the while moving his protagonist through a world that seems realistic yet is filled with symbols. Disch has the distinction of having created a style all his own, and an ethos — however unhappy it may be — that forms a singular picture of the human condition.

Social Concerns

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Disch's satirical wit gives his writing a biting flavor that sometimes seems out of place or heavy-handed, but makes his style distinctive. The wealthy and powerful Iowa farm-owner in On Wings of Song, Grandison Whiting, wears a false red beard, kept secret even from his family, because he believes that by putting on or taking off the beard he changes his character. The passage in which Whiting reveals all to the protagonist Weinreb is hilarious; the point of the falseness of outward appearances and of people's efforts to control how they appear is also sharply made. Good satire is like jabbing a long needle into its victim, and the needle is jabbed and wiggled about in On Wings of Song. Some Caucasians dye their bodies black because black skin is fashionable, but lest anyone mistake them for true Negroes they leave a finger, a portion of forehead, or other easily seen swatch of skin white. These people are false aesthetes who wear an outward appearance of sophistication because they lack real appreciation of culture. Weinreb eventually reaches success as such a fashionably dyed man — he is the lover of a castrate who insists he have the black skin; he essentially gains the praise of critics and high society by singing inane songs about bunnies while in blackface. Racism, false learning, and the pretensions of lazy minds are each stabbed with precision.

Literary Precedents

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On Wings of Song belongs to an important literary tradition: the bildingsroman. Notable members of the tradition are Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte and David Copperfield (1849) by Charles Dickens. A bildungsroman depicts the education of someone from childhood to adulthood and is usually autobiographical in many of its major elements. Of the great bildungsromans in English, The Way of All Flesh (1903) by Samuel Butler most closely resembles On Wings of Song, The two books resemble one another in tone and structure. The protagonist of The Way of All Flesh is oppressed by his family and society; both make demands on him that run counter to his sensitive nature. He rebels against the demands made on him and suffers through moral and intellectual debasement. The tone of The Way of All Flesh is satirical, and the story is incisive and merciless in its treatment of its characters, as is that of On Wings of Song.

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