Graeme Wood

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Thomas Disch, RIP

Endzone, Disch’s blog, was one of the Web’s cheeriest and one of its darkest. It derived its cheer from a reckless, desperate wit, often expressed by ridiculing, lampooning, or harassing enemies and professional associates who had crossed him. The ancient blogger wisdom about counting to a thousand before posting a personal attack seemed not to have reached him, and the effect was amusing and bracing. When an editor at FSG rejected an introduction he had written to the poems of Allen Tate, Disch responded with a short verse-cycle, childish and pissy, denouncing the editor, quite unfairly, by name. (Disch could write well about other people’s poetry, but he was an eccentric choice for a Tate introduction.)

The blog derived its darkness from the fact that everyone who read it must have guessed that the author was going to kill himself, sooner or later. Death — his own, or that of his late partner, the poet Charlie Naylor — was a frequent subject. And even in the blog’s more gleeful moments, it brimmed with irritation and annoyance, the whines of a man unhappy with the world and unmoved by the usual mercies that smooth most people’s way through this vale of tears. About religion, he was particularly cynical:

… the god I don’t believe in

is no magnified redneck shaking tinfoil

thunderbolts. My god’s more like Dracula:

suave, inviting you to a dinner he doesn’t eat

himself, and working his best magic

when you’re asleep. He favors virgins,

but don’t we all? His existence may be unprovable,

his mood-swings unpredictable,

but he can send some fine weather

when he is so disposed,

and he is kind to credulous fools,

which I try to be myself.

This is not great poetry. But it does hint at the demonic imagination at work in the best of Disch’s books and stories. His horror novel The Businessman stands out for its Dostoevskian sense of doom and guilt. And I would nominate On Wings of Song, a dystopian novel about a hellish America ruled by Christians in the heartland and rapacious secularists on the coasts, as a late example of a dying tradition in science fiction: Books in which the fiction takes precedence over the science. At its worst, science fiction devolves into tedious explanations of the technical feats that distinguish the future world from today’s. (“Long descriptions of the utopian sewer system,” Margaret Atwood complained.) Arthur C. Clarke is one of the few SF writers to weave these explanations into readable stories — no mean feat, given that there is, to my knowledge, not a single convincingly rendered human in his many books.

Disch, by contrast, preferred to be elliptical about science. (The technology at the heart of On Wings of Song allows the user to transcend her body and experience flight, and it is described simply as a headband, wires, and a crystal.) Instead, he concentrated on characters, those rarest and most precious of birds in SF. Daniel Weinreb, the protagonist of Wings, experiences extremes of bliss, debasement, abandonment, and sadness that are nothing if not human. The nadirs of misery and disappointment, which dive to deeper and darker places than one can easily imagine, seem particularly wicked now.

Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, ,

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