Tuesday, January 21, 2014

On Wings of Song by Thomas M. Disch

I have read quite a few books and stories by Thomas M. Disch, and how I have felt about them runs the gamut. I thought The Prisoner poor and forgettable, Echo Round his Bones mediocre. I thought The Genocides memorable but a bit weak in execution. 334 I thought above average, and Camp Concentration I thought far above average. Disch’s criticism is also interesting; he seems to not only dislike but bitterly resent Ray Bradbury, for example.

This week I read On Wings of Song, Disch’s 1979 novel, in the ugly 2003 trade edition. (I mean that the cover’s color and stock images are ugly; I actually like the old-looking typeface of the main text inside.)

On Wings of Song is set in a near-future dystopic world in which the United States is in terrible shape, subject to terrorist attacks, food shortages and power shortages, but still better off than the rest of the world; early on we learn that Tel Aviv has been destroyed by rockets, that Iowa is full of refugees from Italy, and that potentially dissident populations, like Basques in Spain, Jews in Russia and Irishmen in England, carry implanted in their bodies explosives that can be detonated by government radio signals should they cause any trouble.

Iowa is a theocratic police state, home to the book’s protagonist, Daniel Weinreb. Daniel’s father immigrated to New York from Israel, and Daniel was born in New York, but moved to Iowa as a child when his father was sent there to practice dentistry.

The United States is riven by a controversy, what we might call a “culture war,” over the issue of “flying.” By connecting themselves to an “apparatus” and singing, people can leave their bodies and fly around as invisible “fairies.” Not everybody can do it; achieving flight takes a high level of commitment. Some people fly once and are never able to do it again, some try and never succeed, despite much effort. Some leave their comatose bodies behind for good.

Religious people are opposed to flying, and there have been attempts to pass Constitutional Amendments outlawing it. In Iowa flying is forbidden by state law, the type of music people are permitted to listen to is tightly controlled, and even newspapers which run ads for flying gear are illegal. Daniel, as a teen, gets in trouble with the law because he has been delivering black market copies of the illegal Minnesota newspaper. The authorities have been turning a blind eye to the sale of the paper, but when Daniel’s best friend disappears (apparently running away from home with $845 of stolen money because he wants to fly) Daniel is arrested in hopes that he will be able to provide information on his pal’s whereabouts. He cannot, and is stuck with a substantial prison sentence.

In prison Daniel meets a woman who has flown, and a cold-hearted murderer who is also a talented singer, and he is inspired to devote his life to music and achieving flight. After he has served his sentence he starts a relationship with a wealthy girl, Boadicea Whiting, the daughter of the richest man in Iowa. Soon Daniel is married into this wealthy family, which lives in what amounts to a feudal manor; because of all the crime and terrorism, farms in Iowa are developing into high security complexes behind the walls of which the farm workers as well as the farm owners live. Daniel isn’t above enjoying the luxuries afforded by his new access to the Whitings’ wealth, but he also feels that money is inevitably corrupting.

On their honeymoon, a trip across the world, Daniel and his teenage wife stop in New York where they check into a hotel that caters to people who want to fly for the first time. In separate soundproof studios they each strap into an apparatus like a dentist’s chair, affix wires to their heads, and begin singing songs they have specially chosen. Daniel tries to fly for hours but fails, while Boadicea succeeds and leaves her limp drooling body behind… for fifteen years. Their airplane flight to Europe leaves without them and the jet explodes over the ocean, presumably blown up by terrorists who hate Daniel’s in-laws, though I thought there was a hint of possibility that the in-laws themselves had arranged for the disaster.

Having registered at the flying hotel under a false name, and believed by the world to be dead, Daniel takes up a precarious residence under a new identity in an economically depressed and crime-ridden New York City. For a few years he lives by pawning Boadicea’s jewelry, and when that runs out he works odd jobs, like waiting in lines for theatre tickets for people too busy to wait for their own tickets. He isn’t above working as a prostitute or begging. Daniel not only has to keep himself alive, but pay for a place for his comatose wife and the IV fluid she needs - he feels it is his duty to keep her body alive so she can return to it, should she wish to.

Daniel continues to aspire to sing professionally and to fly, and eventually falls in with the opera crowd, meeting various bizarre characters, among them castrati, whites who admire blacks and have their skin dyed in order to emulate their idols, and a hunchbacked recluse who writes operas that are pawned off as rediscovered 18th century originals. Daniel’s good looks, and a bit of luck, land him the position of concubine to the leading castrato, and in the final stages of the novel he is the world famous star of a new opera about cartoonish bunnies. Boadicea returns to her body, urges Daniel to continue to try to fly so that he might join her, builds up her strength over a few months and then flies again, never to return. Daniel returns to Iowa a hero, where he is murdered; Disch leaves open the possibility that Daniel has flown right before he dies – it is not clear if he is in a real flight apparatus when he dies, or a fake one, whether he has truly flown or is shamming.

Over the years, when I read ads and references to On Wings of Song, I had assumed it would be all about the liberating nature of creative expression, and I guess that is part of it, but in the main the book is bitter and cynical. Disch suggests that the world is incurably corrupt and unjust, that we are all at the mercy of circumstance and none of us masters of our fates. One of the book’s themes is how successful or happy people are putting on an act, fooling the world and themselves. In prison Daniel reads a book on religion which argues that, while Christianity is obviously absurd and incredible, by pretending to believe it, acting as if we believe it, we can make ourselves happier and our lives better. Boadicea presses upon him a self help book which advises readers to “Always pretend to be your favorite movie star – and you will be.” The richest man in Iowa wears a false beard in public because it helps him to act, and thus become, a “gentleman.” In New York Daniel not only takes a fake name but grows a beard as a disguise, and later wears blackface to further his career as a prostitute and a singer. Daniel’s last act is an attempt to fool people into thinking he can fly when he cannot.

Disch also really seems to have it in for Iowa, where he was born and spent his childhood years, and for that iconic Iowan, the farmer, as well as for religion and religious people in general. I guess it is not surprising that a gay man interested in the arts would prefer New York City to the Midwest, and be hostile to religion, especially in the time period in which Disch lived his early life and wrote On Wings of Song.

Finally, what are we to make of flying? It appears to be a metaphor for artistic expression, though at times the novel seems to be comparing it to drug use or sexual experimentation; the response to flying of religious people in the novel certainly seems to be based on real life religious people’s attitudes towards sex and drugs. But flying takes special equipment and a level of skill and commitment, and is thus reserved for an elite; Daniel himself (it appears) never flies, even after he has become a world famous singer (though of ridiculous material.)  Perhaps Disch is telling us that truly transcendent art requires talent, dedication, and sacrifice, and that only a few people can produce such art; probably this is what we should expect an accomplished art, theatre and poetry critic like Disch to believe. I do have to admit that when I first picked up the book I expected its vision to be more democratic; after all, even the least talented people find pleasure in singing, if only in the privacy of the bath or in the anonymity of a church service.

Disch’s style is very good, very smooth, making On Wings of Song a joy to read, and the strange world Daniel explores and the issues Disch addresses are all interesting and thought-provoking. On Wings of Song is a very good novel, and I highly recommend it, with the warning that some might find it offensive or depressing.


  1. This is a great review! I still have yet to read any of his work. I have Camp Concentration on the shelf.

    1. Thanks!

      I think you'll like Camp Concentration.

  2. Thanks for doing this review, it's great to see one of Disch's sci-fi books getting such thoughtful treatment. I'm equally fond, though in different ways, of 334. Camp Concentration I haven't gotten to yet, but will make a point to soon. Keep up the good work!

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the review. On Wings of Song, is the kind of novel that is a smooth and pleasant read, but also rewards scrutiny, if you want to make more of an effort. I think Camp Concentration is a little more difficult, though it has been many years since I read it.

      I own a copy of 334 and am thinking of rereading it in the near future. 334 is one of the small number of SF novels that I got my wife to read, and she also really liked it; I think she might have liked it more than I did.