Monday, February 17, 2014

334, Part the Second: "Bodies," "Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire" & "Emancipation"

Having read "The Death of Socrates," the first story in my edition of 334, I have decided to just read the entire thing.  Today I read the next three stories from my 1987 edition of this 1972 book.


"Bodies" first appeared in 1971 in Quark/4, edited by Samuel R. Delany and Marilyn Hacker.  "Bodies" appears in two books I own, 334 and Fundamental Disch, and a quick glance suggests that the texts (except for typos) are the same.

Ab, a white man with an invalided wife, and Chapel, a black man with a criminal record who loves TV, work in Bellevue Hospital.  I guess you would call them orderlies; they do things like push carts around.  Ab is based in the morgue, and makes some extra money on the side by selling cadavers that he is supposed to cremate to a criminal who caters to necrophiliacs.  A disaster occurs when Ab sells a body before the required 24-hour waiting period prior to cremation has ended.  Ab received the body erroneously, the body was not supposed to be cremated, and the deceased's insurance company is expecting the body.  Ab, Chapel, and other not-quite-honest people at the hospital have to scramble to get a replacement body or there will be hell to pay.  Chapel, whom the more intelligent and ruthless Ab is able to manipulate, is persuaded to do the dirtiest deeds and take the biggest risks to bring the caper off.

You could say that this is the second story in 334 in which a black person is abused and taken advantage of by more intelligent white people.
In some ways the sections of "Bodies" on Ab's and Chapel's home lives are more memorable than the main body-stealing plot.  Ab has sex with his obese invalided wife who is always angry, a scene Disch means to be disturbing.  Chapel watches TV.  Chapel loves TV, and here Disch seems to be talking about the theory of fiction he describes in his essay "The Uses of Fiction," which I read recently.  Chapel learned how to read and how to respond to life by watching TV, and Disch argues that TV serves for Chapel the purpose which religion served for so many people in the past.  As in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, TV also seems to be a sort of family for Chapel.  (A favorite Ford commercial, we are told, is like an old friend to Chapel.)

Lots of interesting character stuff going on, some good images, and a solid horror/crime plot; a quite good story.

"Everyday Life in the Roman Empire"

I believe this story first appeared in 334, though less than a year later it was included in an anthology which Disch edited, Bad Moon RisingBad Moon Rising has perhaps the most disturbing book cover I have ever seen, a photo of a dead bird. 

Unlike the previous stories, which had welfare recipient and working class protagonists, this story concerns middle class professionals.  Alexa is a case worker with a humanities degree, and her husband is an engineer.  Alexa is unhappy with her life, and envies her sister, who lives a simpler life in Idaho, even though she has contempt for her sister's religious beliefs.  Alexa spends a lot of time in elaborate drug-induced fantasies in which she lives in the Roman Empire; this is a form of psychological therapy.   

The story seems like a parody of typical New York middle-class life: When Alexa is not at her therapist or undergoing therapy at home she is obsessing over what private school to send her son to. 
Disch includes in this story digressions from Marcus Aurelius, Oswald Spengler, and others, that indicate that the period of 334 is a period in which the elite are taking advantage of the poor, a period of cultural stagnation, and the prelude to some kind of collapse or cataclysm.  Perhaps more interesting, Disch hints that he thinks that the arts and humanities are a vain pastime (or waste of time) for the well-off, that people concerned with culture are not contributing to society the way, say, engineers are.  Or it could just be that Disch is reminding us that there are people who feel that way.     

This story is one of the weaker Disch stories I have read.  The characters are not very interesting, the plot is not funny or shocking, and the digressions distract you from the story.

"Emancipation: A Romance of the Times to Come"

This story first appeared in 1971 in the anthology of original stories, New Dimensions 1.

"Emancipation" is about sex and gender roles, and stars Boz and Milly.  Milly has been mentioned in earlier 334 stories; she was Birdie Ludd's girlfriend before Birdie joined the Marines, and she is Ab's daughter.  During the period of those tales Milly was a stewardess for PanAm; at the time of this story she works for the government, demonstrating sex in high school classrooms.  Boz is a house husband.  We are told repeatedly that Boz and Milly are very good-looking.  However, their marriage is on the rocks.

A marriage counselor tells them the solution to their problem is to have a baby.  Milly wants a baby, and the feminized Boz will not be happy until he has embraced his maternal instincts.  So Boz and Milly have a test tube baby, and Milly's breasts are removed and implanted on Boz's chest so he can nurse their baby, which comes out of its artificial womb on December 24.

This story actually has a happy ending; Boz enjoys being a mother, Milly rises in the ranks of her public sector union, and their marriage problems ease.  The final scene is a charming one in which Boz and Milly sit together on the balcony of their apartment, look out over the city, and reminisce about the early days of their marriage.

"Emancipation" makes clear something that what was hinted at in "Bodies," that in the world of 334 the Democratic Party is the party of heterosexuals and the Republican Party the party of homosexuals.  (In "Bodies" Ab expresses a hatred of Republicans, hinting that he would enjoy castrating them, and later he walks by a sort of erotic amusement park called "The Democratic National Convention" whose entrance is a 70 foot high neon vulva.)  It is hinted that the public schools are full of homophobic propaganda.  Boz, who likes to strike poses and has sex with men and women, is accused of being a Republican, and one gay character self-identifies as a Republican (even though he has to recite the government propaganda that says that "a preference for cunt is an inescapable consequence of having a cock.")   

A good story, with bizarre elements, but a sweet conclusion.

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