Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Concluding 334: “Angouleme” and "334"

Today I finished my reread of Thomas M. Disch's fixup novel, 334.  


“Angouleme” appeared in New Worlds Quarterly 1 in 1971, and has been widely anthologized. Everybody seems to love it, and Samuel R. Delany, I am told, wrote a long essay about it. It’s a good story, so I am going with the crowd on this one.

In “Angouleme”, the 12-year old son of a TV executive leads a pack of kids in a conspiracy to murder a stranger. The kids are apparently inspired to take up crime by their studies, which include classes like “Modern Revolutions” and writers like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Andre Gide and Norman Mailer. Disch was a highly cultured man, and he often populates his stories with cultured people.

The story mostly takes place in Battery Park, and I enjoyed being reminded of landmarks I have not thought about in years, like Castle Clinton and the memorial to American servicemen lost in the Battle of the Atlantic. This story also mentions Hopatcong, New Jersey, where I spent the first four years of my life, a place I never think of and can only but dimly remember.

The boy’s friends come to their senses and decide to abandon the murder plot, but their leader steals his father’s reproduction 1790 pistol and hunts their intended victim. It is possible that Disch has made a mistake here, that Disch thought percussion cap pistols were in use in 1790; this is not the case.

This is a good story, with lots of nice touches, but it is not very plot heavy. One of the nice touches is the presence of Alexa’s (Alexa from “Everyday Life in the Late Roman Empire”) son. In an oblique reference to his mother, Disch has him get involved in an argument about history, and make a classical reference; interestingly, the boy's judgement seems to be unreliable. Another clever touch is how the murderous boy forgets his watch and looks at a public clock to find it is 2:15, just like Birdy did in “Death of Socrates,” on the day of his big test.


"334," the title story of the fixup novel, also first appeared in New Worlds Quarterly, the fourth issue.  This story, the last story in 334, consists of 43 little vignettes centering on the inhabitants of 334 East 11th Street, most of whom we have met before.  When fitted together (there is actually a map or diagram included, to help you fit them together) the little scenes describe plots, but each also works as an individual self contained story.

Even though these are science fiction stories, most of them get their power from describing situations and emotions ordinary people endure in their ordinary lives: envy for another's youth, beauty or success; the disappointment of not getting that job you really wanted; the need for privacy, to be alone, even from those you love; the pain of loving someone who doesn't love you - these are sad stories!  There are multiple suicides, and almost everybody is confused or broken-hearted about his or her life and relationships.

One of the most "science fictiony" vignettes is about a period room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which, instead of depicting an elegant European 18th century domicile, reproduces a 20th century supermarket with shelves full of food, beverages, and household supplies.  Pervasive consumerism and a general scarcity are two of the themes of 334, and this piece drives home Disch's vision of material life in the 21st century, as the characters marvel at the abundance enjoyed by their ancestors.

"334" is sad and unsettling, especially when something happens that reminds you of your own life.

The back of my copy

334 deserves the hype it gets; by turns it is amusing, depressing, and surprising.  It is a must read for people interested in literary science fiction, and science fiction that is about regular people and their lives.  I'm glad I reread it, almost ten years after my first read.

Pasted below is the Amazon review of 334 I posted in October of 2004 :

Thomas Disch's 334 has got to be the most depressing book I have ever read, an SF novel about people more than ideas or plot. The book (more a series of inter-related stories than a novel) is set in a future New York City (mis)governed by technocratic socialistic regime which enforces eugenics, attempts to radically redefine gender roles, and placates citizens with drugs and televised pornography. The focus of the book is the lives of several ordinary tenants of an overcrowded and decrepit public housing project, people whose lives range from unfulfilling to abjectly miserable, flawed people whom the soulless welfare state is incompetent to help, or people unable to meet their potential in the inhuman society that that inefficient bureaucracy has, by accident or design, created. Disch skillfully never strays into condescension or preachiness and always shows and never tells, depicting people and events that are never spectacular or maudlin, but are instead utterly quotidian and horribly believable. 334 is much better than Disch's earlier novel, Genocides, and more on a par with his impressive Camp Concentration, which shares with 334 forays into experimental (and generally successful) story structures and techniques.  


  1. I have found in the past that with stories like "Vamp" and "Emancipation, a Love Story" I have to take Disch in relatively small doses. His stories sometimes leave me feeling a little devastated. Perhaps, though, it is time to try him at novel length. Would you recommend 334 as a starting point?

    Thank you again for your reviews. I'm really enjoying reading them!

  2. I'm glad you like the blog!

    334 is great, but On Wings of Song is more like a "real" novel, in that it follows one character through his life and adventures. 334 is more like a series of connected stories. I also think On Wings of Song might be a little less depressing.