Monday, February 10, 2014

Two more stories from Fundamental Disch (plus the essay "The Uses of Fiction: A Theory")

The back cover of Fundamental Disch suggests that Disch writes like Jerzy Kosinksi, or Jules Feiffer, or John Collier; in Samuel Delany's intro he tells a story in which a book Disch wrote under a pen name was mistakenly attributed to Gore Vidal.  I’m in no position to assess these judgments, but I’m still (sort of) young, and maybe one day I will become familiar with those writers.

The two stories I reread today are conventional mainstream literary fiction, with no SF elements; perhaps it was these stories that inspired critics to make the comparisons to nongenre, mainstream writers we see on the book’s back cover.

"Slaves" (1967) 

I read this years ago, the story of the relationships among three young people living together in a New York apartment on the Upper West Side. There’s Paul, grad student in English, his girlfriend Danielle, who studies ballet by day and dances at a discotheque at night, and “the Baron,” Paul’s childhood friend and college dropout, down on his luck since his father committed suicide. The Baron, unemployed, cooks and cleans and runs errands for the household.

Paul’s father is wealthy, and so Paul pays all the bills, including for Danielle’s abortion and contact lenses. (The money Danielle makes dancing is all spent on an analyst.) Paul is not necessarily faithful to Danielle, and Danielle and the Baron are attracted to each other. Danielle and the Baron figure out how to swindle 50 dollars out of Paul, and Danielle tells the Baron, just before kissing him, that they have turned the tables on Paul, that now he is their slave. In a final scene the three roommates blow up over a hundred balloons they have shoplifted and release them from their balcony.

Of course I am susceptible to these New York stories. At one point Danielle looks out the window of their apartment and watches a tugboat sail upriver, past the cliffs and trees of New Jersey. When she said “I think that’s lovely,” I sadly nodded. And Disch is a good writer, filling the story with interesting images and phrases, so I liked it.

But what is the point of the story? Who are the slaves? Is everybody a slave? All the characters are morally compromised (except maybe the pet bird), and they are all manipulated, robbed, or dominated by the other characters (especially the caged pet bird.) What do the balloons represent? What does New Jersey represent? (Danielle finds New Jersey ”vaguely frightening,” which could just be a joke about New Yorkers’ attitude about my home state, but many of the balloons head over the river to New Jersey.) It is hard not to suspect that the balloons represent people and/or their souls, and that the winds that push them hither and yon, some to the Manhattan streets, others to New Jersey, symbolize the fates directing them to heaven or hell, or maybe just happiness or unhappiness, if you don’t believe in souls (whether or not people have souls is a topic of the Baron’s conversation.)

A good story.

"Getting into Death" (1976)

This is another story I am rereading after quite a few years. “Getting into Death” was the title story of a collection of Disch stories published four years before Fundamental Disch.

The protagonist of “Getting into Death” is Cassandra Millar, a terminally ill novelist.  The entire story takes place in her Manhattan hospital room.  She is a sort of hedonistic, counter-cultural figure; she took LSD with Timothy Leary, smokes "grass," finds it impossible to take religion seriously.  Her medical issue is with her heart, and she is totally lucid, and spends her time in the hospital reminiscing about her life and career, reading Proust, getting high, masturbating (at least I think that is what that paragraph at the bottom of page 357 is about), drafting new stories and novels, and chatting with visitors.

Cassandra is something of a misanthrope; she doesn't like the daughter-in-law who brings LSD and marijuana to her in the hospital, is bitter about her father, and was relieved when her biological daughter moved to New Jersey to live with Cassandra's ex-husband after their divorce.  When she considers her will she expresses a wish to leave her money (she is a millionaire) to the government instead of her family!  Egads!  Often she pretends to be asleep in order to get rid of her visitors.

Cassandra also has contempt for the reading public.  Under one name she writes spectacularly successful gothic romances (that is where she got her millions) which she herself considers silly, and under another she writes didactic detective novels which were never profitable and tend to not stay in print very long.  It is these mysteries, the product of research and her legitimate interests and feelings, which she considers "her" books.

By the end of the story Cassandra has had a sort of revelation.  Thanks largely to her conversations with a rabbi who started his career as a psychoanalyst and has been telling her lies to make her feel better, Cassandra realizes that what people want is to be lied to, to be deceived.  She begins enthusiastically expressing insincere affection for her father, her numerous ex-husbands, and everybody else.  The story ends right before Cassandra is about to try her loving lies on her most perceptive relative, her daughter.

This is a well-written story about fiction and its value.  People do not want too much contact with the horrible reality that is life, Disch is apparently saying; people crave fiction, which is essentially lies.  As usual, Disch's fine style and his economical way of developing the characters and their interactions makes the story a good read.


"Getting into Death" is about fiction and what it is for, and so is an essay written by Disch in 1975 that is included in an appendix to Fundamental Disch, "The Uses of Fiction: A Theory."  In my peregrinations around the web over the years I have gotten the vague impression that many SF fans have it in for Disch.  Disch's iconoclastic criticism, I suspect, is the source of some of this ill-feeling, and I think "The Uses of Fiction: A Theory" is a good example of the kind of criticism that might generate animus among genre readers. 

In "The Uses of Fiction: A Theory" Disch suggests that people read genre fiction because of its sameness, that when we buy a western or mystery or SF book we know what to expect and we buy it to fill a particular need.  He compares a predilection for genre fiction to sexual perversion -- a love of genre fiction is a sign of arrested development!  A successful adult will not read genre fiction, because his life satisfies him.

Disch provides examples of what sort of people buy what sort of genre fiction.  Science fiction readers, he says, are smart youngsters and "a particular kind of retarded adult" who worship intelligence and science.  Ouch!

As for mainstream fiction, Disch theorizes that it trains people in how to act, forms their taste and speech patterns.  How do we learn how to attract members of the opposite sex, how to defer to bosses without losing our self respect, and how to manage subordinates without becoming ogres?  Through observing lovers and workers in fiction.

I actually think this is a strong and interesting theory, but you can see why it might piss off SF fans.


So, Thomas M. Disch, and the collection Fundamental Disch, get the MPorcius Seal of Approval.  I'm glad I bought mine long ago; I'm too cheap to pay most of the prices I'm seeing online today!      

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