The Unsettling Visions Of Thomas Disch


“Fantasy is not avoidable. The very act of writing fiction is a sin, a lie. One of Disch’s most haunting stories, ‘Getting Into Death,’ is about a writer (one who uses two pseudonyms, at least one of which Disch used himself) who orchestrates her death by fabricating warmth and sentiment toward everyone she has ever known, creating a surfeit of charmingly mawkish moments. Disch does not approve, but he knows a little piece of this lie must be present in any sort of human autonomy. Only fantasy pushes back against fantasy.”

At The Millions, I’m overcome with joy to discover a long, engaging, and superb profile of the writer Thomas M. Disch!

Although I’m fairly new to Disch, his exquisitely bleak episodic novel 334, which concerns the goings-on in a New York City housing project in the early twenties of the 21st century, is one of the most beautiful and unsettling pieces of dystopian fiction I’ve ever read.

What makes it unsettling is that the grim future it envisions — where dead bodies are sold to necrophiliacs, where intelligence tests determine if you can procreate and where “real food” is kept in museums —  maintains all the de rigueur trappings of our own contemporary city-scapes colored by income  inequality, over-crowding, pollution and nonchalant brutality.  The “science-fiction” aspect, then, entails imagining just how far such conditions will go in displacing human hope and perseverance with a toxic and deleterious complacence.

Disch, as The Millions acknowledges, was not much of an optimist.

What makes 334 beautiful is the raw poetry of his sentences, words that almost feel sharpened on the dirty edges of tenements.  Beauty also resides, paradoxically enough in the wrenching despair that compels many of the characters towards annihilation and shattered dreams.

I think the power of language, especially in the hands of speculative writers like Disch, McCarthy, Delany and Le Guin, is how it can sound inexpressible depths of darkness and decay.  We read these dispatches with a blend of disquiet, distance and concern and I think we are better for them having been written.  We have the power to imagine anything we want. Our strength resides in how we assess what is imagined. This, I think is one of the major themes of 334.

A few of the stories in 334 are fairly obtuse and worthy of several re-readings, like the one about the woman who can project herself back time to a Roman-era alter-ego as a way of working through her current state of psychological distress.  Disch has ways with subtlety that are quite thrilling but can also leave you occasionally scratching your head.

Anyway, prodded by the excellent Millions article, I’m excited to explore more of Disch’s works and so should you.

Michael Berger is a barely-published writer and book-seller living in San Francisco. He is one of the founding Corsairs of the Iron Garters Bike Club and is currently pursuing a degree in applied pataphysics. He sometimes eats oatmeal for dinner. More from this author →