The OF Blog: Thomas Disch, The Wall of America

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Thomas Disch, The Wall of America

As much as I enjoyed Thomas Disch's 1968 novel, Camp Concentration, I have to admit that his just-released posthumous short story collection, The Wall of America, shows Disch's writing range better. From pre-apocalyptic to post-apocalyptic to the quasi-apocalyptic and beyond, the nineteen stories in this collection display a savage wit and biting satire that I have rarely encountered in contemporary speculative fiction writing.

Take for instance this passage from "A Family of the Post-Apocalypse," where a non-Raptured family is dealing with a plague of locusts:

Big ones, and dressed, according to the prophecies, pretty much like the bikers in Mad Max, except that instead of riding Harleys their bikes were incorporated into their exoskeletons. It was the whirring of their huge wings that sounded like the revving of unmuffled engines. The Bible says at this point that in those days men shall seek death and not find it, shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them. But it doesn't go into the details, it only says that the locusts had stings in their tails and the power to torment people five months, if they didn't have a particular mark on their forehead, which Mom and Dad didn't.

Five months is a limited sentence, but when you are being tortured around the clock by giant insects with stings in their tails and sadistic imaginations, it can seem an eternity, and in a sense, because of the temporal dilations produced by the pall of smoke that covered the sun and the moon and even the fluorescent lights in the kitchen, it was an eternity.

"How'd ya like a taste of this then!" Abaddon, the leader of the locusts, would sneer, waving his stinger back and forth, brushing their naked flesh with its venomous tip, and then, Whoop! he'd give it a flick and connect right to the swollen lymph gland in Dad's armpit, or Whap! Whap! across Mom's lacerated breasts. "Oh, I'm a bad one, yes I am," he'd quip, and all his locust cronies would guffaw on cue.

Abaddon also, which is not in the Bible but perfectly in keeping with his character, taught the Big Babies to act as their parents' tormentors, when the locusts in the house were too bored or drunk to torture Dad and Mom themselves. (p. 130)
This story, like most of the others in this collection, plays off of reader knowledge of things as diverse as an early Mel Gibson movie and apocalyptic Christianity. Each element carries its own semantical expectation - the biker locusts, the family unit, the expectation of suffering and wailing - but then Disch often provides a twist to these tales, such as the one to "A Family of the Post-Apocalypse":

The human body has a threshold beyond which pain stops registering, so there were times when the locusts would vanish for days at a time, leaving Dad and Mom to recuperate and make lamentations. "I don't understand it," Dad would say, shaking his head and wincing at the pain. "What did we do wrong? Why is this happening to us?"

"It was our fornications and abominations!" Mom lamented, reaching into the fireplace for a handful of ashes, which she rubbed into her wounds.

"What fornications! We're married, aren't we? Is that fornication?"

Mom groaned. "And what about the time you came home drunk and made me do you know what? Oh, Jesus, I wish I were dead!"

"You always hated sex," Dad complained, for the umpteenth time. (pp. 130-131)
Yes, much lamenting, wailing, and seeking death and not finding it. Although there is a bit more to this tale than what I have liberally excerpted here, it does serve as an example for Disch's basic approach to his tales - take a person who may or may not fit into a preconceived societal/cultural/religious role, place that person in a baffling, sometimes cruel situation, and then proceed to rip into any clichéd conceptions a reader might have regarding that juxtaposing of character and place. Whether it be American attitudes toward immigration (the eponymous short story) or post-literacy ("The Man Who Read a Book"), Disch rarely settles for straightfoward satire. Instead, he satirizes not just the situations presented in the book, but also the readers' likely preconceptions of how such a satire ought to proceed. For the most part, the stories work and occasionally, such as with "The Man Who Read a Book," are outright hilarious.

But Disch's stories bite, and there is much darkness to them. The conclusion to "The Wall of America" is one such example, as well as the bitterness behind "The White Man." People do foolish things and often pay the consequences for their stupidity and trust. In Disch's tales, underneath the humor, this facet of human life is explored often, making for a dark human comedy that a Honore Balzac would appreciate. I certainly did.

Publication Date: October 1, 2008 (US). Tradeback.

Publisher: Tachyon


Anonymous said...

Dammit! I didn´t receive it yet!
But I will review it as well - and your review made me crave for it even more! :-)

Lsrry said...

Wait until you see the next few I'm reviewing. Finally finishing one tomorrow morning for publication elsewhere, then one for the new Matt Stover novel, Caine Black Knife and then maybe another for the reissue of Jeffrey Ford's The Well-Built City trilogy.


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