David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Thomas M. Disch Appendix

In dealing with Disch’s work, there was so much I had to leave out. I finished the article with an even greater respect for Disch’s achievement as well as a sadness that the rawness and brutality of his work perhaps confined him more to the generic ghetto than some of his peers. Certainly the quality and erudition of his writing matched any of his contemporaries. So here is an appendix of miscellaneous points that I didn’t have space for, in the hopes of pointing people to assorted other spots in his oeuvre.

  1. The short fairy-tale “Dangerous Flags,” published in 1964 and seemingly anticipating a lot of the work of Donald Barthelme, though Disch’s tale is far less goofy and more sinister. The tale of a bunch of small-town dopes manipulated in turn by the elite English teacher and the populist Green Magician. You can guess who won. But the general schematic for his view of middle America (the town is called Mean) is already quite formed here.
  2. “Displaying the Flag”: Nothing more and nothing less of the story of the sort of religious-right ideologues who amass power only to be found soliciting gay sex in bathrooms years later. Dead-on.
  3. “Feathers from the Wings of an Angel”: One of his nastiest stories, intentionally written in inept purple prose. A heartfelt story from the heartland that tells the chronicle of an ingenuous young writer winning a prize…with this very story! Arrogant, narcissistic, myopic. Has there been a metafiction so resolutely focused around crap writers writing about crap writing? (Mulligan Stew does not count.) Disch in a nutshell.
  4. The eccentric and hopeful story “Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire,” part of 334, where historians specialize in a period in the past by inhabiting surrogate counterparts after great study. (Finally, Disch says, providing a use for PhDs.) The idea comes from Philip K. Dick, but Disch’s take is that by living out the misery of our predecessors virtually, we can gain a bit more insight and compassion with regard to our misery and that of those around us. He’s probably right.
  5. Terrorism forms a backdrop to several of Disch’s future versions of America. It’s there both in 334 and On Wings of Song, and in both cases it’s nebulous, seemingly coming from domestic elements but never conclusively explained. (The ACLU is blamed, but everything suggests they are just a scapegoat.) The responses are much more important: police control and xenophobic fear in the populace. I compliment Disch on not making too big a deal out of a specific counterculture (as many new wave authors did in the 60s). As you realize if you read novels from back then, the counterculture itself is not very politically interesting. It’s the establishment’s reaction and exploitation of it that is relevant.
  6. An allegory of power given by Disch, by way of analogy with Philip K. Dick, though really with any act of writing:

    There is a form of Monopoly called Rat in which the Banker, instead of
    just sitting there and watching, gets to be the Rat. The Rat can alter all the
    rules of the game at his discretion, like Idi Amin. The players elect the
    person they consider the slyest and nastiest among them to be the Rat.
    The trick in being a good Rat is in graduating the torment of the players,
    in moving away from the usual experience of Monopoly, by the minutest
    calibrations, into, finally, an utter delirium of lawlessness.

    I think Disch felt that if he did not subject his characters to such rules, he would be creating an improper fantasyland from which no one could learn anything.

  7. The M.D. is probably the most substantial work of Disch’s later career, and I wish I’d had space to treat it at length. It’s a perverse take on the Faust myth in which a young boy receives a caduceus from Hermes that has wonderful healing powers, but only to the extent that it has already done equal or greater harm. (Disch never explicitly states it, but the mistake of thinking of the caduceus as a healing object–i.e., as the staff of Asclepius–weighs in as a heavy irony throughout.) Naturally, apocalypse ensues. Disch’s only engagement with AIDS, as far as I know. It also features another instance of the dead-certain Christian believer, similar to Gus in The Genocides, perhaps Disch’s most frightening archetype, beyond reason and compromise.
  8. I rate Disch above the suburban disenchantments of Yates, Cheever, and Updike because their work was so ineffective as cultural commmentary. It showed no engagement with the greater meaning of these enclaves in the American political environment of the Cold War. Likewise, the capitalist critiques of Gaddis seem way off the mark because they assume a certain amount of rational action on the part of the characters. Who is closer to Ken Lay, J.R. or Grandison Whiting? The best American authors have, I think, understood that America does not lend itself to highbrow cultural theorizing in the way that Germany does, and so inhabit the more gothic and grotesque modes. (Notable exception: Ralph Ellison.) I won’t attempt to justify this here….
  9. I cannot say enough about how Disch’s work anticipates the delusions of the Bush administration flacks who attacked the “reality-based” community. A greater vindication for Disch I can’t imagine. We have been ruled by the ruralities of the Bush administration and the urbanities of Kennedy’s “best and the brightest,” and have seen the flaws of both.
  10. Disch authored a text adventure in 1986, Amnesia. It doesn’t rank with the Infocom games of the time, but it has several very Dischian touches. First, it includes a detailed layout of Manhattan, including the entire subway system, but because of disc space limitations, there is very little descriptive text, making the city anonymous and unwelcome and, well, off-limits. Which leads to the second touch, which is that you spend much of the game as a homeless man trying to raise 25 bucks to progress to the next stage, and your options involve little beyond begging and washing car windows. Disch wants to make you know what suffering is.
  11. Toward the end of his life, Disch himself embraced many of the xenophobic and hateful tendencies he’d so acutely condemned. This is a common danger of those who get so close to such motivations and grow to hate them. The line is easily dissolved, as it was for Poe and Lovecraft as well.


  1. This is a terrific review — a couple of quick footnotes to your appendix.
    About #7: Disch spent many years, off and on, working on a kind of successor to 334 called “The Pressure of Time.” I interviewed him in the mid-1980s and he said the book was “almost done,” but even though he published several pieces of it (adding up to maybe half the book) it never appeared. I’m hoping the rest of it exists somewhere in his papers…
    Re #11: Disch’s last years were pretty wretched — he was sick with diabetes, he lost his house and his savings, and most of all, he was mourning the death of his lifelong partner. It’s true that he expressed a lot of hateful opinions towards the end, and your observations about them are absolutely right, but the misery of his situation should maybe also be factored in — not to excuse, but at least partially to explain.

  2. I enjoyed your essays, and thanks for also posting these extra thoughts.
    Quite a bit of what people denounce as Disch’s xenophobia is mistaken outright religious hostility. When he attacked Muslims, in the same way that he attacked Catholics, people too easily confused that for racism. There isunfortunately a certain amount of unpleasant stuff about South American immigrants. This was largely to do with what he foresaw, for two reasons, as the decline of the Western culture he had worked so hard to accumulate over the years. The first reason is that since these new immigrants don’t speak English and have a different culture, so much of what of what he thought worth saving would be lost, because of fears of Spanish as a second or even competeing primary language in America. Secondly, it comes back to religion, and the feeling that South Americans were Catholic, and the church which he had thought in decline was being repopulated by a new influx. The same two reasons also crop up in some of his slightly ignorant adhering to stupid Londonistan arguments from Mark Steyn and others. But it was never sheer racism, it was the unfortunate conflating of certain opinions about the decline of the west, the destruction of culture, a distaste for all religion, and a thanatopsical turn of mind. He could be argued out of the apparent racism elements of his arguments when he wanted, and I think he partly adopted such attitudes because they were extreme and would provoke arm wrestling, but he would return to his default position again and again.

  3. “I rate Disch above the suburban disenchantments of Yates, Cheever, and Updike because their work was so ineffective as cultural commmentary. It showed no engagement with the greater meaning of these enclaves in the American political environment of the Cold War.”

    That they weren’t explicity “engaged” with “greater meaning” seems to me the greatest strength of these writers’ work. Meaning can be found there, but it’s not the “meaning” imposed by the author. It’s why future readers will still find these writers readable and why “the work of writers obsessed with political environment of the Cold War” will be forgotten except as historical markers.

    “Toward the end of his life, Disch himself embraced many of the xenophobic and hateful tendencies he’d so acutely condemned.”

    This is an understatement, to say the least. He became the house critic for The Weekly Standard, for goodness sake. Since he’s a writer with something to “say,” doesn’t his later change of mind largely invalidate what he said in the earlier work?

  4. Lee: I was unaware of any sequel to 334. I hope whatever exists of it appears in some form. And your point is well-taken: his last years were very unfortunate. In my defense, I thought that the last thing Disch would want would be any special pleading on his part for his opinions, so I thought it better not to mention these things.

    Matthew: likewise, your points are well-taken. His criticisms of Islam are remarkably similar to those of Catholicism. I called it xenophobia, however, as I think he was more willing to lump in Muslims as a single group of savages, while giving a bit (just a bit!) more latitude to Catholics—in the last audio interview he even speaks sympathetically of Jesuits. But my only point was to say that Disch himself fell prey to some of the toxins he so acutely diagnosed in others. I would rather focus on the positive qualities of his work.

    Dan: Disch also wrote for The Nation. So what? I haven’t tossed Mort a Credit or The Gulag Archipelago either, so why should I invalidate Disch’s early work?

    I can’t predict the opinions of future readers, but for our present time, Disch speaks to me more these days than Yates, Cheever, and Updike. YMMV.

  5. Disch was just the art critic for the “Weekly Standard”. Race and xenophobia never came into any of those writings. The very late stories like “After Postville” and “The White Man” I remember as being more thoughtful and crafted approaches to some of these social themes, than anything thrown off in a blog. The art criticism was an opportunity for him to write something and find an audience at a time when no publisher would accept his novels, and it let him build on the pleasure which he got out of his own attempts at painting. It brought him a contract to write a book on art but that was unfinished at this death.

    “Pressure of Time” wasn’t a sequel to “334”. It was Tom’s attempt to do the sf equivalent of Tolstoy. I wrote about what appears to exist of “The Pressure of Time” at http://www.ukjarry1.talktalk.net/press.htm

  6. About “Pressure of Time:” sorry, my bad — by “successor” I didn’t mean “sequel,” but rather that it was the same kind of serious literary work as 334 was. I never had much patience for Disch’s later novels like The Businessman and I think it’s a shame that he didn’t go on to do more things like 334 or the published sections of “Pressure.” See Matthew’s link: in fact his whole site is a wonderful resource for anybody interested in Disch.

  7. Gregory Feeley

    17 April 2010 at 08:46

    Matthew Davis has it right. Tom wrote much of what exists of “The Pressure of Time” at the same time as 334. He continued to work on it through the 1970s, and in the final existing manuscript (still unfinished) he had jettisoned two of the published sections (those not dealing with Emma) and added a bit more.

    I wrote a long memorial essay on Disch’s life and work, which was available online for a while but appears no longer to be. Perhaps I will put it up somewhere.

  8. One more thing about “Pressure.” The editor David Hartwell, in his tribute to Disch at tor.com, says that he was “desperate” to buy “Pressure” in the early 1980s but that Disch refused to finish writing it “except on his own actually quite unreasonable terms.” I could be wrong, maybe Disch was always unreasonable with editors, but that sounds to me like a writer trying to get out of doing something he no longer wants to do. A real pity that he never finished it, in any case.

  9. Disch was always unreasonable with editors. Ask the eic’s of Wesleyan or Knopf, whom he showered with insults for hours on end. Indeed, the malice with which Disch treated so many people ended up hurting no one but Tom Disch.

  10. Magazine editors seem never to have had a problem with Disch, often citing in articles how versatile and ready to work for them he seemed. As for book editors, well, it can’t be denied that Tom was always prickley about his sense of worth and ready to see slights.

    However, Tom was never published by Wesleyan. He taught there in 1975, and his work was adapted for a school’s education aid, “Science Fiction: Familiar, Strange and Possible”, published by Scholat (Prentice-Hall) in 1977. Josh Lukin’s friend Delany is published by Wesleyan. And Tom refused Delany permission to ever reprint his story Angouleme. Meanspirited perhaps. But then Delany had sat on Disch’s manuscript for a collection of his sf criticism for about two and a half years. Which seems a little unreasonable too. Despite, what Delany’s unintentionally funny (excerpted) letter here may make out:


    As for Knopf. Knopf and Disch went their separate ways when they wouldn’t see eye to eye over Scribners publishing Disch and Naylor’s “Neighboring Lives”. However Robert Gottlieb of Knopf, a powerful figure in New York publishing, wrote a lengthy venomous letter in which he vowed to destroy Disch, his reputation, and do everything to ensure Disch was not published by anyone because he was in Disch’s words “a jealous god”. Which seems a little OTT on Gottelieb’s part. No copy of the letter exists in Dischs archive. Nor in Knopfs archives. But it is in Scribner’s files at Princeton, and breathtaking it is too. It subsequently took about another two years for “On Wings of Song” to find a publisher in the 1970s, and why Disch completely stopped writing for a year at the end of the 70s.

  11. Lee: thank you for the pointers and information. I have browsed your site and hope to methodically make my way through it when I have more free time.

    Disch said in one of his essays, I believe, that he was unhappy with Delany’s treatment of his manuscript, which corresponds to what Matthew Davis recounts. Beyond that, I don’t know any inside information.

  12. I hope somebody does a biography; at the very least, I’d like to know more about Gottlieb and this venomous letter. Hard to believe a book as low-key and deliberately minor as “Neighboring Lives” could have prompted such feelings of betrayal — why would Gottlieb even care that Disch promised it somewhere else? It’s not as though Disch was refusing to sell Knopf a bestseller on the scale of “The DaVinci Code.” I can’t help feeling there’s more to this story somehow…

  13. I don’t know much about the courting world of publishing, but what I saw of Knopf’s overtures to Disch in the early/middish 70s in various archives was quite a fervent wooing and making of promises. It wasn’t that Knopf was taking Disch on a book by book scenario, but that he was going to have a CAREER. That he was going to be a KNOPF AUTHOR. Together, a sequence of books where Knopf and Disch were one and the same, just like Updike and Knopf were also a literary brand. While Disch already was published in a broadish variety of magazines, there were now going to be strenuous pushes to get his short fiction, essays and reviews into bigger name venues (how much influence book publishers are able to achieve I don’t know, but the mid-70s saw him appear in “Harpers”, “Rolling Stone”, “Crawdaddy” and “Paris Review”). Knopf would publish his novels, collections of his short fiction and his poetry. As I say, I don’t know if these sort of “shoot for the moon”-type offers are typical of publishers, but if they were even only half-meant then it is easy to understand the feeling of violent, angry rejection in Gottlieb’s letter, since Disch was, no matter how small, breaking the condition of being a Knopf author.

  14. Fascinating stuff, Matthew, thanks for posting it. I can only add that yes, publishers do sometimes court writers in those kinds of extravagant terms. So that part of the story isn’t totally unusual. My question is why, if his relationship with Knopf was so close, Disch would pitch “Neighboring Lives” to a different publisher. But, as I say, what I really hope for is a full biography to untangle all this stuff…

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