[27 June 2008]
Rarely, if ever, has a book brought me so much unmitigated displeasure (Daisy Miller excepted) as Thomas Disch’s The Word of God. To the best of my perception, the central conflict in this work is whether abysmal stylistics or cloying irony and an overpowering air of smug self-satisfaction will win out as the characteristic which most actively drives readers away. In the spirit of productive criticism I searched maddeningly for any redemptive qualities. I failed.
Quite briefly, the conceit of this book is that it is the doctrine of Thomas Disch after he has been promoted to the status of a god. There is no real plot to speak of despite the lies that the back cover claims about Philip K. Dick. Basically, the book is a memoir, that is neither true nor grounded in any reality. (Insert James Frey joke here).
What initially will strike readers of Disch’s book is his “zany irreverence” (read: his asinine categorical iconoclasticism). Failing to shy away from phrases like, “[Jesus] Christ, after all, always pussyfooted about …” or, “As to tsunamis, what can I say? Shit happens.” Such writing is emblematic of the book as a whole and, on a grander scale, the entire trend of modern literature which sets itself in opposition to organized religion.
Mistakenly believing that coy sarcasm plows any intellectual territory, writers have given up actually advancing their own points and, instead, attack institutions with schoolyard mimetic mockery. Irony has become all but clubfooted and deserves to be retired. Furthermore, the entire philosophy that organized religion is categorically bad because it spits out homogeneous sheep is a deeply flawed idea.
It’s just an exchange of one dogma for another (although the new one wears flannel and smokes cloves). Modern authors should carefully study the school of deconstructionism before undertaking such endeavors. It is much more productive to expose the reified nature of supposed fact or to combat orthodoxy with the plurivocity of différance and undecidability.
I know that it should not be shocking that a book in which the author pretends to be God is egotistical (although how much of literature isn’t). However, the hyperbolic and even awe-inspiring lengths to which Disch’s prose is pleased with itself demands some perverse reverence. Reading line after line of direct address self-referential footnotes, countless pedantic allusions to opera and ballet, and a slew of literary name-dropping, I could not help but wonder how auto-erotic the writing of this book actually was for the author.
Perhaps one could argue that this voice was put on to effect some comment on God’s similar self-satisfaction. However, I cannot dignify such a tactic as anything but inauthentic. After all, the consequence was that I cringed at least once or twice a paragraph and that is rarely, if ever, acceptable.
I believe, after some consideration, what is most grating about this text is the style. Firstly, Disch, somewhat of a poet, tends to intersperse his text with verse often which he has written years earlier but feels would be edifying to present in his current piece. Needless to say such a technique feels tantamount to the sensation of going to rock concert but having to sit through the opening acts which just happen to be spoken word. It is a bait and switch and one that is as unwelcome as it is painful to endure.
Furthermore, as symptomatic of a larger structural malady, Disch features intercalary chapters of assorted fictions which bear only a shadow of relevance to the main text. These pieces are written in assorted voices ranging from a milquetoast beat generation author to a milquetoast modernist author. This makes the book as a whole read something like what would have been produced if Italo Calvino was somewhat slow and raised on MTV but had tried to write If on a winter’s night a traveler …” anyway.
Now, you likely think at this point that I must have something positive to say about the text. While I would not ever dream of going that far, I will confess that I might understand what Disch was trying to accomplish before his vision became mangled by the book’s innumerable faults. Perhaps at some point when The Word of God was just an inchoate manuscript in Disch’s mind it was envisioned to show how silly it is to adopt “sacred” text as anything other than man-made by claiming that a most blatantly man-made document is the word of a god.
While I fully support efforts to make people question their beliefs, this method a poor one and Disch’s concept loses itself somewhere about the point where it tells a story of Jesus hangin’ out with Peter and watching The Passion.