[1 October 2008]
Although Thomas M. Disch had been writing and publishing steadily up until his tragic suicide in July, it had been a long time since he had fully immersed himself in the world of science fiction. No matter that he was one of the genre’s brightest lights in the 1960s with his early classics like The Genocides and Camp Concentration, Disch was ultimately too much of a polymath to be confined to one segment of literature for his entire career. No, in the last couple decades he would content himself more with horror novels, theater, children’s books, criticism, poetry, and a raft of learned and sardonic articles and verse published everywhere from Harper’s to the ultraconservative Catholic journal First Things.
So it was good news to hear that the small but noteworthy San Francisco publisher Tachyon was bringing out a collection of Disch’s short science fiction, the first in far too many years. The Wall of America is a short but sprawling piece of work that gathers in stories ranging as far back as 1982 and up to 2008. As such, it’s an important and dutiful volume that catches readers up on just about everything Disch was doing, at least in science fiction, over the past few years. That being said, it is primarily an unfortunate reminder of earlier successes.
To be sure, The Wall of America starts off strong. Published only four years, “The White Man” is a sharp and horrific anecdote that reinforces memories of Disch’s harrowing early tales from the upper Midwest of his youth. Set in a Minneapolis of the (pretty) near future, the story follows Somali teenager Tawana—part of the large immigrant community that’s been growing there in recent years—as she fights through the usual adolescent issues but also grows concerned that she’s being followed by a vampire. It begins in classic dystopian gloom, tweaked by a certain irony:
It was the general understanding that the world was falling apart in all directions. Bad things had happened and worse were on the way. Everyone understood that—the rich and the poor, old and young (although for the young it might be more dimly sensed, an intuition). But they also understood that there was nothing much anyone could do about it, and so you concentrated on having some fun while there was any left to have.
Disch’s sense of place, that city’s well-ordered chill and calm, is extraordinarily well rendered here, particularly considering how many decades it had been since he resided anywhere near Minnesota. The glimpses of a slowly crumbling society peek in around the edges only, allowing the story to concentrate on Tawana’s brooding angst, amplified by the appearance of a shadowy preacher figure, and a too-large diet of Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns. It doesn’t end well, but then, little here does.
The second strongest piece is 1999’s “The Owl and the Pussycat”. Playing on Disch’s love for mixing the fairytale world with the quotidian, it begins as the story of a dysfunctional marriage as viewed through the eyes of a stuffed cat and owl, Dampy and Hooter. There’s an almost unbearable sadness aching through the pages as Disch outlines Dampy and Hooter’s circumscribed lives, listening to their owners’ drunk arguments, and trying to avoid being further damaged than they already here.
Instead of heading into utter manipulative mawkishness, Disch introduces a few welcome off-notes in the conversations between the animals, as when Hooter confides in Dampy that he often feels “like one of those Romanian children you hear about on ‘All Things Considered’”, or when the two start talking about getting betrothed, only to run up against the issue of same-sex marriage (they’re both boys, you see).
However, except for a few other bright spots, like the Neil Gaiman-esque “Voices of the Kill,” The Wall of America is for the most part a disappointment. Too often, Disch set up impressive scenarios (the titular wall running the length of the U.S.-Canadian border that was festooned with artwork) only to let them trail off amidst unresolved plotlines or poor humor. There is not a story here that betrays a lessening of talent, but there is an unavoidable sense of diminishing interest, as though Disch had become unable to locate the story. But if The Wall of America proves ultimately to be a lesser work than something like On Wings of Song, that can hardly be considered damning criticism.