Science Fiction Studies

#29 = Volume 10, Part 1 = March 1983

Joseph Francavilla

Disching It Out: An Interview with Thomas Disch

Thomas M. Disch is a writer's writer because he makes other authors envy his stories and poetry. Yet many readers often misunderstand Disch's fiction and find it difficult, puzzling, disturbing, and even sacrilegious because Disch aims to be ironic and clown funny in an allusive way about subjects which some consider to be sacrosanct. As Camus said of Franz Kafka, the whole art of Thomas Disch is to force the reader to reread him: to take a second, closer look. And then, perhaps, from behind what appears to be an innocent, lyrical scene, a demonic grin of mordant satire will peer out at the reader. Or what seems like an uncomplicated, stereotyped situation transforms itself suddenly into something intricate, locked in the vice grip of Disch's humor and irony. The recognition of this full effect may make the reader laugh, cry, and marvel at the same time.

Although he has sometimes been cited as an American apostle of the British New Wave of the '60s, Disch follows his own creed, and his work is extremely varied. He has written suspense novels, such as Black Alice (co-authored with John Sladek, 1968) and The Prisoner (1969), gothic novels, such as The House That Fear Built (co authored with John Sladek, 1966) and Clara Reeve (1975), horror novels, such as The Businessman (1984), and books of poetry, such as The Right Way to Figure Plumbing (1972).
But it is his speculative fiction and SF for which Disch is best known, including collections such as
Fun with Your New Head (1968), Getting into Death (1976), Fundamental Disch (1980), and The Man Who Had No Idea (1982), and the novels The Genocide (1965), Echo Round His Bones (1967), Camp Concentration (1968), 334 (1972), and On Wings of Song, winner of the 1980 John W. Campbell award. His work has appeared in a wide variety of magazines such as Triquarterly, Transatlantic Review, Omni, Antaeus, The Paris Review, Playboy, Penthouse, and American Review.

Thomas Michael Disch was born on February 2, 1940 in Des Moines, Iowa and grew up in Minneapolis St Paul. He graduated from St Paul's Convent School in Fairmont, Minnesota and Central High School in St Paul. He spent a short time in the architectural school at Cooper Union. After two and a half years at New York University, where he majored in history, he worked for a while at a bank and in advertising. When his first SF story, "The Double Timer," was published in Fantastic in 1962, he dropped out of college to devote more time to writing. His subsequent travels have included London, Rome, North Africa, Spain, Austria, and Istanbul—locations which, like his home base in New York City, often are the settings for his unique fiction.

One of Thomas Disch's early series of columns was called "Disching It Out, " and in this interview, conducted in Buffalo (in 1981) and Niagara Falls (in 1982), he is still doing just that.

JF: Let's talk about your ideas about the writing process and about revision. There is a neo Platonic idea I've often heard expressed that the artist is something like a conduit, unconsciously receiving inspiration and unable to say very much about why or how the act of creation proceeds. A contrasting idea is that the artist realizes a structure, in both senses of the word, and proceeds, more or less, analytically as regards form.

Disch: I have a pretty coherent view of how form and structure work for an artist, and especially how they work for me. I have a very analytical mind towards writing in general, although I don't think I'm mechanistic about my writing. But I do have my own formulated theories, and certainly they do impinge on the work at every stage of the creative process. I think about macrostructures and microstructures in whatever work I'm involved with. I mean, I write a lot of very formal poetry, and you can't write formal poetry without a great deal of self consciousness as to how forms and structures work. At the same time, if you do it enough, you develop an instinctual ability to accelerate the process of inspiration, correction, and self criticism. I mean, just crossing out a word is a structuralist decision.

JF: How do you go about accelerating the writing and revision process?

Disch: When you're starting off in an art, there is an awful lot of renderings of nuance that you have to think about and fuss with. In the same way, when you're writing formal poetry at first, it's a slow, rather clumsy process. As you write more and more of it, you learn. . .to improvise counterpoint. Bach, for instance, sat at the keyboard and improvised counterpoint. It was probably very good counterpoint, but then I'm sure when he wrote it down, he would find technical matters that had to be corrected with pen and ink. Similarly with painting. The whole question of nuance of brushstrokes is something that, as a beginning painter, you're swimming around in; you don't have that control. The more you paint, and the more gifted you are, the more that control becomes an unconscious mechanism.

So, for instance, when Harlan Ellison says that the process of writing for him is all instinctual, what he means is that he's been writing for so long that he doesn't want to remember how he, as a centipede, walks. And I usually don't pay that much attention to my footwork as a centipede either, in terms of the microdecisions of nuance in prose, just the right word, just the right rhythm. I don't think in terms of: "Do I want an iamb here or an anapest there?" In dealing with macrostructures, things like the balance of one section of a book against another, it's like riding a bicycle. You have to give more conscious thought to larger structures, and most writers do. If they are writing a novel, most writers, if they've written nine pages just describing something without any dialogue, will have a little bell ring in their head that tells them: "Hey! You've got to vary the pace or the tone here." I mean, that's the simplest kind of structural decision.

My book 334 has an ambitious, conscious, formal structure. The last part of it has a three dimensional grid system which relates to and orders all the elements in the last novella of the book. And if you sit down and figure out what that grid system represents in terms of how it determines the progress of the story, and then look at the story, it does something that great formal poetry does. You don't know that you're being controlled by this incredible, intellectual apparatus that is totally artificial—you just read through it. And the challenge and reward of working with an artificial form is that you have to pay such attention to the smoothness of continuity of the "meter," as it were, that the reader glides past these moments. So a difficult form simply tends to create a larger challenge, and if that challenge is met, the form vanishes before the reader. But I just couldn't resist putting the diagram into the book anyhow. It's meant to be a Friday's footprint on the sand. Nobody has ever taken up that particular element of the book; no one has ever pointed to what it does or what it represents.

JF: What about the simultaneity of that insight of form with the actual process of writing? Is the form, in any sense, prior to the act of writing? Someone like John Barth, for instance, has said that he imagines writing a story with the form of a logarithmic spiral and then sets out to do that. You seem to suggest that you grope your way, from that first flash of inspiration, towards a form.

Disch: It depends. There's free verse and there are strict forms. And the same obtains for every art. There's fantasia and there's counterpoint. The same basic structural rules of language apply, and those are the ones that are truly beyond conscious grasp, that is to say, how language "means," the kind of thing semiologists and linguists fuss about. Writers certainly don't write with anything like that in mind. Even Samuel Beckett, for instance, isn't concerned with that kind of ordering. He writes with an incredible sense of nuance, but I don't think he has, as it were, a "program" for writing to structuralist principles.

JF: One of Beckett's prose works, Lessness, begins with a series of sentences and images which are programmatically repeated throughout the rest of the work.

Disch: That's a formal task, but I don't think it's based on theories related to structuralism, in the way that critics use the word. To me, it's a formal, poetic challenge. You set up a particular problem, say, the use of an extremely limited vocabulary, and then you work within that structure.

When I was just learning Italian, I tried once to write an Italian text with the little Italian I knew. I didn't get very far at all. Writers play with words, yes, and they give thought to the sort of mental field of energy which a certain cluster and grouping of words will represent. But that field is still something that exists and that one apprehends in the unconscious, beyond analysis.

Even late Roman Silver Age poetry, full of such things as alphabetic rules and macaronic verse, and so on, is still in the nature of a poetic challenge. Because once you define the problem, then you have to reach for a statement that can be made within the parameters of that problem. And when you reach for the statement, you're reaching for poetry, and that can't be generated by a program. You can keep making the area that you're reaching for more and more difficult, so that you have to reach for not the first meaning that comes to mind but a secondary or tertiary meaning. And that's to me always the advantage of any formal problem that's set up that way. If you've got a formal problem to solve that seems insurmountable, it provokes a deeper, more poetic solution. But I think that the actual moment of reaching is always a descent into the chaos of raw poetry.

You also reach a point of diminishing returns with these formal constraints. The Romans certainly did, and they aren't our favorite Latin poets these days. I would think that that kind of writing is a very writerly thing that always appeals only to other writers who have to sit in amazement to think that any meaningful statement can be accomplished within such strict parameters. The more and more you define the rules of the game, the less and less liable you are to be able to write, say, Anna Karenina. Because that is the other side of fiction. Fiction writers are the ones to insist that they don't know how they do what they do. Mostly because they don't like to be bothered with thinking about it. They just like to get on with the business of telling a story, which is something they know they know how to do.

JF: Even in works such as Samuel Beckett's The Lost Ones, in which people are trapped inside a giant cylinder, he manages to tell a story despite the strict rules of behavior he sets up involving the people climbing up and down the ladders in a specific pattern.

Disch: I always like to oscillate between the two extremes. My imaginative response to your description of the Beckett story was to connect it to my last remark about Anna Karenina, and have Anna and Vronski on the ladders, having to cope with Beckett's rules, and nevertheless maintaining the impetus of their affair in the circumstances. That's the middle ground I try to inhabit.

And as you eliminate more and more of those areas of possible relevance and reference, the fewer stories you can tell and, if nothing else, the fewer jokes you can make. What's great about Beckett is that he manages to make so many great jokes within that circumscribed structure, and those jokes are always based upon nuances of spoken speech which are learned in dealing with other people, on the streets, at parties, and so on. What continues to be so humanizing in Beckett is just the way he can lift his minimal eyebrow to great effect. And that part of it isn't part of the program. That part is just bullshit by a bullshit artist knowing how to talk and how to lay somebody out with a one liner.

JF: Donald Barthelme once mentioned that it was impossible today for any serious writer to write a good novel without irony. I suppose anyone coming to your works for the first time would find themselves steeped in irony.

Disch: Joanna Russ, in a review, made the comment that she wished that I weren't sometimes so unremittingly ironic. And I guess I simply can't escape it. My roots are there. I think that possibly I have read some good books lately that weren't ironic, but don't ask me to name them.

JF: Isn't there a danger in using irony so much, in being so unremittingly ironic in that everything in the work drops towards a kind of infinite absolute negativity, a void which obscures meaning?

Disch: You don't use irony; you have irony. It's part of your world view. And who can help being ironic about certain basic things? Isn't it ironic to think that we're going to die and yet we eat, drink, and be merry today? Or take the idea of "the death of God." I am certainly a "death of God" writer. My story "The New Me" is a lark about the death of God. Now that idea is not something that's necessarily a lark. That story, in fact, grew out of one of the worst nightmares I've ever had in my life. My first attempt was to write an evocative prose summary of the dream. But that prose summary could have been meaningful only to me. It was too unformed. Next I tried a poem, in which there was a lot more formal ordering and many shifts away from the specific images of the dream, just trying to hold on to the structure of the dream as I understood it, and preserving the mood of terror and distress. Finally, I realized that I could do it as a story and take the dramatic events of the problems of trust, betrayal, inauthenticity, and a view of just how dismal the world really is, and I could make a hilarious story of it. It makes people I've read it to laugh, and laughter is just a slowed down scream of terror.

JF: Doesn't it become more difficult to control meaning once you're locked into an ironic mode? For example, the statements you intend not to be ironic tend to be taken ironically in that ironic context.

Disch: Voice is the key. If every good joke is a slowed down scream of terror, within every good joke is feeling. And feeling is what registers, but not ironically. Feelings aren't ironic. The expression of feeling may be, because it's very complicated, and you may condense several contradictory feelings into any interesting statement. That's different from stage one irony, which is simply saying one thing and meaning another. Everybody says one thing and means another. Language can't escape that. Two meanings are always operating in any statement. The one that's expressed and the one that can't be expressed. That's a dialectic you have to live with all the time. But I don't think that anybody can escape complicated feelings. The way to write about them is with Irony.

For instance, a lot of the stories by Franz Kafka I love, from his late, mellow days, are really blissful stories told by someone who realizes what a shithole the world is. How can you write about these celestial visions living there in the gutter? Every artist is always confronted with that basic contradiction too. Because art is one of the routes of access to joy, and joy is always problematical the moment it stops happening. You're always asking, "Where is it? Why can't it be brought back?"

And within Kafka's jokes is terror, or at least fear, one of the four basic emotions. Perhaps a complicated fear of his father combined with a contradictory love and identification. That's why the paternal voice of authority in Kafka is so paradoxical and ironical.
Whenever I take over in my fiction what I consider the paternal voice of authority, you know, "his master's voice," it is usually with a sense of glee. That's why we identify with villains in stories, villains mostly being father figures. I always get off on my villains, since there's a feeling of delight when I'm writing the part of the bad guy.

Mostly in my fiction I kvetch about my father. He was really pretty much of a schmuck. Eventually I came around to seeing that he was a hard pressed, dutiful, and sometimes loving schmuck, but he still was a schmuck. And I've never forgiven him for that. I could never bear the thought that there was nothing in this man that I wanted to identify with. But, of course, I have.

I've taken his ideal of how a salesman comports himself—always to charm people, not to raise hackles, to tell good jokes, to dress upward by way of charming the world into saying that I'll be successful. Whenever I'm going to appear in public, I always wear a suit. I never wear blue jeans. I only wear them in my neighborhood as camouflage so that I don't get mugged. All of this attitude is from my father. He never went out of the house on any day without a hat, like the hat I wear. So you think that you escape the identification, but nobody does.

JF: In a Foundation review, you expressed a preference for late Kaflka, such stories as "Investigations of a Dog" and "A Hunger Artist," over early stories like "The Metamorphosis" or "The Judgment."

Disch: Well, "The Judgment" is just too short to amount to much. Let me make a comparison. I like paintings much more than I like drawings. I know that there's a whole school of art critics who say that draftsmanship is revealed best in the slightest sketch than in the "big machine" paintings. I still prefer the "big machine" paintings. When I'm in a museum I walk past all the neat little, discreet drawings that display the artistry in miniature. And I feel that way about "The Judgment." It's just too small to express anything more than a primal scream. Anybody can do a primal scream—you just let it out. Maybe that story is important historically because it let out one at very high decibels in a noticeable way. But that doesn't make it great art; that gives it historical significance. As opposed to "The Metamorphosis," which is a full-scale, great work that I have no quarrel with. However.... People who tend to read imaginative writing tend to be young. They're in school, still open to experience, and they're casting about. The older you get, the fewer writers there are who continue to speak to your condition. And what I love in the older Kafka is that he grew up, and so he speaks to the older reader.

For instance, the last thing I read and enjoyed by Kafka was "A Hunger Artist." I read it for the subject. I was thinking of writing something along similar lines, and I wanted to see what he did with that because I couldn't remember it.

JF: Let's talk about your novel, Camp Concentration. The ending of that novel has been criticized. Samuel Delany, in his book The Jewel Hinged Jaw, repeats the criticism that the ending brings the story suddenly back to an optimistic, Roger Zelazny land. Another criticism came from Stanislaw Lem, who thought the ending was unnecessary. It seemed to me that the moral problem of choice, which the novel raises in the beginning—Sacchetti and the prisoners have no choice about being injected with a drug to raise their intelligence—is not resolved. If the beginning situation is the indictment of the captors who take away freedom, then the ending allows the former prisoners to take away freedom and choice in exactly the same way.

Disch: Yes. That is exactly the point of the story. People who object to the ending of the story are objecting to the meaning I raised, because what I am saying is the way to survive is to accept being in complicity with a social structure that is evil. If you don't like that meaning, you won't like that ending.

JF: So, in a sense we should read Mordecai's final statement in the book with a little more cynicism and irony? His statement is the final entry: "Much that is terrible we do not know. Much that is beautiful we shall still discover. Let's sail till we come to the edge."

Disch: Doesn't Sacchetti say that? Isn't it part of the journal entry?

JF: No, Sacchetti quotes Mordecai in his journal entry. And it's a very un-Mordecai like statement, given his cynicism in the rest of the book. What I'm asking is, are we supposed to see that statement which ends the book ironically?

Disch: Oh, no. Not at all. "Much that is terrible we do not know." And presumably they will soon discover it. Yes, that makes sense for people who are in complicity with the social system as it exists. Similarly for beauty. Modern art hasn't been put off by the fact that it's had to live in captivity of a social system that is destructive, ruinous. Indeed, beauty is probably the antidote to evil—in practical terms for an artist. Although who's to say what the objective value of beauty is? But at least it is not inconsistent with evil. We know that from too many examples. The symphony orchestras in the concentration camps might have played Mahler beautifully. There's Quartet for the End of Time, which was written in a concentration camp and could not have been written elsewhere. That is not an argumentfor concentration camps. I simply mean that they force the problem of evil beyond Dostoyevsky's placement of it as the injustice of the children, I mean Ivan Karamazov's challenge to God. Camp Concentration takes the concentration camps as a metaphor for the universe in a similar way. The question is really whether Skilliman wins the debate. He doesn't. Because I think human nature won't tolerate such violations. The faith of the book, the happy ending of the book, is Skilliman's attempting to shoot the stars with a gun. The futility, hopelessness, and folly of that gesture is the optimistic part of the book. The ending is the pessimistic part.

And that's why the Bunyan epigraph from The Pilgrim's Progress is set at the beginning: "Now, reader, I have told my dream to thee;/See if thou canst interpret it to me." Because the book is a set piece in interpreting allegory.

Anyhow, I stand by the ending of Camp Concentration. One thing that Chip Delany said was that it had the element of hastening to a close. But I forestalled against that possibility because I left off writing the most crucial middle section of the book until I'd finished writing the ending, just so that I knew I wouldn't hasten to an end. And so that I knew there would still be a major part to compose in the middle that would be my real, physical writing of the end of the book. The last thing I wrote in the book was the Aquinas dream because I knew everything would hinge on that and that the condensation of poetry had to be at the height there.

JF: There is a section in Part Two, after the Faust play and the dream sequence, after we know Sacchetti has been injected with a drug which makes him a genius, where his vocabulary shifts to a lower level. Why? I would have thought that his gradual development of genius would have been reflected in an exponential increase in vocabulary and abstractness.

Disch: It would have been impossible to do that. The cut up section, the first part of Part Two where Sacchetti spins out of control, is meant to suggest the possibility of exponential increase.

JF: It does achieve that through the use of fragments, because the connections are lost between fragments, and what may pass as genius on the part of the narrator is the unsuccessful attempt by the reader to make connections, to make leaps.

Disch: Yeah. That was all stage magic. I had to posit that he was deliberately reining back his genius and telling his story so that people could understand it. It's like having aliens from Alpha Centauri talking to Earthmen by learning their language and talking so that Earthmen can understand. So that reduction of rhetoric had to happen in order to make the story possible to continue writing. And the stage magic trick is done to suggest the very fact that he has to make that reduction.

JF: I remember that Samuel Delany quoted some editor as saying that he hated your early story "Descending" and that the editor tried his hardest to cut it but couldn't remove a word.

Disch: Some writers and readers react to everything of mine as if it were a personal assault on their sanity. One writer actually said about my story "Concepts" that if he thought life was like that he would commit suicide. Yet he knows that's the way life is.

JF: You were mentioning before how upset you were that books like yours aren't normally reviewed in certain places such as the New York Times or the New York Review of Books.

Disch: It's not a matter of money, and it's not that I want the cognoscenti to be aware of the books. The cognoscenti can be expected to cope for themselves and find out what's good, and generally they do. It's the big readership that I know is going to enjoy my books that I'm concerned about. When I hear a whole auditorium full of people cracking up over the jokes in one of my stories or poems, I know they're good jokes. And I know other people would crack up too. If the books aren't published and publicized in a place where enough people can discover them and crack up over them, then I'm being cheated of my audience. That's what I resent. I resent the readership denied to me by a bunch of assholes who belong to the same, old club, and have gone to the same schools.

In New York I've seen how people from a very small intellectual capital parlay that sort of background into a literary reputation. Their success is not because of talent but because of who their parents were, how much money they had, and whether these writers can buy their way socially into being partof the beau monde. The literary establishment that considers itself the beau monde is as venal, self serving, clubbish, and hypocritical as any Baptist Church.

It is hard to have a literary conscience because it means you have to deny the friends you grew up with. Every successful writer has 60 or 70 percent of his friends who are not good writers, and these successful writers end up plumping for their friends, getting these sycophants on the same publishing lists and giving their lousy books rave reviews. Everybody is just sucking everybody else off in one big literary daisy chain that does not have anything to do with quality.

A writer can't give in to this sort of temptation, and that's why I started to be a reviewer. The best way to secure your own integrity is to make a "put up or shut up" situation where you're offered books to review and you say what you really think of them even if you know the author.

I've written a historical novel, Clara Reeve (under a pseudonym), which has sold more in hardcover than any book of SF I've ever published. It also got more attention, reviews, became a Book of the Month [Club] alternate, and so on. It's only because the label "science fiction" is attached to my books that my readership is being denied.

I don't always want to say in public that I feel bitter about things like this. You know, I don't want that persona. I can feel it, but I can also feel a lot of cheer and elation for the good things that have happened, and I'm determined that there will be more good things happening than bad. And I want to forget the bitterness. I don't want to live with it all the time.

There is a respect in which poetry represents the highest idealism of literature. Poets at their best, and there are always odious exceptions, are to be commended for their stoic attitude. The ideal of poetry is that you're not concerned with the marketplace and you shouldn't be. Lord knows that there is a poetry establishment that's as venal in proportion as the rewards are few. Poets can live off the funding situation for poetry, or link up with academic positions, or do reading circuits. There are poets who are willing to support themselves in what they consider honorable poverty by just doing the reading circuits. But then they complain because the reading circuit doesn't make them millionaires. The very fact that it exists doesn't occur to them as something wondrous and peculiar, and an homage. Poetry is very like religion these days. The fact that an Episcopal priest who has no congregation nevertheless can earn a living never strikes people as astonishing. He doesn't inquire where the money comes from. People still have this nostalgic belief in idealism and think that if people are willing to declare themselves in some way removed from vice and evil, they can be honored for that with a minimal income. Poets are in the same situation, and they all develop the manners and hypocrisies of Episcopal priests. I wrote a poem that speaks to this issue called "Literature as a Career."

JF: Are you a reader of Walter Abish's books, Alphabetical Africa, In the Future Perfect, and How German Is It, or Harry Mathews' books such as Tlooth and The Conversion?

Disch: I haven't read Abish. I like Mathews' work but I wouldn't confuse it with SF. Just as I wouldn't confuse Kafka's works, usually, with SF. There are a few of Kafka's works, like "In the Penal Colony," that come close to SF.

I think there is a simple distinction to be made. One can make a verbal posit, say like Raymond Roussel does, that describes something that can't exist. Yet the verbal structure allows a mental image to be formed. But these writers' images don't obey the rules of continuity. When that surrealist formula is happening, the writer can switch off to another interesting verbal posit generated out of language.

JF: That's how Roussel constructed his novel, Impressions of Africa.

Disch: Right. And that's how Harry Mathews works. I can enjoy that kind of writing sometimes but it isn't SF. And I don't take the same interest in it that I do in SF because SF has an interior conscience that says, "Given a single, fantastic, speculative posit about the structure of reality, I will then use the rules of naturalism to describe it."

JF: By beginning with this speculative postulate, this deformation of reality, and then sticking to the rules of naturalism in describing it "realistically," aren't you suggesting that SF is a combining of non mimetic and mimetic fiction?

Disch: No it isn't. One doesn't always have to develop the story naturalistically. There is a consistent world that develops in an SF story. The world can always be "violated" in a surrealist story. The consistent SF world remains, even if you use non mimetic techniques of writing. For instance, my story "The New Me" has utterly unnatural dialogue. No psychiatrist would say that we're going "deep down into the sub basement where your parents' bones are buried." This is a shift into another gear of poetry that no psychoanalyst is capable of because he or she doesn't speak in poetry. What that line implies is the arrogance of psychoanalysis saying, "We command knowledge of superimportant matters, and therefore you must give us your attention." It was a very quick way of spearing my butterfly, and that was just a verbal trope. But it happened in the context of a world that continued to observe its own consistent rules. You could illustrate the whole story in the same visual style. You couldn't do that with surrealism. Surrealism shifts within the same story even within the same line.

A critical essay I'm writing is about the whole nature of visualization. Traditional critics write about plot and style and characters, the categories we all know are as much fictions as fiction is. These are people who have suspended their disbelief and write about fiction as if it were an event that had happened. Now the event that has happened is the visualization in the reader's mind of the events of the story. How that visualization happens and the nature of that visualization and the associated affect are a middle ground between structuralist criticism, which talks about the "semes" of the text, in the punning sense, and the real, important event that happens in your mind as the story is visualized. I'm writing about that significant process of visualization and how the words get us there.

Doesn't it seem strange that very few critics have addressed themselves to that central imaginative act of reading a book?

JF: Yes, it is strange. And perhaps ironic that only fiction writers such as you and Chip Delany tend to focus on that aspect in criticism. Thank you very much.

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