Shortly after Harold Feld’s kind and gentle remarks on the death of Thomas M. Disch appeared here on Wetmachine, I received a nice note from Mr. Disch’s publicist, Matt Staggs, asking if we would like review copies of Disch’s last two books, a short novel called The Word of God, and a story collection called The Wall of America. I replied in the affirmative, and Matt was good enough to send copies to both me and Harold.
It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally prepared a review. Following the review I’ve included a bit of context regarding my conversation with Mr. Staggs.
The Word of God
Holy Writ Rewritten
By Thomas M. Disch
(Note: It’s my understanding that Mr. Disch published novels as Thomas M. Disch and poems as Tom Disch. So I believe that The Word of God is a novel by Thomas M. Disch that contains poems by Tom Disch. I welcome any clarification.)
Philip K. Dick in hell — not a bad hook! Not bad at all!
The Word of God tells a cute story and has a cute gimmick. The cute story is that Philip K. Dick, the legendarily trippy science fiction author who died in 1982, is in hell. He’s approached (by whom, I won’t tell; it’s a good joke) with a proposition that he go back to earth, into the past, in order to kill the novelist Thomas Mann before he can seduce the 23 year-old young wife who has found herself in an extremely compromising position in a Minneapolis hotel room with the traveling German novelist. The woman is none other than Thomas Disch’s own mother, and Dick has been sent there from hell to prevent the conception of Disch himself–Disch being, in that universe, the bastard child of Thomas Mann. So this is a classic “grandfather paradox” time travel story, a hoary SF standard, and the variant here is done with lots of Disch-ian bio and flourish.
So far so good. (Of course, if the idea of Disch’s being kind of dreamily lost in a sadistic reverie about his own mother’s naïveté and rape is off-putting, then this may not be a book for you.)
In the telling of The Word of God we find out that in actual fact (in our universe) the paths of Philip K. Dick and Thomas Disch did cross while the two men were alive. The juiciest detail from their shared history is that Dick, in who-knows-what (altered? altered from what?) state of mind, offered to inform on Disch’s activities to the FBI–as was discovered by Dick’s biographer following a Freedom of Information Act request.
The cute gimmick that animates the book, its central conceit, is that Disch has declared himself to be God (or *a* god — he alternates between monotheism and various polytheisms).
From the publisher’s page for the book:
INSPIRED BY ACTUAL EVENTS!
In this compelling memoir, the first and hopefully the last of its kind, America’s most divine author reveals the intimate and shocking details of His sudden elevation to the most coveted and least understood position in the universe.
In early 2005 (A.D.), wearying of the world’s religious schisms, doctrinal heresies, and manifold editorial sins, Thomas M. Disch took matters into His Own hands and became the Deity.
Novelistic omnipotence. Where have I heard that before?
So right from page one of this book, Thomas Disch is God. (The first words of the novel proper are “Let there be light.”) Because Disch is God, for example, it’s possible for him to go back and forth in time and resolve grandfather paradoxes and the like. As a literary device, this is nothing more or less than a variation on the “omniscient narrator” that’s been a staple of the novel format for five hundred years or so. Disch’s variation is that he puts forth that he’s not only God within the pages of his novel, but actually TheGod-God; creator of the universe and so forth. As God he keeps slipping in and out of character (God can do that if he feels like it), alternating between telling the story of his life as God and his day-to-day life as Tom Disch, a gay man living in New York in 2005 with his AIDS-dying partner & lover of thirty years, trying to sell a few stories, taking in a few operas and TV shows, having “Chinese take-out supplemented with leftover roast pork” for Christmas Eve dinner.
Now, it’s not clear what this narrative approach does or doesn’t have to do with the main story, but what the heck, I’ll go along with it. Certainly I’ve published novels of my own that have more unorthodox narrative conceits. So I’m not prejudiced against a little storytelling license.
There’s a grab-bag feel to the story, as Disch reaches into his virtual literary sock drawer and pulls out snippets of stories and poems from years past and throws them into the book, apparently at random. Some of these snippets (the poems especially) are quite good, and some are amusing enough, even if sloppily executed. For example, there’s this vignette: Jesus and St. Peter get bored in heaven so they go back down to Earth –to Kansas City, to be precise– where they watch Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of The Christ” at a Loew’s Theatre after being given discount coupons by a mega-church fundamentalist handing them out on the street. So Jesus and Peter go to the movie, but Jesus gets grossed out by the violence and spends most of his time in the men’s room. It’s a great bit, but lazily drawn. For example, Jesus and Peter, after declining to see the movie on Friday night because it’s the sabbath, go back to their hotel room and use the magnetic-striped key to enter their room. (As Cher Horowitz would say, “as if.”)
Quibbles aside all of this is fine, good; parts of it are great.
But here’s the problem: Thomas M. Disch, the writer, has a real strong dislike for religion. Let me restate that. Disch doesn’t dislike religion. He hates religion, and belief in God, with a white-hot hate.
And this passion makes him a bore.
Early in Chapter One he writes:
“So is this Holy Writ or isn’t it? Am I being serious? Yes, and then some. What I propose to write about in these sacred pages is what the whole God-business looks like to someone who not only does not believe in God, but who, moreover, doesn’t believe in the belief of those most aggressively pious, most loudly devout. The only way effectively to convey my own sense of the matter is to arrogate to myself the same absolute authority, the same more-than-Papal infallibility, the same maddeningly smug chutzpah that True Believers of all varieties have armed themselves with: the Jesus freaks and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Tartuffes and Elmer Gantrys, the imams and ayatollahs, the redneck judges. . .”
You get the picture. Disch doesn’t like religious piety, he doesn’t like being lectured to, he doesn’t like being told what to think or being talked down to, and he especially doesn’t like the humorlessness of those people who are convinced deep in their souls that they have found the One True Way.
Well neither do I.
But, alas, Disch allows his hatred of religion & piety to derail his artistic gift. He spends about 100 pages of his 177-page book lecturing us, telling us what to think, talking down to us and completely losing his vaunted sense of humor.
Page after page we’re told that creationism is stupid (really?), that fundamentalism-inspired terrorism is evil (really?), that Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness missionaries can be mindless and irritating (really?), that the Catholic Inquisition was bad and anti-science (really?), that evangelical television preachers and megachurch leaders are show-biz charlatans and hypocrites that prey upon the vulnerable (really?) and on and on and on — and all of it in the knowing tone of somebody who thinks he’s the only person ever to have figured any of these things out.
Honestly, I haven’t been subjected to a less-enlightened, less fun elaboration of what’s wrong with religion since I was trapped in a college dorm room with a bunch of 18 year olds smoking dope and making these same commonplace observations– and at least then I was smoking dope. Truly, and sadly, through most of this book Thomas M. Disch is a giant bore, and a lousy, patronizing writer. You get the sense that Disch knew this, but could not summon the energy to hone the edge, that he just couldn’t find it in him to do the hard work that could have made this book really something special.
What’s poignant — and here I realize I’m wading into “armchair Freud” waters — is that you can almost see the depression swallowing him. The most lively parts of the book are those that Disch claims to have pulled out of his sock drawer from a decade ago or more (and I don’t see any reason to doubt Disch about this). The parts of the book that he wrote from Christmas 2004 to Epiphany 2005, the bulk of the “Holy Writ” stuff, are like the rantings of an angry drunk at the end of the bar going on about how priests are nothing but an organized gang of boyfuckers. It’s not quite that bad, but in these sections of the book subtlety and nuance are on life support. Disch’s suicide seems less shocking after you’ve read this book. It seems like he was out of gas, and he knew it.
About The Wall of America: I enjoyed it less than I did The Word of God. There are some good bits, but in general it contains some of the least impressive work from a generally very impressive writer. I don’t think I’ll say anything more about it.
Footnote: On decency in the writing of book reviews
It was hard for me to divorce my feelings about Disch’s books from my knowledge that he killed himself soon after they were completed. Although I did feel an obligation to write a review–after all, that was why I had been given the books–I thought it would be churlish to write a harsh review of the last works of man so recently dead by his own hand. As you’ve seen if you’ve read this far, I was not overwhelmed by these books. One of them was a mildly ambitious effort that fell short of its mark, despite some strong points. The other was negligible. So I put off writing a review of them and then put it off some more.
As I wrote here, I’ve been studying Jeff Vandermeer’s Booklife, and as it turns out, there’s an appendix in that book by Matt Staggs about how to incorporate online social networking into one’s authorial endeavors. Seeing Matt’s name in this context made me realize that I needed to “close the loop”, as they say, on this Disch matter. So I wrote to him:
You were so good to send these books to me. I apologize for not getting back to you about them. That was rude of me.
In truth, I didn’t think I would be able to give very positive reviews — perhaps two stars out of five for “Wall of America”, and three for “Word of God”.
I’m not especially timid about writing how I feel, but I didn’t want to be churlish, especially in light of how recent was Mr. Disch’s death at the time. So I felt kind of conflicted, especially since I do very much like some of Disch’s earlier work. I decided to put it off. . . time passed. . . more time passed.
And here we are. Happy New Year!
Anyway, I just finished reading your advice about new media in Jeff Vandermeer’s Booklife (which I much appreciated), and I figured it was finally time for me to close the circle.
If you’re of the “any publicity is good publicity” camp and would like me to post lukewarm reviews of Disch’s two books, I will do so. Otherwise, I’ll leave them unmentioned.
Matt immediately wrote back
That’s perfectly understandable, and I am indeed of the opinion that open discourse and honesty are the best policies. I encourage you to follow your own inclinations in this matter.
In that spirit, still mourning the too-early passing of Mr. Disch & sorry I was not more aware of his work when he was with us, I think it’s time to at least acknowledge his two final books, flawed though they may be.