Remembering Tom Disch

Tom Disch, February 2, 1940 – July 4, 2008.

Tom Disch was one of the few people I’ve ever met whom I considered a genius. Not that genius did him much good. He had a superabundance of invention, an often startling clarity of perception, and a preternaturally quick mastery of literary technique. At the same time he had little ability to handle the ordinary challenges of daily life. If he possessed the fertile imagination of a brilliant child, he also had a child’s social awkwardness and vulnerability. A connoisseur of self-loathing, he never understood how much his friends adored him. He was enormously good company—endlessly funny, intelligent, and genuinely sweet—except when he fell into a rage or depression. He could be difficult but he was never, never dull.

Their weird turns of invention, darkness of vision, and rough humor go far beyond the conventions of the genres in which he worked.The originality of his novels beggars description. While each book shares a common sensibility, these bizarre and compelling volumes not only differ from one another; they are unlike anything else in contemporary fiction. Their weird turns of invention, darkness of vision, and rough humor go far beyond the conventions of the genres in which he worked. Disch loved to outrage respectable opinion—not just middle-class opinion, the easy target of most writers. He also mocked proper liberal opinion and habitually violated even the most flexible limits of good taste. This eagerness to outrage would have been tiresome if he had not been so consistently funny and insightful.

Disch was never popular among science fiction, fantasy or horror readers. His admirers were mostly fellow writers. And despite Disch’s remarkable literary achievements, the fans were right. They knew he wasn’t writing for them. The literary mode of genre fiction is romance—the narrative tradition of wish-fulfillment featuring exciting adventure, idealized characters, and satisfactory closure. Disch upended the conventions of fantasy and science fiction by creating narratives that stubbornly refused to proceed in the proper directions. His heroes almost inevitably lose, mostly after humiliating defeats. Love ends in betrayal and abandonment. Villainy or mere incompetence triumphs. Moral authority proves useless or hypocritical. Disch’s mode was not romance but bitter satire. He liked to amuse his audience, but he took even greater pleasure in frustrating them.

Disch’s central importance in science fiction and fantasy was his determination to transform the imaginative possibilities of the science fiction and fantasy genres. Each of his novels pushed the boundaries of the field in a new way. (Had he constantly pushed the boundaries in the same way, as Philip K. Dick did, Disch might have eventually developed a cult following.) His best novels—On Wings of Song, 334, The Businessman: A Tale of Terror, and Camp Concentration—occupy a unique place in the canons of American science fiction and fantasy as disturbing and unruly counter-classics. The best of his short stories are perhaps finer still, though they await a judicious editor. The Brave Little Toaster is an utter joy—unlike the awful Disney adaptation. There was also another side of Disch’s prodigious talents—his poetry. He wrote so prolifically that his verse also awaits a skilled editor, but his best poems are not merely good but truly distinguished. Had he never written a page of science fiction, he would have a claim to posterity on his poetry alone.

I hope that in some alternative universe, a slimmer, happier Tom Disch sits in his beach house with walls lined by awards and a stack of royalty checks on his desk. It seems entirely possible. Tom had enough talent to fill several dimensions.