Home > Book Reviews > Book Review – 334 by Thomas M. Disch

Book Review – 334 by Thomas M. Disch

334cover

Tom Disch is something of an enigma to me. He deploys a formidable vocabulary on one hand (which, if I had been more diligent, would have seen me reaching for the dictionary) and on the other hand writes coarse, even vulgar prose. The first novel of his that I read was also his first, The Genocides. I clearly remember being enthralled by it one summer’s night at a caravan park in the Swan Valley, many years ago. Camp Concentration and 334 are probably Disch’s most famous science fiction novels, but when I read them as an eighteen year-old they had little impact on me. Likewise On Wings of Song. And then I more or less forgot about Tom Disch for almost a decade.

Earlier this year, a friend of mine, Nathan Hobby, commented on Disch’s passing. It was suicide, and I spent a couple of hours looking through the wikipedia entry and Disch’s own website. And then I forgot about him again. And now, on re-reading 334, I have to say that my initial instincts regarding Disch (i.e. indifference) remain true. 334 is what was once known in the SF field as a ‘fix-up’ novel, in that it is taken from short stories previously published in magazines. Another SF writer of this era, Barry Malzberg (with whom I had a lengthy email correspondence with in 2000-01) explained that it was a way to make money out of work you had already done. And so 334 is ‘fixed-up,’ or perhaps cobbled together.

I responded best to the first two stories, ‘The Death of Socrates’ and ‘Bodies.’ 334 itself is an apartment building in a future New York, a world of overpopulation, political indifference and climatic disasters. Oh wait, that’s our world. And here Disch proves to be a reasonable prophet. Like almost all science fiction, however, there are glaring absences in Disch’s future. Most notably, the desktop computer revolution does not appear to have occurred by the 2020s in Disch’s universe. Furthermore, the state is much more paternal than is actually the case today. Disch seems to have an uneasy relationship with SF itself, and as such his book treads a line between ‘straight’ SF and literary fiction, not always with complete success.

334 lacks drive. I have already mentioned that I liked the first two stories, and probably especially the second of these, which details a macabre situation in which morgue workers sell bodies destined for the crematorium to necrophiliacs on the black market. This is a haunting piece that does much to illustrate one of Disch’s central ideas: that the modern state, and the grinding poverty that it inflicts on most of its citizens, causes the people themselves to devalue human life. This is an important idea because it has been ignored in much speculative fiction concerning a proposed (or actual) tyrannical state. One character in ‘Bodies’ bullies another into turning off the life-support on an otherwise fully-functioning human being in order to cover up his earlier theft of a woman’s body. This is powerful, challenging work.

If I was expecting 334 to be a treatise on the nature of oppression in the twenty-first century, I was mostly disappointed. What unfolds instead is an family saga that charts the various schemes and setbacks of the Hanson family, inhabitants of building 334. The final story, “334,” charts much of this imagined history in short snippets, jumping backward and forward in time. I can’t say I cared much for most of this, but the ending, in which elderly Mrs Hanson is evicted from her apartment at last, was strong. Her daughter Lottie tries half-heartedly to kill herself on the pyre the mother creates of their belongings, but the fire is extinguished by a firefighter. But the final chapter is haunting and, as I began to realise, foreshadows Disch’s own demise. In it, Mrs Hanson articulates to a social worker the precise reasons for her wanting to end her life. Apparently the state will sanction (or even conduct) this action.

Life imitates art, or art life. Disch wrote of an elderly woman being evicted from her apartment and then deciding to commit suicide. If I have got my facts straight (which I may have not) Disch was in the process of being evicted from his apartment when he committed suicide, at a similar age to his Mrs Hanson. Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but it seems more than co-incidence. Do we write our own deaths as writers? I myself have been morbidly obsessed with death from an early age: from Hitler and Auschwitz through to the Cold War and Nuclear Winter and back again. Maybe somewhere in the pages of my own unpublished writings lies a passage from my own future, of my own death. It’s an unsettling thought.
This is a link to Disch’s Livejournal. The most recent entry (i.e. his last) is at the top:

http://tomsdisch.livejournal.com/

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  1. November 19, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    Great review. It’s been a long time since I read 334, but it was one of my favourite novels at the time, and I remember it fondly. For me the ‘fix-up’ works. The tenuous connection between the stories gives a breadth to the work as a whole. All those variations on 334 (doesn’t a woman hallucinate she’s in the year 334 on the drug as well?). The co-incidence with the death of the old woman is spooky.

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