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Book Review – The Wall of America by Thomas M. Disch

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It’s taken me more than ten years, but I’ve finally ‘discovered’ Thomas M. Disch. Camp Concentration didn’t do it for me, I had mixed feelings about 334, but I’m proud to report that some of the stories in The Wall of America are among the best I’ve ever read. There are 19 stories in this volume, published over the space of around two decades. Many originally featured in science fiction magazines such as Interzone or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and others in literary journals such as The Hudson Review. Disch’s often uneasy blend of SF and literary fiction served partly to alienate him from both communities, much to his personal detriment. And yet he is one of the most intelligent and urbane writers I’ve ever read. Such is the paradoxical nature of the man and his work, and the fickle nature of the fields he worked in.

To the stories themselves: I felt that the volume’s best work was near the beginning, and as such I thought at one stage that I would enjoy all 19 stories in the book. It wasn’t to be: Disch is a far too varied and often idiosyncratic writer to please everyone every time. “The White Man” seemed to be set in the sort of perilous near-future Disch made his own stomping ground in 334. In it, a young Somali girl in the U.S. is stalked by a strange white man. The story has a devastating ending. “The Wall of America” is about a wall between the U.S. and Canada, which is used by artists in search of physical space and headspace. Very intruiging. “Ringtime” was a more traditional SF story, but an outstanding one. “The Owl and the Pussycat” was not only my favourite story here but one of the best pieces of work I’ve had the privilege to read. Ever. I can’t describe it, except to say that the reader’s mental picture changes several times over the course of the story. This is masterful writing. “Canned Goods” is a throwaway joke of a story, but it’s a good joke. And “The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or, A Shameless Lie” is an amusing satire on Whitley Streiber and other UFO nuts.

Then I put the book down. This isn’t the sort of thing you can read all at once. These stories are dense, highly intellectual and will require further reading to appreciate fully. I don’t often feel that a writer is ‘over my head’ intellectually, but Disch sometimes gives me that feeling. Not only was he a supremely talented writer, but he must surely have been one of the most intelligent writers of his generation too. Intelligence and writing ability are not always one and the same, but they found a brain to share in Thomas Disch’s head.  Some of these stories missed the mark for me, often due to their flippant tones and annoyingly irreverent treatment of their subject matter. “A Family of the Post-Apocalypse,”  “Three Chronicles of Xglotl and Rwang,”  and “Torah! Torah! Torah! Three Bible Tales for the Third Millennium” fit this category for me. In the latter of these, it may simply be my ignorance of matters Biblical that was at fault.

The rest was variable. I especially liked the biting satire “The Man Who Read a Book.” This is a must-read. “Painting Eggplants” was interesting, if understated. And “The First Annual Performance Art Festival at the Slaughter Rock Battlefield” is so complex that I will certainly have to read it again, more closely this time. The Wall of America is a triumph, and yet I can see why Disch didn’t reach the audience he intended to reach. He was simply too bright and too multifaceted to capture mainstream attention.

I’ve been meaning to pick up Disch’s last novel, The Word of God, from Planet Books in Mt. Lawley, but now I read that my beloved Philip K. Dick is the book’s antagonist! I think. For some reason there was no love lost between Dick and Disch. The matter perplexes me…

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On the writing front, I’m up to 35,000 words in 33 days. I could probably make it to 45,000 in the 8 days left of my holidays, but I’m starting to run out of steam, so I’ll probably stop at 40,000.

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