Friday, November 21, 2008

On Wings of Song, by Thomas Disch

I was an occasional reader of Thomas Disch's blog, Endzone. Most of the posts were just ordinary musings, but there were also some brilliant bits of verse and an obviously immense intelligence on display. When I was looking at John Crowley's website a few weeks ago, I found out that Disch had committed suicide in his apartment.

Something about following a person's life online and then hearing this was really disturbing, maybe even more than when I heard about David Foster Wallace. Which was also tremendously sad.

This is the best of the tributes to Disch that I've read online. The story of his last days is pretty awful. I'm sure that money wasn't the only problem, but it's depressing to think that such a great writer might have been even partially compelled to end things because of a lack of resources.

Because he was, it turns out, a great writer. I picked up one of Disch's old novels, On Wings of Song, after I found out what had happened to him, as an ineffectual form of tribute. The book is out of print and I had to request it from library storage.

It is a brilliant novel, one of the weirdest and most imaginative I've ever read. Any description of the plot is going to sound a little silly, and I was resistant at first, I'll admit. I was never a big reader of science fiction growing up, and I'm still much more susceptible to silliness when it's wearing some armor and swinging a sword. But this book won me over quickly and entirely.

On Wings of Song is set in the near future. Most of the book takes place in Iowa, which has become a severely repressive place, both by law and convention. There is a faction known colloquially as the "undergodders" dictating most social policy, such as the availability of certain newspapers and radio stations. (Realistically, however, most of these media do end up getting into the state through surrounding, more progressive areas like Minnesota.) The undergodders save their most virulent hatred for the practice of flying -- I guess you could call it a "wedge issue" in this world -- which is the process by which people, using music, can escape their physical bodies and become creatures called fairies.

These fairies cannot actually be detected, although there are devices to trap them using sound and other stimuli. Fairies can, however, re-enter their bodies after flying and give accounts of their experience, but the experience of flight is often so intoxicating that many people abandon their bodies and leave them to die -- in a corporeal sense, at least, since fairies appear to be immortal.

I know, I know, it sounds silly! But trust me, give this book about forty pages and you'll be completely hooked. Its protagonist is Daniel Weinreb, the fairly ordinary son of a dentist who ends up, through a venial crime, in one of the state's prison camps.

After hearing a man sing in the camp, Daniel becomes obsessed with flying, which is actually quite difficult and requires both musical skill and something like depth of soul -- it takes complete involvement in a song that one is singing (along with, sometimes, the help of various devices) to achieve the escape velocity required to leave the body.

Along the way, Disch throws off some brilliant and terrifying details of this particular future. What makes his world so endlessly interesting is that it isn't monopolar. Unlike a fair amount of science fiction, everything in his world doesn't follow from one central conceit, with the rest of the author's energy going towards tracing obvious consequences and inventing bits of technological embroidery. Disch's world is actually alive and random and in flux; policies change and become more or less repressive, and there are economic and technological and social changes that don't all cut in a single direction.

I'll leave the disturbingly plausible P-W lozenge for readers to discover themselves, but here is an example of what I'm talking about. This is a description of part of Daniel's job at the prison camp, which involves:
.. the breeding of a specially mutated form of termite that was used as a supplement in various extended meat and cheese products. The bugs bred at Station 78 in all their billions, were almost as economical a source of protein as soybeans, since they could be grown in the labyrinthine underground bunkers to quite remarkable sizes with no other food source than a black sludge-like paste produced for next to nothing by various urban sanitation departments. The termites' ordinary life-cycle had been simplified and adapted to assembly-line techniques, which were automated so that, unless there was a breakdown, workers weren't obliged to go into the actual tunnels.
This horrific passage might not even be forward-thinking anymore; the book was written in 1978, and for all I know this is already happening in some form, at least for animal feed. But the primary appeal of this book -- for me, at least -- is not in futurological details, as impressive as they might be. And it isn't even the passages of extraordinary psychological perceptiveness scattered throughout the book. For example: "Grandison Whiting listened to the exposé [Daniel is talking about the abuses in the prison camp] with a glistening attentiveness behind which Daniel could sense not indignation but the meshing of various cogs and gears of a logical rebuttal."

With so many phrases in the book -- "glistening attentiveness" -- I thought yes, yes that's exactly right. (I also loved the line, "She was already, at fifteen, a fanatic in the cause of her own all-conquering good looks.")

So what is wonderful about this book? I'm not sure I know. Maybe its unpredictability, its ability to expand in the mind. Flying -- which Daniel keeps unsuccessfully trying to do as the plot winds its way through several twists and changes in perspective and location -- is obviously a metaphor for transcendence: artistic, athletic, religious, whatever. And even though the book stays true to its reality and doesn't seem like an exercise in connecting allegorical dots, the idea of flying becomes, by the end, incredibly charged and resonant.

It might especially connect with people (I am one) who are more moved by music than any other art, and enjoy singing and playing instruments, but have never quite been able to get good enough -- in technical terms and in terms of complete internal commitment -- to lose themselves in the process of creating music.

There is something, it is true, that is a little juvenile in this obsession with losing inhibitions. And, in a wonderful interview, Disch acknowledged that "science fiction, in our culture, is basically intended for children, or young adults, as they say, and a certain amount of science fiction has to fulfill the emotional and intellectual needs of 13, 14, 15-year olds."

He obviously wasn't trying to describe his own work, but there were parts of On Wings of Song where I felt like this was still true. There is a character named Barbara, for example, in the prison camp, who chides Daniel for not running away from Iowa at fifteen like his friend did: "In any case, Daniel," she says, "age has nothing to do with anything. It's the excuse people use till they're old enough to acquire better excuses--a wife, or children, or a job. There are always going to be excuses if you look for them."

Deep inside, I heard a little cheer from myself at 15, who is still in there somewhere. Because the emotional and intellectual needs of young adults don't actually go away; they just get wrapped in layers of complexity and compromise and tolerance (and wisdom?) But they can still be reached -- and should be, every once in a while, because they are legitimate needs and we muffle them at our own peril.

There are some things, though, that I do feel I've outgrown. I'm more bored than thrilled by sacrilege at this point, and the book's satire of fundamentalism didn't do much for me. Also, it doesn't end that well. In a scene near the end, when Daniel is singing a song about honeybunnies on stage after dyeing his skin to look like a black man (I think he might have been in a bunny costume, too) the old spectre of silliness finally re-emerged. Part 3 of the book in general, where this scene takes place, didn't click for me except in parts, and the conclusion is surprising but not really satisfying.

But On Wings of Song is at least two-thirds of a masterpiece, which is more than enough for me. It should really be back in print. I'm going to read Camp Concentration and 334 next, and maybe some of Disch's essays and poetry. I'm sorry I didn't find them sooner.

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