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06 July 2008 @ 03:58 pm
Thomas M. Disch 1940-2008  
I've just learned that Thomas M. Disch, author, teacher, editor, and poet, has passed away. He is the second instructor I had at the Clarion Science-Fiction Writing Workshop to have died in the past few weeks, having been preceded by Algis Budrys. In addition to having both been teachers of mine, Tom and Ajay were bound together in another, far more intense way, as can be seen by the recent posting in which Tom wrote of Ajay, "I was certain I would beat him to the exit, but no I get to dance on his grave," an eerie sentiment to reread in light of this new context.

I can no longer remember when I read my first Disch, but I can very much remember when I read my favorite Disch. It was in the pages of Terry Carr's 1967 Ace Books anthology New Worlds of Fantasy, which reprinted "The Squirrel Cage." The story begins:

The terrifying thing—if that's what I mean—I'm not sure that "terrifying" is the right word—is that I'm free to write down anything I like but that no matter what I do write down it will make no difference—to me, to you, to whomever differences are made. But then what is meant by "a difference?" Is there ever really such a thing as change?


We learn that our narrator is locked in a small, windowless room. He has no memory of how he got there or why he is there. Perhaps he volunteered for an experiment. Perhaps he's the sole survivor of the human race, Perhaps he's being studied by aliens. All he knows is that time is passing while the only things he has with which to entertain himself are the copies of the New York Times which keep showing up in the room.

And a typewriter, with no platen. He cannot see the results of his typing, and so he imagines that his words appear outside his room, perhaps like a news ticker in lights scrolling across the side of a building as crowds watch. We experience his despair as one day blends into another, and he struggles to stay sane and survive. The story ends with:

"Terrifying?"

It's not terrifying. How can it be? It's only a story, after all. Maybe
you don't think it's a story, because you're out there reading it on the billboard, but I know it's a story because I have to sit here on this stool making it up. Oh it might have been terrifying once upon a time, when I first got the idea, but I've been here now for years. Years. The story has gone on far too long. Nothing can be terrifying for years on end. I only say it's terrifying because, you know, I have to say something. Something or other. The only thing that could terrify me now is if someone were to come in. If they came in and said, "All right, Disch, you can go now." That, truly, would be terrifying.


I was only 12 when I read this story, and it made an immediate existential impact on me. It apparently had the same affect on many others. When I went to Clarion in 1979, primarily because I wanted to be taught by Tom, I started to tell him how much a certain story had moved me. He instantly knew which story I'd meant. People were always coming up to him to tell him how much that particular story had changed their lives, including one woman who had memorized the entire tale. I never went quite that far, but Tom did change my life.

While at Clarion, he told me things which had they been said by anyone else, I might not have heard. But getting critiqued by Tom was like getting hit by a 2"-by-4". He got my full attention. I left my one-on-one with Tom stunned, but as soon that critical concussion wore off, I put what he taught me into practice.

I loved his short stories such as "Descending" and "The Roaches, and his novels such as Camp Concentration and On Wings of Song, and ... well ... I wouldn't be who I am today without both them and him.

When I first read though The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, one of the entries I immediately paged to was Tom's. There I came across the following words written by John Clute:

Because of his intellectual audacity, the chillingly distant mannerism of his narrative art, the austerity of the pleasures he affords, and the fine cruelty of his wit, Thomas M. Disch has been perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern first-rank SF writers.


And though that sort of description might put off those of you who dream of bestsellerdom, when I read those words, I immediately thought, if anyone could ever honestly describe my work in that way, I would be happy. It would be enough. I have no idea what Tom thought of that write-up, but I hope that he, too, was pleased.

And now he's suddenly gone, with a new novel just out, and having blogged as tomsdisch just a few days ago. I'm stunned, and saddened, and not sure what else to say, other than to repeat these words from "The Squirrel Cage":

"All right, Disch, you can go now."
 
 
 
coppervalecoppervale on July 6th, 2008 09:32 pm (UTC)
Losing people who were influential to us is difficult enough - that it seems to have been suicide makes it worse. I didn't know him, hadn't read much of his stuff, but friended him on lj because I liked some things I HAD read. And now I wish I'd read - and corresponded - more. Man.
scottedelman: Clarionscottedelman on July 7th, 2008 01:17 pm (UTC)
Gene O'Neill, who attended Clarion with me back in 1979, had this to say:

Shocker! He was one of my favorites, too. and of course "The Squirrel Cage" is a really intriguing story. He was probably the most interesting pro at Clarion. I remember having breakfast with him, my roommate and two ladies from Venezuela—they were high in the political administration at that time and working on English. What surprised me was he didn't realize when we took advantage of the ladies' lack of understanding of idiom and were kidding them. He didn't understand either. Surprising with his level of sophistication. I think "The Asian Shore" is my favorite piece of Disch. I'll remember something Carol Emswiller said about him, that Thomas Disch can write *anything*. She meant any genre, etc.

I still have your fascinating interview in one of the last Last Waves.

An excellent writer.

You might add that I think lots of writers have that little kid curious/awed by everything look—what people call bright-eyed. Tom had that look.