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8 Disch, I Thomas M. Disch writes tales that stand away and above most contemporary narrative production. The writers to whom, in my mind, he is most closely related (not in style or subject matter, but in that indefinable quality, sensibility) are England’s Ian McEwan, America’s Lynda Schor, and the American-born but finally international Harry Mathews. Among the riches Disch shares with these writers is a two-sided coin of extraordinary value: in one polished, slightly convex face you can discern reflected an astonishing social range over which the writerly vision remains precise. The other face, somewhat concave, presents a slightly askew mirror, often blatantly comic though not necessarily so, which focuses on psychosocial points in such a way that the lyric surround traditionally accompanying such details is suddenly replaced by a harsh, articulating light under which the traditional “sense of beauty” is revealed for the cliché it too often is, and a certain artistic control appears as the true source of aesthetic illumination. All four writers revel in a fantasy now weaker, now stronger through the flux of their astonishingly accurate perceptions. Disch as well writes science fiction. We could dwell at length on generic distinctions; but we all have an intuitive sense of what these distinctions are. The best such an analysis could do is dispel just a bit more of the popular prejudice that most serious readers (as opposed to merely pompous ones) have long abandoned anyway. Thomas Michael Disch was born in Iowa in 1940, an eldest child, followed by three brothers and a sister. Eventually he came to New York to study at New York University, majoring in history. Briefly he worked in advertising. Many, if not most, of his early stories appeared in the professional science fiction magazines of the times, but soon his publications had branched out to include Playboy and Harper’s at one end of the spectrum and Paris Review and New American Review at the other. In the last decade and a half Disch has lived the kind of peripatetic life which lends romance to many writers’ biographies: a handful 122 starboard wine of months in Mexico, two years in London, three years in New York, a year and a half in Rome, now back in London, now again in New York— punctuated by longer or shorter stays in North Africa, Spain, Austria, and Istanbul. Also he is the author of a pseudonymous novel, lavishly researched and elegantly written, that was briefly a small cause célèbre: While Disch was living in England, an American critic in a midwestern journal claimed that, from internal evidence, the mystery of the novel’s true authority was now solved. It was obvious the book could have come from only one contemporary writer: Gore Vidal. “Slaves” is one of my favorite Disch short stories, the more so because I suspect its excellences make themselves flagrantly available to our emotions but still hide from our analytical faculties—unless we are willing to dig. The story begins with a brief, gentle deception. Someone called “the Baron” is living with a pair of young, troubled lovers in a Riverside Drive apartment. But through the opening half-dozen pages we learn (bit by bit, if we’re alert) that this “Baron” is not the refined European aristocrat manqué, which a complex of literary associations initially demands we inscribe over our imaginative vision. Our enlightenment /disillusion presents us with a modulated displacement from that traditional lyric surround we spoke of in our opening paragraph. Thus, at the tale’s end, when the three characters plunge into precisely this lyric weltschmerz from which to launch their final, aerodynamic gesture toward freedom, Disch has already moved us out to the most ironic of distances from which to observe it: square in the bleachers with the harshest of suns burning down. Lyricism, always so carefully skewed, may at first strike a reader as awkward. Examine that “awkwardness” in Disch, and you find all the necessary signs of a high writerly intelligence wrestling with the aesthetic problems of our numerous conflicting writerly traditions that run from Gertrude Stein through modern poets like Koch and O’Hara to . . . well, among the best contemporary fiction writers, Disch. If the skewly lyric, within which so much postmodern beauty locates itself, describes the field effect of Disch’s fiction, the displaced name (e.g., the Baron in “Slaves,” Alyona Ivanovna in “Angouleme,” Yavuz in “The Asian Shore,” Hansel and Gretel in “Minnesota Gothic...


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