The Magazine

Thomas M. Disch, 1940-2008

Joseph Bottum on Thomas M. Disch

Jul 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 42 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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He sent me a note on July 2, just some jokey line about politics: nothing unusual, nothing portentous, nothing worth a call to see how he was feeling. Two days later, according to the news reports, he sat down in his New York apartment and put a gun to his head--a July 4 suicide, the noise of the shot lost in the crash of the fireworks above the East River.

I can picture it, unfortunately. Those ratty, rundown rooms in which he lived. The pistol he kept in gleeful defiance of the city's gun laws. The prickly brilliance with which he thought himself down into a narrower and narrower trap. The cosseted ill-health and the limp. The endless self-conceit that confirmed even his despair as a great and cosmic thing: an arrogance against the universe, a point of deadly pride. "Here in old age," he grandly announced when I saw him at lunch this spring, "I've finally decided that being a genius is enough for any man, and I'm just going to have to live with it."

He couldn't, of course, because it's not enough: The mad brightness of his arrogance burned against a background blacker than the grave. But the truth is that Tom Disch really was a genius. There was nothing he couldn't do with words. In 1980, he banged out a children's tale called "The Brave Little Toaster: A Bedtime Story for Small Appliances" that became a popular Disney film. In 1987, he penned a screenplay for Miami Vice: the weirdest episode of that television program, starring--if I remember correctly--the soul singer James Brown as an extraterrestrial and the gawky young Chris Rock as a hitman, with some inexplicable subplot involving peanut butter.

Just because he was who he was, he got away with things that few other writers have managed. Who else could have written comically lowbrow reviews for Entertainment Weekly, deliberately pretentious theater criticism for the Nation, wisecracking essays on art for THE WEEKLY STANDARD, and formal verse for First Things?

He was best known for the science fiction he wrote early in his career, from The Genocides in 1965 through On Wings of Song in 1979. A member of the "New Wave" generation, he helped move science fiction away from its pulp origins, but there was also something dark and off-putting in his work. Only in 1999 did he finally win one of science fiction's Hugo Awards, and that for his nonfiction history of the genre, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of. As the critic John Clute once observed, "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."

He wanted, however, to be known as a poet, even changing his byline from "Thomas M. Disch" to "Tom Disch" whenever he published his verse. His two volumes of essays about poets and poetry are the most lively of the last twenty years, and his own poetry was at its best in comic applications of fantastically difficult forms.

All in all, it was a fine career--one with which nearly any popular writer would be satisfied. And yet, it seems, in the final analysis, strangely lacking. Or lacking, at least, in the works one would expect from a talent as prodigious as Tom Disch's. He once told me that part of the reason he quit writing science fiction was that, to deepen it into real art, "I would have to be like [the brilliant religious science-fiction author] Gene Wolfe and return to the Catholicism that I barely got away from when I was young--and I can't do that, of course."

Of course. His homosexuality was always unhappy, and his life was always a mess, and he never escaped his escape from Catholicism, if that makes any sense: He never got over the proud feeling that in his unique genius he had broken his chains like Prometheus and was free to do anything.

Whatever such men do, in the end, it cannot be enough. By the time he sat down this summer to kill himself, he seemed to have frittered away most of the money he'd made. A pipe had burst in his farmhouse in upstate New York, and two years later, he told me this spring at lunch, he still hadn't done anything about it: a lifetime of books and papers now abandoned, an inch deep in mold. That's a terrible image to have left for one of the most talented and interesting people of his generation. An image of waste and unbearable sadness.


JOSEPH BOTTUM