Wednesday, 8 October 2008

‘The Wall of America’ – Thomas M. Disch (Tachyon Publications)

Maybe it’s because my tastes run to different things, maybe it’s simply because there just aren’t enough hours in the day to read, but I’d never heard of Thomas M. Disch until the news came out that he died in July this year. Disch was a prolific writer who started out writing science fiction and then branched out into what looks like anything else that took his fancy. I didn’t realise this but one of his story treatments, for Walt Disney, eventually became ‘The Lion King’. I learn something new every day :o)

It was Disch’s apparent willingness to keep trying new stuff that persuaded me to give his short story collection, ‘The Wall of America’, a go. Just the very nature of his output suggested that there would be something there for everyone. The ‘speculative fiction’ nature of some of the stories also looked like they would satisfy me in terms of what I’m after out of my reading right now.

At only two hundred and forty two pages, ‘The Wall of America’ looks like a fairly slim read but you couldn’t be more wrong. There’s a lot more to Disch’s writing than just the words on the page, there’s a whole lot going on behind those words including things that I knew were there but didn’t quite get...

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the very nature of a short story collection means that for every story you love there will be at least one that either leaves you cold or you just cannot stand. It was a shame that ‘The Wall of America’ opened with a story that left me cold...
I got the feeling that ‘The White Man’ was trying to make a point but I just couldn’t get what it was. Consequently I found it difficult to identify with why the main character of the piece went out and did what she did. It was a climax that was puzzling (for me) but definitely very intense!
The next couple of stories had the same kind of effect and I was seriously considering putting the book down for a while and trying something else but then I got it... While some of the meanings behind the text remained fuzzy I suddenly had a better idea about what Disch was doing.

The thing I found, while reading this book, is that while there were a lot of things that I didn’t get at first, Disch’s writing had me wanting to come back and chip away until I found the meaning I was missing. The prose didn’t exactly suck me right into the book (as it sometimes does with other books) but it was beautiful all the same and kept me reading. It was around here that I realised Disch’s trick (at least, the one it felt like he was playing on me) was to take his ‘message’ and wrap it up in something completely different. ‘The Wall of America’ isn’t so much about the spectacle of a giant wall covered in art but more about the life choices faced by one of the artists. ‘Canned Goods’ isn’t so much about the aftermath of an apocalypse; it’s more of a build up to the killer joke right at the end of the story.
Every story in this collection offers you a choice of road to travel down and the amazing thing is that the quality of the prose means either trip will be a good one. There’s poignancy and laughter in equal measure.

There is an air of humour in this collection that Larry has mentioned (next to a post further down the page) is satirical in nature. As far as the satire went I found the collection a little hit and miss with only three stories hitting the mark for me (‘A Family of the Post Apocalypse’, ‘The Man who read a Book’ and ‘The First Annual Performance Art Festival at the Slaughter Rock Battlefield’). When it hit home though I found the satirical elements to be very clever and insightful, Disch doesn’t waste time in just mocking things, there’s always a point.
As far as the other stories go I don’t doubt that the satire is there, it’s just that I couldn’t see it. I’m not afraid to admit that some things just go straight over my head, every now and then, and maybe I’m just not close enough to the subject matter for the satire to be more apparent...

The great thing though is that I will be back to read this collection again in the knowledge that there’s more meaning to be found behind the words. I found it tough to get into (tougher than I’ve found most other books) but beautiful at the same time.

Nine out of Ten


Michael said...

Thank you again for the interesting review. One you really read two books a day or what...I'm just wondering how you manage...

Graeme Flory said...

There's no way I could read two books a day! (Although I'd love to have the time...)
I read a lot on the way to/from work each day (and during my lunch break) and I also have more than one book on the go as well.