Thomas M. Disch - 334

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334



"To call this a novel is not strictly accurate. It is a group of stories or fictional studies, some of which have had independent publication, but there is a unity of intention as well as scene which makes the term "novel" - implying a larger and more complex organisation than the mere story - altogether applicable. The author felt it necessary to disclose, not in the disinfected generalities of a textbook but through the flesh-and-blood immediacies of literary art, the horrors of a sector of New York where civilisation seems to have broken down. The corruption of the best is always the worst: the worst depravities can spring out of the most complex social organisation. Take primitive man and you find patterns of behaviour dictated by ecological need: the anthropologist can study them coolly. Take an urban society that has gone rotten and perhaps only the artist (or saint) is big enough to embrace it: something more than science is need for its comprehension. The literary value of the book, on the evidence of the careful choice of verbal technique and the exactness of the notation (both of speech and act) cannot be gainsaid. It requires considerable artistic skill to induce in the reader attitudes of compassion and disquiet through the immediate presentation of speech, thought and action. The Dickensian tradition approves the frequent intervention of the author as moralist, nudging the reader, putting the required words in his mouth He is working in a tradition nearly as venerable but far healthier - the naturalistic one, in which judgement is implied but never made the theme of a sermon. A remarkable balance is maintained - between clinical curiosity and disgust at human degradation: to be one of his character is, after all, to participate in the human condition: he (or she) is not one of the insensate things of masturbatory fantasy. All his characters are strongly individualised: they invite a response, and the response is normally one of compassion. Violence holds the centre here and has a hard light trained on it. It is an aspect of city life we are forced to look at unflinching, but nowhere in the detailed descriptions is there a trace of that gratuitous elaboration which betrays fascinated gloating and invites it in the reader. Read, and the emotion you will feel is a kind of dispassionate classical anger: you do not wish to intervene, you wish to change the society in which this thing can happen. Horrifying images sum up not merely the depravity of these policeless streets but the evil of the whole world: the statistics of the concentration camps cannot do as much to provoke shock and horror and fear as this picture. But his concern is not only with the horrifying fusion of sexuality with violence that is part of sick civilisations. We look round at this great modern city, with its triumphs of technology, and wonder when it will achieve the ennoblement of man. We are a long way past Wellsian optimism."
- Anthony Burgess introduction to Last Exit to Brooklyn
"The theme of [this book] is not the advancement of science as such; it is the advancement of science as it affects human individuals. The triumphs of physics, chemistry and engineering are tacitly taken for granted. The only scientific advances to be specifically described are those involving the application to human beings of the results of future research in biology, physiology and psychology. It is only by means of the sciences of life that the quality of life can be radically changed. The sciences of matter can be applied in such a way that they will destroy life or make the living of it impossibly complex and uncomfortable; but unless, used as instruments by the biologists and psychologists, they can do nothing to modify the natural forms and expressions of life itself. This really revolutionary revolution is to be achieved, not in the external world, but in the souls and flesh of human beings. Living as he did in a revolutionary period, the Marquis de Sade very naturally made use of this theory of revolutions in order to rationalize his peculiar brand of insanity. Sade regarded himself as the apostle of the truly revolutionary revolution. , beyond mere economics and politics - the revolution of individual men, women and children, whose bodies were henceforward to become the common sexual property of all and whose minds were to be purged of all the natural decencies, all the laboriously acquired inhibitions of traditional civilisation. Between Sadism and the really revolutionary revolution there is, of course, no necessary or inevitable connection. Sade was a lunatic and the more or less conscious goal of his revolution was universal chaos and destruction. The people who govern may not be sane (in what may be called the absolute sense of the word); but they are not mad men, and their aim is not anarchy but social stability. It is in order to achieve stability that they carry out, by scientific means, the ultimate, personal, really revolutionary revolution. These far from painless operations will be directed by highly centralised totalitarian governments. The immediate future is likely to resemble the immediate past, and in the immediate past rapid technological changes, taking place in a mass-producing economy and among a population predominently propertyless, have tended to produce economic and social confusion. To deal with confusion, totalitarianism is called into existence by the social chaos resulting from rapid technological progress in general and the atom revolution in particular, and developing, under the need for efficiency and stability, into the welfare-tyranny of Utopia. You pays your money and you takes your choice."
- Aldous Huxley introduction to Brave New World
(Hmm...Do you think the rather glib critical syncretism Mr. Davis is attempting is: Brave New World meets Last Exit to Brooklyn?)
"334 is a cry for help, a voice from a future not so far off - or, if you like, from a present we may never leave behind. Moving from the onset of one life preprogrammed for failure to the termination of another, beginning with a plea for dignity and ending with one for death, it presents the human evidence of a self-destructive culture, demanding from its reader the toughness of mind to feel compassion for the ordinary and ugly, the disfigured and the dispossessed, the inhabitants of an overcrowded New York in the 2020s. The whole (a strange and convoluted narrative made up of five apparently loose-linked personal glimpses of New York life, a lock for which the sixth section makes a key- although that in itself is a thing of complicated chronologies, familial and sexual relationships) not only reproduces accurately the sensation that life is made up off ill-fitting jigsaw pieces, is puzzled and puzzling and sags loosely between one supportive crux and the next, but also gives us the impression of a strange simultaneity, as if despite the time and words, the whole novel separating their personal crises, the adolescent and the old woman are begging in adjoining offices - their voices filtered through the paper-thin partition walls, joining into one thready mumble of stupefaction and pain. This is the groundwork of the book's unavoidable realism and sense of oppression: a structure which by its very iron control and sophistication conjures a gabble of intercourse, a mess of relationships, a specific crisis seen as a collection of minor crises which rarely come to a head. 334 isn't so much about the city as about our perception of it, not so much a probable future as commentary on a developing (or deteriorating) situation. It lacks the ideological mouthpieces and vast dishonest generalizations of the classic dystopist, the billboard misdirections of Orwell or Heinlein or Huxley; it evades the lassitude of the social novel. All that can be said about it in the end - and this is precisely where its status is most easily visible - is that it is about people. This is a novel about us and our precarious relationship with the real, narrated as a series of collisions between what the world is and what we would like it to be, between the kind of life we have now and the kind of life it may lead to."
- M. John Harrison introduction to 334, Gregg Press


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