Thomas M. Disch - The Prisoner

Home

In Person

Biography

Works

Links

Credits

 

 

Novels

Short Fiction

Non-Fiction

Poetry

Anthologies

Edited by Disch

Miscellaneous



The Prisoner: I Am Not A Number


It is after the events of the television "Prisoner". A man (never named) is retiring from the espionage service. He is kidnapped and taken to the Village. There, given the title Number 6 as all of the inhabitants of the Village are addressed by number, he is to be pumped for the information in his head. As he acquaints himself with his new environs he is led to realise that he has been in the Village before and that some agency has brainwashed him to forget. Number 6's belief in the strength of his own character is further undermined by a flashback to "Schizoid Man", and an escape results in scenes that re-enact "Many Happy Returns". Number 6 is nominated Mayor of the Village and is given the task of chaperoning Number 41, a woman whom Number 6 is sure he had a romantic relationship with in the outside world. Number 41 though has no recollection of Number 6. Whose memories are true? An escape plan devised by Numbers 6, 41, and other Village members suffers multiple-crossings and blind bluffs, resulting in the escape of Number 2 from the Village. It is revealed that Number 6 has been brought to the Village because, with adequate adjustment, he will be the perfect Number 2. Number 6 finally meets Number 1, which entity is inconvenienced by Number 6 sufficiently to let him leave freely, but with the possibility established of further adventures and books set in the Village.

A book written to spec around an existing television franchise, the only reason for its existence is that the writer satisfies its television-watching readers' prior expectations. Having paid the ticket, the reader already has a map and a list of sights he wants to see. The question becomes one not so much of how satisfying the novel is as a self-contained work but rather how well it rates in comparison to, reduplicates the experience of The Prisoner television series? The readership (formerly audience) presumably knows what it's after: a conformity, neither better nor worse. Where can the author find allowance for his authorial aesthetic? Where now his flights of technique, gambols of fancy, ripening fitness of themes?

This time around, oh, the reader is in luck. In its treatment of incarceration, social coercion, and the constituted, provisional nature of personal identity The Prisoner television series accords with Disch's perennial themes and the attitude of his youth with which he expressed them. Independent of its television begetter the book emerges as a hybrid of Camp Concentration and "The Asian Shore": the survivalist ethos that sustains the characters in his earlier work in this instance underpins the related but more vexed issues of self-definition and the means by which one can find personal surety and self-knowledge that inform his later short fiction. Differing from the television Prisoner Disch does not identify or comment on pressing current ideologies or propose an agenda of action for undermining societal constraint, yet the idea of the creative individual conflicting with an oppressive bureaucratic society (so often the theme of Dystopic sf, cf. M.Keith Booker. Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide. Greenwood Press, 1994) is one that finds consonance with many young minds, and Disch is no exception, though his treatment is usually more subtle, demonstrating processes of self-implication in social strictures, than he allows room for here. In this respect Disch does his readers and fans of the TV series a disservice. He does not deign to the gesturing at grand themes and showy social messages that impelled and characterised the television stories - his is just an elegant adventure story of disoriented intelligence agents trying to escape from blandly surreal brainwashing opponents. All of the play with double identities, betrayals and startling revelations accords with Disch's own taste for ambivalence and delight in narrative surprises, but Disch's own approach to the confrontationalism that gave the program much of its impact is to eschew its brute schocks, violence, noise and kinaesthetics for a style of drawing room drama with verbal sallies more akin to Coward and Rattigan. Like any Disch novel The Prisoner comes abetted by an armature of fine culture, heightening the dialogue (the major apparatus of the book) and conferring a lavish, cultivated purview to fascinate and offset the often unembellished property, since Disch lacks the televisual preference for gimmickry such as human chessboards and impressive techno-setpieces like speed-reading devices, mind-transference machines and supercomputers. Instead, Disch's narrative arrives at such a non-sf plot device as a performance of "Measure for Measure" ripe with metaphor and metonymy as the actions of Disch's fictional characters blur within the attraction of Shakespeare's plot. In terms of a conclusion, the novel has much of the open-endedness of the TV series, though it is easy to see that its apparent anticlimactic lack of direct resolution may owe to commercial franchise dictates, and also a possible distaste on Disch's part for the cliched grand revelations of spy thrillers - indeed while earlier sections have more than satisfied this ostentatious impulse, the ending is more of a coda. Aside from this possible fault, the book itself is an admirable opportunity for Disch to exercise what was a then refined talent for obliquity and frequently unresolved unease expressed with a clarity of style and effort in the employ of a settled plot - the impression created being rather one of Andre Gide supervising John LeCarre. While it cannot be accounted one of Disch's major works, it advances certain fundamental themes in an unexpected arena with much to offer in the way of light reading pleasure.

Correspondence Corner


Other Reviews


Home

In Person

Biography

Works

Links

Credits

 

 

Novels

Short Fiction

Non-Fiction

Poetry

Anthologies

Edited by Disch

Miscellaneous



email ukjarry@hotmail.com with comments, suggestions, opinions and information.