Wednesday 9 July 2008


I was immensely saddened yesterday to learn that Tom Disch had killed himself in the apartment overlooking Union Square that he'd shared for decades with his partner Charles Naylor. I was glad the Guardian asked me to write a short appreciation to run alongside their obituary of him; read it before continuing, it's in today's paper here.

I knew Tom, first during that summer of '75 at Wesleyan, and then him and Charlie for a few years after I moved to London in 1977. The bus story is true: I got on the Trailways, coming from New York, in New Haven, having ridden the local shoreline bus to New Haven from Milford. Friends in the sf world had told me that Tom would also be teaching a course at Wesleyan, and I don't know how I made the connection with the guy on the bus, but I did. I was still pretty active on the fringes of the sf world in those days, and it occurs to me that I've fallen out of touch with virtually all those people. The community was kind of a pre-computer version of the internet--using mail and mimeographs to do the sort of thing we post instantly now. Read The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, a fantastic book, for Tom's take on that world of sf fandom.

Tom was one of those few people I've met who could always make me feel like a student. Not that he tried, and not that I resented the feeling, since there's so much to learn, but it can put a crimp into a relationship of equals. I should have got back in touch with him after he published The Castle Of Indolence, because Charles Olson was something of a specialty of mine, and he was absolutely brutal to Olson in that book. Cruel, in many ways, but with a funny edge, and with far more justification in his criticism than, say, Tom Clark's biography.

It was Tom who famously said 'the golden age of science fiction is 12', which as I get older becomes more and more demonstrably true. But he never seemed to want to accept the essential truth of his aphorism. His work was often dense: Samuel R Delany wrote an entire book of criticism around Tom's story 'The Asian Shore' (and don't say, 'well, he would, wouldn't he'). I listened to Tom discuss his story 'Descending' in his class, and he was amazed that no one had picked up that it was an allegory of death, an allegory signaled, as I recall, by references to Thackery, if not Dante.

But he was also wonderfully funny. I remember going to a party at the flat he and Charlie had in South Kensington, and I was carrying a copy of the New Statesman (this was maybe 1978, when it was still must-read) and he laughed and said 'oh I LOVE that magazine, every week there's so much to be indignant about!' One the reasons I subscribed to The Nation was to read Tom's equally funny theatre reviews, even though I'd never see any of the plays. It seemed that the Nation, and some other gigs, dried up on him. From what I understand, Charlie's long illness took away most of their money; they couldn't travel to use their house upstate, nor afford to keep it up after it flooded and was overcome by damp. After Charlie died, Tom faced eviction because the lease to the rent-controlled apartment was in Charlie's name, and he had no legal standing, despite their longterm relationship (I remember Tom always wore a wedding ring). Which is in itself a compelling argument for gay marriage rights.

Obits seemed to pass over his critical works too quickly, and I wish more attention had been paid to Clara Reeve, which is an outstanding Victorian novel and a brilliant modern take on the Victorians. I looked at the New York Times collection of reviews of his books, and was astounded by how many were assigned to critics who JUST DIDN'T GET IT. It may be that Tom's literary touch was too wide-ranging, or that his concerns were not easily transferable to the kind of mainstream fictions that might make Oprah's Book Club. I read somewhere that he felt too working class for the New York establishment, yet another way he was an outsider.

He leaves behind an impressive body of work. In SF his best books hold up today, better than many of the other great novels of the New Wave. The horror books may be too clever for themselves, and occasionally too vituperative. His critical books on poetry and sf are brilliant dissections of the genres themselves, as well as the writers and books. And The Brave Little Toaster, which I've both read, read to my son and watched in its Disney form with him, is, even on the surface level, fun.

I look back fondly on the short period of time I got to know Tom, and wish that I hadn't carried on with my youthful obliviousness to the preciousness of time passing on for as long as I did. I hope I conveyed some of that in the Guardian.

John Clute, whom I met through Tom, may have written the best summary of his work in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: "Because of his intellectual audacity, the chillingly distanced mannerism of his narrative art, the austerity of the pleasures he affords, and the fine cruelty of his wit, he has been perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern first-rank sf writers."

I just hope that last bit will change.

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