Thomas Disch, Novelist, Dies at 68
Published: July 8, 2008
Thomas M. Disch, an author, poet and critic who twisted the inherently twisted genre of science fiction in new, disturbing directions, including writing his last book in the voice of God, died on Friday in his Manhattan apartment. He was 68.
Jaime Spracher/The Free Press
Thomas M. Disch
His friend Alice K. Turner said Mr. Disch shot himself. She and other friends told how his apartment had been devastated by a fire; then his partner of more than 30 years died; then his home in Barryville, N.Y., was flooded; and finally, he faced eviction after he returned to the apartment. He also suffered from diabetes and sciatica.
“He was simply ground down by the sequence of catastrophes,” his friend Norman Rush, the novelist, said Monday.
Mr. Disch’s work was voluminous and included many forms and genres. In addition to writing speculative fiction (his preferred term for science fiction), he wrote poetry from light to lyric to dramatic; realist fiction, children’s fiction and historical fiction; opera librettos and plays; criticism of theater, films and art; and even a video game.
One of Mr. Disch’s best-known works is “The Brave Little Toaster: A Bedtime Story for Small Appliances” (1986), in which a toaster, a clock radio and an electric blanket come to life. In The New York Times Book Review, Anna Quindlen said the book was more sophisticated than it seemed: “Buy it for your children; read it yourself,” she advised.
But it was as an exemplar of a generation of more sophisticated, better-educated science-fiction writers who emerged in the 1960s that Mr. Disch first stood out. His dark themes, disturbing plots, corrosive social commentary and sheer unpredictability made him a leader of what was called “the new wave” of science fiction writers, those who consciously wrote literature rather than disposable pulp entertainment.
“You could finally write for grownups!” Mr. Disch said in 2001 in an interview with Strange Horizons, an online speculative fiction magazine.
Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and a poet and critic, said Monday, “The reason his science fiction is important is that he combined a kind of really dark Swiftian satire with a modernist, really postmodernist sensibility.”
David Pringle, an editor and critic, most recently listed three novels by Mr. Disch on his list of the 100 best science fiction novels: “Camp Concentration” (1968), which tells of political prisoners who are being treated with a new drug that increases their intelligence, but also causes their early deaths; “334” (1972), which describes a New York City housing project that has sunk to depressing depths in 2023; and “On Wings of Song” (1979), which chronicles an Iowan who comes to New York and encounters a similar hell.
Thomas Michael Disch was born in Des Moines on Feb. 2, 1940. His father sold magazines, encyclopedias and Quonset huts door to door, and the family moved to Fairmont, Minn., when Thomas was 8. By the time they moved to St. Paul five years later, Thomas had begun to fill tablets with future histories of galactic empires.
After falling in love with Shakespeare and graduating from high school in 1957, Mr. Disch worked at low-paying jobs like night watchman at a funeral parlor. He moved to New York, where more low-paying jobs followed, including writing copy for an ad firm and carrying a spear at the Metropolitan Opera. He dropped out of the architecture program at the Cooper Union, and then left New York University after he sold a short story for $112.50.
In the 1980s and 1990s Mr. Disch used classic thriller techniques in his “Supernatural Minnesota” series, in which he combined the macabre with science fiction to expose the corruption of various occupations, including businessman, doctor, priest and teacher. Priests in “The Priest” (1994) take the biggest hit: pregnant teenagers are imprisoned and killed by mad clergymen.
” ‘The Priest’ deserves consideration as the purest Gothic novel of the 20th century,” The St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers said.
Mr. Disch’s poems were known for their technical craft, rejection of obvious sentimentality and unusual subjects. “How to Behave When Dead” prescribed etiquette for the interred.
His criticism appeared in The Nation, The New York Daily News, The New York Sun and elsewhere. He wrote a series of poems on grammar, for which he was a stickler, including one on auxiliary verbs. He antagonized some science fiction fans by writing a book in 1998 criticizing the genre for encouraging people to believe in things like U.F.O.’s.
Mr. Disch’s partner of more than 30 years, Charles Naylor, a poet, died in 2005. Mr. Disch is survived by his brothers Jeffrey, of Stillwater, Minn., Gregory, of Kaleden, British Columbia, and Gary, of Ottawa, Ont.; and his sister, Nancy Disch of Minneapolis.
This year, Mr. Disch published “The Word of God: Or, Holy Writ Rewritten,” a novel in which he used his idea of God’s voice. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, he said this device meant he could speak nonsense and it would be true.
Ben Downing, another friend, said Monday that Mr. Disch spoke often and frankly about suicide, treating the subject with typical irreverence. Mr. Disch proposed a calendar with a famous self-annihilation (like Sylvia Plath‘s on Feb. 11) commemorated each day of the year.