334

January 12th, 2009 by Editor B

Once again, these are not reviews, just some scattered reading notes.

Title: 334
Author: Thomas M. Disch
Published: 1974

Like Nova, this is a good novel by an author capable of greatness. I admire Disch, and was saddened when he took his life last year. I have a collection of his stories, entitled Fun with Your New Head that is amongst my very favorite books.

334 is called a novel, but it fits that descriptor loosely. It reads more like a collection of interrelated stories. (And indeed my friend Frank described it as a classic example of a “fix up” novel, since some of the stories were published separately first.) I’d describe it as five short stories followed by a fugue-like novelette.

It’s bleak stuff, or at least it seems to be so intended. Disch envisions a very near future which is not so much a dystopia as a triumph of mediocrity. I found one sentence on page 102 that seemed to encapsulate the spirit of the whole book:

Smells filmed every surface like cheap skin cream.

Of course it’s hard to sustain interest over the length of a novel in characters who are thoroughly unsympathetic. My objection is that the most oppressive force in the book would seem to be the author himself. His loathing for humanity somewhat overwhelms the characters themselves. I imagined that after the final page, once the author was done, things would have to get better for most of them. In other words, I didn’t find his vision thoroughly convincing.

The tales in Fun with Your New Head are bleak too, but with a darker, more horrific edge. Both books are suffused with despair, but I found 334 subtler, more realistic, and a bit of a snooze. The problem with a thoroughly realistic bleakness is that it’s not very much fun.

2 Responses to “334”

  1. mike Says:

    I concur, B. For some reason from time to time I have found myself rereading this book, though. I think it may have been Disch’s attempt to construct a ‘realist’ book in the sense that is meant when we refer to the French realists, de Maupassant and such. However I do not recall noting Disch constructing metaphors for his characters’ lives and conditions within the book, so I may be off base.

  2. Mark Folse Says:

    This is such a great line: “not so much a dystopia as a triumph of mediocrity”

    I think this summarizes so many dystopic situations. The film Brazil immediately came to mind as I read that line.

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