Camp Concentration

Camp Concentration smallExtremist reading: reading a light, Victorian cozy mystery and then an American 1960s Thomas Disch novel.  Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch (1940 – 2008) was published as a novel in 1968. It has been on my to-be-read list for awhile.  I was reluctant to read it because I knew it contained some of Disch’s more “open” and “intense” writing. It is not a simple read and therefore it is also a difficult thing to review.

If I had read this book when I was much younger… say,  a teenager, I might have been more impressed by it.  However, now, after so many years of academic philosophy, psychoanalysis, etc. the novel just makes me pity Disch. As erudite and creative as he was, he had some troubles – and I feel like most of them are fairly transparent in this novel. In fact, for all the love readers have for labels like New Wave or science fiction or dystopia, the novel reads very much autobiographically.

Disch had difficulties with another writer of speculative fiction: Algis Budrys. Frankly, I want to like both of these writers, but both of them really aggravate me.  I do not mean only that their writings annoy – but they, as people, vex me. And the fact that they irritated each other is even more aggravating. They are both deceased now and this blog is not the place to examine their choices and acts. I just felt that it was relevant to admit at the start that I want to punch both of these chaps.

In Camp Concentration, when Disch is “on,” his prose is so succinct, erudite, and layered. It is a pleasure to read such linguistic skill and be entertained by the sharp wordplay. However, when Disch is “off,” the prose is clunky, dull, tedious, and overbearing.  The novel is 184 pages and I have to suggest that there is more off than on.

“. . . perhaps I should leave the war to the politicians and the propagandists – the experts, as they are called.  Abandon controversy that I may consecrate my talents exclusively to the Muses.

And my soul, then, to the Devil?” – pg. 7

Yes, there are points where Disch’s writing is as intense, vitriolic, snarling, and savage as one hopes for from a sort of 1960s anti-Establishment poet. So, unsurprisingly, he gets lumped in with the rest of “that crowd.” Members of that crowd, by my taxonomic rendering, include:  Anthony Burgess, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Celine, and Vonnegut. I think, perhaps, that Burgess is most like Disch – A Clockwork Orange was published in 1962.

But I have grown up on Nietzsche and Voltaire and Sade! And for heaven’s sake, I read Milton and Dante and Erasmus in middle school. And worse/better. Snarling hostilities and extreme criticisms and violent condemnations are all so uninspiring after awhile. And, frankly, it seems to me… some of these writers “doth protest too much.”  (Again, I allude to Burgess and Budrys and Disch…. but out of place.) Anyway, having seen enough in the style, I recognize the nearly Yin/Yang waxing and waning.  So as strongly yang as they come with their blasphemies and discord, it burns out and turns almost into the de/receptively yin. Shhh. Don’t tell them, they cannot bear it.

Ah, but it’s one of those tomorrows – the sort when I feel that entropy is winning.  I feel, on this tomorrow, as hollow as a papier-maché mask, all grin and wink and wrinkle.  The truth perhaps – the true truth – is not so much that the mask is hollow as that I don’t care to look behind it at the nystagmic flicker of image image image that the nethermind is broadcasting to the faulty receptor of the overmind.  I am bad and silly and defeated today. I am sick. – pg. 42

So, the storyline is a little difficult to follow since Disch is using (unsurprisingly) the first person and the writing is spare and in the form of journal entries. The main character is a writer/poet named Louis Sacchetti. He is imprisoned for being a “conchie” – conscientious objector to the war, presumably some advanced form of the Vietnam War.  In the current time, Robert McNamara is the President of the USA and germ warfare is known to have been used.

Louis is taken from his general imprisonment in Springfield to an underground facility referred to eventually as Camp Archimedes. There he is told his task is to journal the facts of life in the prison as one of the inmates. This new location is a secret facility and is unorthodox in its operation.

Here in these deep burrows, they have learned to see the sun; there in the world of light, men still watch the shadows on the walls of the cave. – pg. 88

There are a lot of literary and historical referents in Camp Concentration and that is probably one reason it often gets praise. I would not call it as “stuffed” as something like Dante’s Comedy or Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, but an average, non-literary reader will probably miss many of them. Personally, I think reading Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and also Dante’s Inferno would be helpful before reading this. Necessary? No, but useful if the reader really wants to dig deep into this novel and root out absolutely as much as possible. Secondarily, I would suggest Milton’s Paradise Lost and then some Nietzsche. As I mentioned, Disch is erudite and well-read. I also appreciate that he does not constantly point this fact out like many authors do. By keeping the references barely referable and the prose just dotted with erudition, Disch lets those readers who know see the underlying architecture. If the reader is unable, then Disch does not bother bludgeoning them.

Even the names of the characters are significant… Aimee, Wagner, Mordecai, etc. Well done, Disch.

Eventually it is revealed that there is a particularly disturbing experiment taking place in this secret “prison.”  The inmates have been injected with a form of a disease. And herein is all the Faustian (Adam and the Apple) theme readers could want:  the disease destroys the patient however, it also induces intelligence maximization.  From this Disch has his characters explore all the lines of demarcation between good/evil, knowledge/sin, heresy/belief, physical health/mental health, heaven/hell, etc. For the most part, Disch does a good job pointing out these pseudo-dichotomies. In some places, it devolves into ranting rubbish. The devilish monologue of Skilliman, towards the end of the novel, is valuable and I can imagine plenty of disenfranchised Bohemian teenagers quoting from it in their undergraduate papers in the 1970s.

At night I need injections before I can sleep, and asleep I dream technicolor nightmares of exemplary and, as far as I know, wholly original terror.  Quite cud-blurbling. That’s a spoonerism, somewhat. – pg. 66

Unfortunately, I feel like the big reveals are too bogged down with slathering rabies froth to carry the novel to a truly literary plot-twist gold. And the ending, while a bit more optimistic than one has any right to expect, seems wrong compared to what we all slogged through in the prior pages. Almost as if the storyline became so yang that it was forced to return to yin…..

Read it, definitely, for the wordplay and the anguishing author. I have, however, read better dystopian/prison/anti-Establishment pieces. Not for the meek or gentle.

3 stars



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