Completed 3/27/2016, reviewed 3/28/2016
This is the first time I read a book where I thought the prose was great but the story was hard to follow. Based on this one book, I feel Thomas Disch is one of the best writers I’ve read in a while. Unfortunately, the structure of the book is what threw me into general disarray. The book is actually a collection of interrelated short stories about people, particularly the members of one family, who live in the population controlled near future in subsidized housing with the numeric address of 334. It’s faintly reminiscent of the interrelatedness of J.D. Salinger’s Wise Child stories (“Franny and Zooey”, “Seymour”, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”, etc).
The first half of the book is composed of actual short stories. They are fairly easy to follow. My favorite was the first story, about a young man madly in love with a young woman who finds out he doesn’t score high enough in his life analysis to qualify for having children. It sets the mood for the government-controlled near future that the rest of the stories take place in. The story also gives us a sample of one aspect of the future which is positive. Same-sex and interracial relationships are normal and unremarkable. But in general, many of the sexual relationships, as well as interpersonal relationships are dysfunctional, if not downright depraved. And racism still abounds despite the normalization of the relationships.
The last part of the book is entitled 334 and follows the lives of several members of one of the families in the building. It was very confusing to me despite the fact that I did a little research on the book before reading it. It follows Mrs. Hanson and two of her daughters over seven years. The chapters are arranged so that you bounce back and forth in the time line and it’s difficult to tell if it’s fantasy or reality. Looking at it from the outside and contemplating the structure, it’s pretty brilliant, but the reading of it is not pleasant experience. This is where the conflict arose for me between the prose and the form. Disch provides a graph to help you navigate through the stories, but I still found it very difficult to figure out what was going on. Simultaneously, reading the prose was still enjoyable. I just couldn’t piece it all together.
I should give a warning that some of the stories in this book pretty depraved. There’s one story about a morgue worker who sells the hospital’s unclaimed dead to a necrophiliac agency. There’s also a story about a group of pre-teens who plan a murder. On a less depraved but just as strange note, there’s a story about a couple whose life is meaningless without children, but it’s the husband who needs to have the maternal experience.
There’s a lot going on in this book and the best thing about it is that it’s well-written. It’s just not the most pleasant book to read from the content and form perspectives. This is a book I’d like to read again at some point, to see if I understand it better. So from my initial experience, I can only give this book three stars out of five.