Tom Disch is one of my favorite authors; I find his writing to be powerful and insightful, unrelenting but sensitive. His work is often infuriating and disturbing, but worth the effort to engage it. The first work of his that I read was On Wings of Song, his 1979 novel of a dour and bizarre future dystopian US. I read it in 1983 as a junior in high school, where it made a profound, half-understood impact on me. It provoked me to question what I knew and to face up to what I didn’t, to be curious, suspicious, and critical of the world as presented to me.
The book has light SFnal elements but they are not the core of the story. Disch creates a dystopian world that genuinely unsettles the reader, a world not explained in unrealistic conversation or infodumps, but a world that unspools as the main character, Daniel Weintraub, lives in it. You often see the effects of these elements before you know much about them, and that is a peculiar strength of the novel. What matters more is the transformation of aspiration into experience, the disjuncture between our dreams and our life in the moment. As Daniel goes through a series of tragic, strange events that shape his life, we are as surprised and saddened and bewildered as he by how the world works. It is not a smooth, curved story arc, but a series of shocks and revelations that happen to Daniel and force him to make choices: good, bad, outrageous.
As Daniel stumbles from one situation to the next, we see him struggle to create a sense of story for himself. From religious edicts to “flying,” from opera performances to shaping a self, life is a search for purpose, place, and self in a chaotic struggle with the world as shaped by other stories. Disch does not spare his main character from the cruelty and ignorance of the world. But Daniel’s desire to “fly” (in a number of ways) motivates him to keep living, to find that ending that will fulfill him in a world that tries to thwart or warp his hopes and desires, that labels all of them deviant or impossible.
In a ludicrous world, it is unsurprising that success, when Daniel finds it, is ludicrous and impermanent. Daniel spends most of the book having to be who he isn’t, and usually failing. But he holds on to a sliver of story that started when he was young: “He knew, with an absoluteness of knowing that he would never doubt for many years, that some day the whole world would know who he was and honor him.” When he does get to that moment, it is still not one of resolution. Even the end of the story is, at first glance, a frustrating ambiguity.
This is what makes the book so great. After hardships and letdowns the prize is not definitively won, because it can’t be. This askew future that Daniel exists in impedes him, but he finds a way to least think he has fulfilled his joyous goal. Daniel has to negotiate many identities to live his life, from good son to fool in blackface to prostitute to star, and none of them encompass or define him. Everyone is a creation, their stories an effort to sell their created personas, and Daniel ends up with the best ending he can hope for: the dream of “flying,” of leaving his physical body and thus the world that inhibits him, if only for an instant. But does really fly in the end? It doesn’t matter much, because in that final moment he was who he wanted to be, even if up to that point he was putting on a act, creating a charade.
On Wings of Song is a profound, complex, inchoate, depressing novel. It demands re-reading and reflection. From its political implications to the gritty story of living a life, Disch’s work does not create one response from a reader. It urges the reader to think about their own response, their own self, and how they negotiate their own crazy world.
John H. Stevens is a bookseller, writer, and reviewer in Ithaca, NY.
Categories: Book Reviews