Monday, October 5, 2009

Readings 2K9: Camp Concentration

Camp Concentration
by Thomas Disch

A slim, ambitious, ecstatic book, Disch pulls off the difficult trick here of not only presenting a literary genius, but presenting the work of said genius, and making us accept the genius as a genius. Louis Sacchetti is a poet in a near-future US who is also a conscientious objector; arrested, he becomes part of a military experiment to enhance human intelligence, experiments which succeed but result inevitably in death. He’s locked up with a group of other test-subjects, and much toing and froing and playing about with minds follows. In the end the plot is worked out in accordance with symbol and image, a deft dovetailing of the novel’s concerns.

It’s a genuinely intelligent book, a concerned and human book. It draws from some surprising wells; medieval scholastic philosophy, alchemy, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Mann, Wagner, LautrĂ©amont ... it plays freely with Western culture, but maintains a shape to its narrative. Not an intense shape; it’s not really a plot-centric text, though the story is consistent and engaging. It’s more to do with the matrix of Sacchetti’s mind, how it plays with his experiences, how he tries to ascend to revelation, how he balances heaven and earth and hell. Sacchetti’s underground prison inevitably takes on symbolic overtones; he's caught between the cruel and vulgar commander of the camp and the elliptical genius of the prisoners who have been in the experiment longer than he, with a consequent greater heightening of their intelligence.

It’s a powerful book, and Disch captures the tone of Sacchetti’s voice beautifully. He’s a poet, and so has a way with language; he is a prisoner and a martyr — but he is also aware that he is a prisoner and a martyr, and increasingly a genius, and his consciousness of these things is there in Disch’s language. This is not a book that an ungifted mind could have conceived of, or executed. Now, there are weaknesses; character is not particularly profound, for example. In some ways one could argue that it has the feel of a minor novel. But if so, it is the minor novel of potentially a major writer.

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