O Bethlehem is burning down

When Thomas M. Disch killed himself this summer, obituaries said he was the kind of brilliant critic’s favourite that readers ignore. After reading On Wings of Song, I see why he was admired, but also why he wasn’t read. How do you describe a novel where the only escape from religious conformism and economic depression is to sing so earnestly that your inner invisible fairy flies out of your body in a state of mystical bliss, and not make it sound silly? I sure don’t know how. I guess you have to take me on trust when I say that this bleak and quiet satire isn’t silly or funny, and definitely not blissful. Anything good in its world is shown only as an unreachable goal that adds to the bitterness of the life of Daniel Weinreb. The near-future America he lives in is falling apart, (quietly, in the background), and it’s taking him down with it, coloring him with its hypocrisy. Daniel is not an anti-hero, he seems always at the verge of success, earnestly wanting to live well, and that makes his failures more bitter. It’s the moderation I admire in this novel, the way Disch creates a feeling of a world ending, (as well as a feeling that it deserves to), without piling on with tragic horrors. Not a happy novel, this, not at all. I liked it, and I think I recommend it, but neither that nor his lit fic respectability will bring crowds of readers to Thomas M. Disch any time soon.

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