Posts Tagged ‘thomas m disch’

Thomas M. Disch, On Wings of Song (1979)

26 July 2008

For various day job related reasons, and as a mark of respect, this is my starting point – Disch’s suicide came as a shock and yet seems all too foreseeable given the things that were piled up on his plate. But it also seems likely that I will be writing about gay sf soon, so this seemed a correct place to start. Although, oddly, it has less gay content than I remember.

This was serialised in F&SF (Feb, Mar and Apr 1979) and then collected by Gollancz and St Martin’s (1979). Set in a typically Dischean dystopian American, this is the Bildungsroman – almost a Kunstlerroman – of Daniel Weinreb, growing up poor in an oppressive twenty-first century America. Some people are able to fly, and leave behind the bounds of their bodies and the earth, but this is both discouraged and criminalised. Weinreb is sent to prison, and after his release falls into a relationship with a rich heiress, Boadicea Whiting. They marry, but Boa disappears flying during a stop off in New York on their way to Europe, and the plane they were to take is blown up by terrorists (or possibly her father). Daniel hides in New York, with Boa’s body. He gains work as an usher at the opera, and slowly makes his fortune, aware that he could be discovered at any point.

In something that will prove to be a recurring point, there is little homosexuality in the novel. As a teen Daniel has a crush on another boy, but in his prison sentence it is middle age women he forms attachments to, rather than engaging in situational homosexuality. And he gets married. For most of the time as an usher – essentially a gigolo – he avoids putting out, and these are both male and female clients. Curiously the sequence when he is under the control of a male artist, he is wearing a chastity belt – and the artist is castrated. The sexuality works by suggestion rather than representation. (Clute in his review in Foundation 19 describes Daniel as exclusively homosexual in the third part of the novel; I think this is overstatement – he often says no or leads them on to spurn them. At what point are you homosexual?)

I wonder if there’s something to track in the image of the flyers as “fairies” – fairies are disapproved of, proper people don’t fly, there are laws against it, and people are actually frightened (why?) are fairies. Some people who are fairies, keep the secret closeted. Flying also becomes associated with the camper end of high art music (opera) so I think there’s something in the connotation. It is Bo who first flies – but it seems somewhat of a marriage of convenience between the two of them, a beard to gain respectfulness.

The ending is ambiguous – Daniel, who throughout the novel has been told that he is too Iowan, too square, to fly is giving the first performance of a grand tour in a slightly less dystopian US. At one moment he apparently flies, but is shot dead, assassinated. In fact it isn’t clear that he has flown – it may be a theatrical trick – and if he has, he may have escaped the body. It is the typical downbeat, probably unhappy, 1970s ending.

A note on the title: a Heinrich Heine poem set by Felix Mendelssohn (Op. 32/2)

Auf Flügeln des Gesanges,
Herzliebchen, trag ich dich fort,
Fort nach den Fluren des Ganges,
Dort weiß ich den schönsten Ort;

Dort liegt ein rotblühender Garten
Im stillen Mondenschein,
Die Lotosblumen erwarten
Ihr trautes Schwesterlein.

Die Veilchen kichern und kosen,
Und schaun nach den Sternen empor,
Heimlich erzählen die Rosen
Sich duftende Märchen ins Ohr.

Es hüpfen herbei und lauschen
Die frommen, klugen Gazelln,
Und in der Ferne rauschen
Des heilgen Stromes Welln.

Dort wollen wir niedersinken
Unter dem Pamenbaum,
Und Liebe und Ruhe trinken,
Und träumen seligen Traum.

There’s a translation – but there’s clearly a degree of irony at work here to consider any chance of Daniel and Bo reaching utopia.

Further reading:

  • Brigg, Peter (1990) ”Redemption’s Song’: Society and the Creative Elite in Thomas Disch’s On Wings of Song‘, Extrapolation 31 (2): 125-133.
  • Francavilla, Joseph (1985) ‘Disching It Out, An interview With Thomas Disch’, Science Fiction Studies 12 (3): 241-251.
  • Rossi, Umberto (2002) ‘Ecological Awareness and Capitalist Shortsightedness in Thomas M. Disch’s On Wings of Song‘, Foundation 84 (Spring) : 8-22.
  • Swirski, Peter (1991) ‘Dystopia or Dischtopia: The Science-Fiction Paradigms of Thomas M Disch’, Science Fiction Studies 18 (2): 161-179.