Thomas Disch committed suicide on July 4th. I wouldn’t bother writing about this, except that offing himself was a perfect correspondence to what he tried to do to science fiction (the art form with which he was most associated).
Disch was bitchy, clever, and depressive — Oscar Wilde in the gutter but without the looking-at-the-stars part. His SF writing was bitchy, clever, and depressive too — much of it to the point of near unreadability even for me, a scholar of the field with a strong stomach. To actually enjoy it would have required a specialized form of masochism rare in any population other than English Lit majors.
Disch was very nearly a walking paint-by-numbers picture of the Western literary intellectual in a state of decadence: hard-left politics, check; critical essays politely described as ‘acerbic’ but often better characterized as petty and venomous, check; nihilistic self-pitying bitterness, check; rambling self-indulgent free-verse poetry, check. I’d be surprised if there weren’t a drug or alcohol problem in there somewhere.
It sucked to be Thomas Disch; even his admirers used words like “bitter”, “mean”, and “curmudgeon” to describe him. Unfortunately for the rest of us, it sucked to be affected or influenced by him, too. He was one of the stars of the “New Wave”, a movement of the 1960s and early 1970s that tried to “reform” SF from the superficialities of its pulp-genre origins. If you weren’t there, you may safely guess that these “superficialities” included most of what made SF appealing, then and to this day. The agenda of Disch’s writing and criticism was clear; he wanted SF to be just as incapable of joy and innocence and optimism as he was himself, and confused this bleakness with “maturity”
The SF field recovered from the New Wave in the early 1980s. Disch did not. As Patrick Nielsen Hayden observes, “Disch played the game of literary politics hard and sometimes lost badly.”
I would predict a swift descent into well-deserved obscurity for Disch’s work, except that the arts intelligentsia fetishizes people like him — now that he’s safely dead, he may well undergo the same sort of entirely undeserved canonization as (say) Philip K. Dick.
I risk uttering a cliche by observing that Thomas M. Disch died a broken man. The truth behind that is that he was never whole.