Friday, July 29, 2011

We shouldn't teach great books; we should teach a love of reading.

Short cuts. St Johns Park, New Town. June 2011.

Breaking my streak of books that haven’t disappointed me (I was up to TEN) is the highly regarded sci-fi ‘classic’ Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch. I shall admit that perhaps I was not in the best frame of mind to tackle this one, but like many novels of its time (1968), I fear that it has not aged well.

Set during a war that seemingly emerged from the Vietnam War, this altered history posits a United States as having taken a decidedly authoritarian turn. The narrative is the journal of a poet of some renown, the lapsed Catholic Louis Sacchetti who has been sent to a secret military installation as punishment for his conscientious objecting. This experimental camp sees military prisoners are injected with a form of syphilis that is intended to make them geniuses and thus harness their genius for the good of the state. Of course, things are never that simple.

Don’t be fooled by the sci-fi tag, the book is crammed with a multitude of obscure literary references, and a running thread is the constant (and transparent) allusion to the story of Faust. Unsurprisingly, the book descends into an exploration of the fluid boundaries that marked the territories of genius, creativity and insanity. While this is an interesting theoretical exercise, I shall confess that it makes for tedious reading. Perhaps I have been contaminated by prior exposure to the work of French metaphysicians like Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (i.e. masturbatory intellectual grandstanding/ game playing), but – in the words of Shania Twain – that don't impress me much.

Disch is a smart cookie, and he can write for sure. The intellectually rich prose matches the tone required to pull of the objective, it just doesn’t particularly resonate with me. However, it might with you! Avoid if you don’t like show offs.


Roddy said...

Learn to read and my god you come across some rubbish.
I like historical novels.
A lot of fact if the writer has done their homework.

smudgeon said...

I'm most impressed - namedropping Guattari in the same sentence as Shania.

I don't dig sci-fi all that much (especially after my disastrous recent reading of assorted Ben Bova, Aasimov, et. al.) and I think it's probably got a lot to do with your point about how it ages. If I remember correctly, CS Lewis wrote a book once about a steam powered space ship which went to Venus, where gigantic blue people took pity on a tramp. If it were much less serious, it would have been genius.

Kris said...

Roddy, depends on the novel.

Sudgeon, I'd say Shania has more of a clue than Felix. I've come around a little bit to sci-fi. That said, I still have more misses than hits in my recent ventures into that territory.

Roddy said...

Of course! The novel! A good book and it can be educational, a bad one and it is just a book.