Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Camp Concentration

Author: Thomas M. Disch

Why Did I Read This Book: I thought it would be a good fit for my odd books site. I was wrong – this is a book that is subversive, to a certain extent, but it is definitely not all that odd.

Availability: You can get the 1999 Vintage Books edition here:

Comments: It has been a while since I read a book that filled me with such visceral dislike. I can only hope that I can explain my distaste for this book without descending into insult, but it speaks volumes to me that even though I am a pretty mild person most of the time, I genuinely worry that I may not be able to discuss this book without a lot of invective.

Part of the reason is that this book was initially published in 1968 and has not aged well. But I also tend to think that the poorly-aged element of this book lent itself to a “meh” reaction, not the cold, hard aversion I ultimately felt. Though some of the ideas expressed in this book may still resonate today, I have to say, though I know it is brutal to say so, the overall terrible writing style as well as the completely unlikeable protagonist kills any societal message that may shine through to modern times.

Here’s a brief synopsis: Louis Sacchetti, who clearly fancies himself the smartest man to ever live, is put in jail for being a conscientious objector. He is treated reasonably well in prison but one day is transferred to a different prison. One underground, a sinister prison where the government is testing a drug on unwilling prisoners. This drug makes the prisoners super intelligent, which actually has far fewer applications in the real world than one might think, but the drug also kills them eventually. Louis finds he has been infected and he was such an arrogant, self-impressed bastard that the reader has a hard time telling the before Louis from the end Louis. All the geniuses try to commit a God-defying act of alchemy that ends about as well as you think it might. Louis was asked to document his time in the prison, typing it out in a typewriter that fed to different people who read his reports and he documents until he dies. The end.

Okay, I am being a complete bitch and I know it, but let me support my utter dislike for this book with text that shows that I have concrete reasons for hating it, though as always, your mileage may vary.

After musing pointlessly and somewhat fatly on the sexual antics of the men he shares space with back at prison one, Louis finds himself in the corridors of the second prison. This is his first encounter there with another inmate:

“Beauty,” he said solemnly, “is nothing but the beginning of a terror that we are able barely to endure.” And with those words George Wagner heaved the entirety of a considerable breakfast into that pure, Euclidean space.

It’s hard to put into words why these two sentences filled me with despair reading this book, but let me try. First, Disch has a mentally ill man quoting Rilke. If that wasn’t a cliche then, it certainly is now. Second, I really can’t believe that Louis, the narrator and through whose eyes we see this arrogant and at times pretentious mess, looks at a man puking and immediately thinks of the clean, geometric lines into which the man is horking. Louis is a writer though, and as a result, he thinks very writerly things. He can’t just speak or write. He expounds. He is a hammy stage actor on paper and it hurts reading his thoughts and then thinking about the implications of those thoughts.

He meets a black prisoner named Mordecai. You know Mordecai is black because he uses the word “mammy” to describe his mother. As did all black men in 1968, one assumes. Evidently Mordecai is ugly too, and mispronounces words a lot because he has only ever read them and never heard them before because as a black man, of course, he never had a deep, substantive conversation before he was given the drug to make him super-smart. Or at least that is how I felt after reading about Mordecai through Louis’ description. His mispronunciations give Louis an even more unearned sense of superiority, for you see, Louis is not just a writer, but a poet, and he knows words, man does he know. His mental corrections of Mordecai’s pronunciations alone killed any sense that I wanted him to continue telling the story. Here are a couple of examples:

“You’ll have to excuse my athanor. It’s electric, which isn’t quite comme il faut” – pronounced by Mordecai, come-ill-phut–“I’ll admit, but it’s much easier this way to maintain a fire that is vaporous, digesting, continuous, nonviolent, subtle, encompassed, airy, obstructive, and corrupting.”

(I know, you, dear reader, totally think I am making these sentences up, don’t you?)

Poor Mordecai cannot even pronounce the word God to Louis’ satisfaction. In a conversation about God wherein Mordecai compares the Holy to Eichmann in a fit of genius that causes Louis to put down his intellectual foot, Louis begins to record Mordecai’s accent as he hears it in a way that is utterly grating.

“We can turn our eyes away from the charred bones of children outside the incinerators, but what of a Gaud who damns infants–often the very same one–to everlasting fires?”

Poor Mordecai. Not even able to say “God” to a pedant. Also, if this is what Disch thinks it sounds like when people made into intellectual giants talk about metaphysics, all I can say is that every drunken freshman at Clark Hall at UNT must have been fucking geniuses.

Also, Louis’ opinions on homosexuals don’t help this book’s complete lack of modernity. And while I am not one for temporal relevance, the fact remains that in the 1960s, there were plenty of people who did not think that VD and promiscuity ran rampant among homosexuals any more than they thought all blacks had mammies. It’s hard to like many of the characters in this book and their pronouncements on minorities certainly don’t help matters.

And while Disch knows words, the problem is that he doesn’t know how to use those words to show characterization, especially when characters speak. I give some passages to show that no one in this book speaks differently from anyone else, despite the large disparities in cultural and professional backgrounds. They have incredibly similar social references, similar educational references and even the tendency to slip from formal language into informal, as if to show how that underneath it all, aren’t we all just too jive for conversational consistency?

Here is Dr Busk, a psychiatrist in her 30s:

“And then think of what happens if genius doesn’t rein itself in but insists on plunging on head into the chaos of freest association. I know any number if psychiatrists who could, in good conscience, have accepted Finnegan Wakes (sic) as the very imprimatur of madness and had its author hospitalized on its evidence alone. A genius? Oh yes. But all we common people have the common sense to realize that genius, like the clap, is a social disease, and we take action accordingly. We put all out geniuses in one kind or another of isolation ward, to escape being infected.”

(By the way, it is Louis, who is typing all of this conversation up for his reports to the prison officials, who inserts that (sic), pedant that he is. He can’t even retell a conversation without simply correcting a common mistake – no, he needs to show the error and also show that he knows the error is an error. And this trait is not due to Disch deliberately creating a shitheel. No, Disch likes Louis, you can tell, because Louis is a man for whom we are supposed to feel some sort of fond feeling or kinship as he discovers dark secrets and suffers himself. I assert that Disch no more realized what a tiresome didact Louis is than Louis does.)

This is Louis himself, and note the high level language that descends into street talk, just like Dr. Busk. Also note he is talking to himself about his own poem, addressing himself as Louis I as it is a different part of the whole complexity that is Louis (sigh…)

There is no God, there never was, and never will be, world without end, amen.

Would you deny it, old Adamite, Louie I? Then let me recommend you to your own poem, the poem you claimed not to be able to understand. I understand it: The idol is empty; his speech an imposture. There is no Baal, my friend, only the whisperer within, putting your words in His mouth. A farrago of anthropomorphism. Deny it! Not all your piety nor wit, my boy.

And O! O! those precious, fawning poems of yours, licking the ass of your let’s-pretend God-daddy.

Well I will give credit where credit is due in the next quote–at least Disch mixes up the formula a little. In this one the inconsistencies are spread out, not high-falutin’ falling into the gutter, but rather a more even mix, but the trademarks are the same. This is Mordecai speaking.

“Anyhow, to get back–the two broads would bring up those hoary arguments about the universe is like a watch and you can’t have a watch without a watchmaker. Or the first cause that no other cause causes. Till that day I’d never even heard of the watchmaker bit, and when they came out with it, I thought, Now, that’ll stop old Donovan’s Brain. But not a bit of it–you just tore their sloppy syllogisms”–another foul mispronunciation–“to pieces.”

In this one we get not only Mordecai waxing Louis-like, but we also get another helping of Louis’ being unable not to comment on how badly he thinks Mordecai speaks.

I wanted to think that perhaps all the similar dialogue occurs because Louis is recording all of this and the speech of others gets filtered through his brain. But Louis makes it clear several times he is recording things exactly as they happen or are spoken. He is not filtering. Everyone just talks the same way in this book, high level conversation with words even the most well-versed of readers will have to look up combined with an earthy tang of street language and slang.

Okay, get yourself past the fact that the style in this book is terrible and everyone talks the same. Let’s just look at some of the sentences in this book, shall we? Even if Louis is a poet, even if he is a genius driven mad, there is a desperate sense in all he says that he wants us, the unseen reader, to know how amazing his intellect is, and it gets tiresome, each sentence struggling to be more erudite than the one before it, each turn of phrase straining in verbal calisthenics.

Have read “Portrait of Pompanianus,” which is better than I’d expected, yet curiously disappointing. I think it is because it is so controlled a tale, the plot so meticulously elaborated, the language of such a concinnate beauty, that I’m disgruntled. I’d hoped for a cri de coeur, nonobjectivist, action writing…

But wait, it gets so much worse. This passage comes after Louis is finished writing a play called Auschwitz: A Comedy.

In the first giddy moments after I’d written Auschwitz, when I could suddenly no longer tolerate these bare walls, richer in horrid suggestion than any Rorschach…, I stumbled out into the hypogeal daedal of corridors, happening across the hidden heart of it, or its minotaur at least.

He stumbled into the hypogeal daedal? I hate it when that happens but have been told some soda water will get the stain out. Sorry about that but when I am forced to read words this haughty, I get sarcastic. I’m a pretty good word-slinger myself. Always have been. I appreciate an author who does not insult my intelligence and uses words one may not commonly encounter. Caitlín R. Kiernan is an erudite writer whose erudition does not alienate me. But this is too much. It’s Disch showing off via Louis and it is tiresome as hell to read.

Here’s another example of Louis’, and by extension Disch’s, ridiculous verbiage:

“You’re a bit early,” Haast told her. His emissile good fellowship retracted like a snail’s cornua at the sight of Busk–in a suit of gray and chaste as any flatworm, epalpibrate, grimly mounted on her iron heels and ready for battle.

And this is where I take my gloves off. This quote is everything that is wrong with this book – big words that evoke nothing and when they do manage to evoke something, the image is meaningless. A flatworm is not chaste. It reproduces asexually. Had to look up “epalpibrate,” which evidently means roughly lacking eyebrows or eyelids. So, Dr. Busk is dressed like a prudish gray worm, without eyelids or eyebrows, yet ready for battle. Worms and those without eyelids are not notoriously good in battle. And why would a woman in a chaste, worm-gray suit sans eyebrows need to be mounted on anything? None of this makes an ounce of visual or metaphorical sense and all those five cent words were written to be impressive, not to convey an image or an idea.

And again, let me say that the narrator telling us all this is Louis and we are meant to have some sort of sympathy for him. Initially I wondered if perhaps I was meant to loathe Louis, but at the end of the book, there was a scene that gave Louis some humanity, a pitiful scene that would have emphasized a gain of humility for a pompous man, but Louis is beyond pompous. He is despicably obtuse and when he falls, I felt nothing. I have no idea what Disch was going for here. The only way for the ending to have strength, we needed a protagonist whom at the very least did not alienate us. Because of who Louis is, the ending, which should have been a saddening, horrible look at a smart man on his knees, physically and mentally spent, is rendered powerless. That’s a dirty shame because in all this verbal showing-off, an interesting plot and many questions of medical and judicial ethics get lost. The only point that gets driven home over and over is how useless genius so often can be and I knew this before I read this book.

In the event that anyone is left wondering if I recommend this book, the answer is no. But let me leave with this final quote from the book:

“Oh dear, oh dear. They’re very late. Are you good with riddles? Why did the hyperdulia pray to the Pia Mater?”

“Why is a raven like a writing desk?” I mumbled, beginning to be annoyed with my guest.

I can’t think of a better summation of this novel. A pointless riddle with no answer – you could take some time and try find answers to why this novel had to be so obtuse, and like Lewis Carroll’s desk riddle, come up with all kinds of answers when there really isn’t one, at least not one intended by the author. Just verbal burlesque, forcing the reader to jump through hoops for no reward beyond the knowledge that you will at least know the meaning of the word “epalipibrate” when you are finished with this book.

Disch seems to have had a dedicated following and I perused his LiveJournal, especially the entries before he died at his own hand, and saw little of the preening one sees in this book. Was this book a juvenile offering, the sort of book an intelligent young man writes before he takes his intellect in hand and creates art instead of impressive words? I am unsure but I always give writers two chances before I declare them off my reading list. If you’ve read Disch and like him, feel free to recommend another of his books for me to try. But if you are unfamiliar with Disch, I suggest you give this book a miss, despite the admiration this book seems to have in the sci-fi community.

2 thoughts on “Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch

  1. I found this site after having read your shortened review on goodreads.
    I think you may have misunderstood much of the book and what the author was trying to achieve. You let your dislike of a character drift over to dislike of the author and seem to have difficulty separating the two. A couple of points;
    The mispronunciation of God is Mordecai mimicking Louis, from their former meeting in school. The flowery prose and correction of Mordecai is Louis’ way of holding on to a feeling of superiority and intelligence, and he takes great pains in pointing out how and why he is superior despite the other prisoners increasing intelligence. For example, his dismissive attitude towards their apparent involvement in alchemy, which of course is in fact an elaborate ruse of which Louis is entirely ignorant. Notice that later in the novel, as his intelligence increases, he becomes much less sure of himself. He also drops much of the facade of using big words to describe simple things, and not surprisingly, so do the other characters. I believe that Louis insisting that he is giving an accurate depiction of the conversations he is having with other prisoners is just another part of his ego; he believes that people are as he sees them, that somehow he is blessed with the ability to see things/people as they truly are.
    It also seems mildly comical that you would insult an author because of his verbose character, then claim to be a good “word-slinger.” (Always have been? What, since birth?) and then follow it up with the nice little tautology of “erudite writer whose erudition…”.

    1. Hey Zac, thanks for the comment. Some quick responses:

      –I don’t dislike Disch. I know nothing about him other than that he has a loyal fan base and sadly committed suicide. Disliking this book and the characters in it – characters I think Disch himself liked – is hardly disliking the man. In order to impugn this book on the basis of disliking the author I would need to know a whole lot more about him.

      –Your interpretation of why Louis mocked Moredecai is certainly a good one and it doesn’t really change the way I read the book. Louis read to me as a tiresome blowhard – I can easily see how he would want to assert his superiority when he felt intellectually challenged. I can also see how he would pedantically edit others’ speech in order to feel superior. The problem is that if someone finds Louis utterly unlikable, the way he protects his ego grates and it doesn’t particularly matter in terms if his characterization other than reinforcing his overall unpleasantness. I also still contend that Disch wanted the reader to feel terrible at what happens to Louis, and the ending really was very affecting, but overall the Louis’ pedantry made it impossible for me to care much.

      –It’s been several years since I read the book so forgive that I don’t recall how all the prisoners exhibited diminished speech patterns and vocabulary choices. But say that was the case, why did characters who were unaffected by the deleterious effects of the drug used on the prisoners echo those speech patterns – high fallutin’ language followed by base and earthy utterances. Everyone spoke the same way so if the prisoners were experiencing a language failure, so did others who should not have been affected. If you are correct, then Disch missed the boat in terms of creating dialogue that fit the characters.

      –Yes, I have always been a word slinger. Since birth, possibly in utero. If you’d asked my mother she would have told you I talked from the moment I came home from the hospital and when she told you this she would have expected you to experience it as exaggeration and not a literal statement of truth. This is what it sounds like when epalpribrates cry.

      –I would have called that pointless repetition rather than tautology or I might have used them both in the same sentence and we could come full circle but that is indeed a weak sentence I clearly missed during the editing process. It happens. This is a site devoted to extemporaneous discussions of books. If this had reached the published page it would have been embarrassing and I appreciate you pointing it out, even though this discussion will never be seen outside this site. I probably won’t change it because that feels weird – like I am trying to hide errors when called on them. But I appreciate you pointing it out – a woman whose mother insists she was always talking is prone to redundancy.

      Sorry, Zac, I can tell you find a lot of merit in this novel but I really disliked it and your comment didn’t change my mind.

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