Tuesday, September 06, 2011

`Furbelows and Arabesques'

At thirty-six thousand feet I read the late Thomas Disch’s story “The Asian Shore,” published in 1970, expecting it to concern Vietnam. In fact, it’s set in Istanbul, a city bisected by the Bosphorus River, the traditional boundary between Europe and Asia. Disch toys with the theme of boundaries – blurring and transcending them -- between nations, cultures, parts of ourselves. In thirty-five pages, a young American writer turns into a Turk with a Turkish wife and son. It’s a ghost story in the sense The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story.

Disch was a wonderful poet who also wrote science fiction. I read his first novel, Camp Concentration, when it came out in 1968, and reread it every few years. He is almost the only sci-fi writer I can read, because he could write – sometimes -- and because he was funny and smart, and loved words. “The Asian Shore” betrays its pulpy origins with idea-driven plotting. Even on dry land, the characters are freighted with too much ballast of ideas. It’s as though Disch won’t permit them to lift off into the realm of autonomy.
The protagonist, John Benedict Harris, has published a book on architecture, Homo Arbitrans. Its thesis is that “the quiddity of architecture, its chief claim to an aesthetic interest, was its arbitrariness.” Ostensibly, he has come to Istanbul to research a second book. Janice, his wife in New York City, is divorcing him:
“No doubt her reasons were sound. The sense of the arbitrary did not stop at architecture; it embraced—or would, if he let it—all phenomena. If there were no fixed laws that governed the furbelows and arabesques out of which a city is composed, there were equally no laws (or only arbitrary laws, which is the same as none at all) to define the relationships woven into the lattice of that city, relationships between man and man, man and woman, John and Janice.”
This is nicely done. Disch often shows an interesting essayistic gift in his fiction, even when the story is stillborn. Webster’s defines “furbelow” – a word new to me -- as a “pleated or gathered piece of material; especially: a flounce on women's clothing.” The word is ambiguous. It suggests ornamentation without thought for form or function, but also something pretty or charming if inessential. Too often, Disch’s stories, despite his obvious skill, are a string of furbelows in the first sense. His poems are the other sort of furbelow, as in “The Great Hall,” which includes these lines:
“That's one good reason
for dressing well (or at least memorably)
and making witty remarks: Strangers
will remember you.”
[Go here to view Disch’s online poetry journal, Endzone. The final entry is dated two days before his suicide. Here is Schroedinger’s Cat, a website dedicated to Disch, with links to much of his work, fiction, nonfiction and poetry.]

1 comment:

David Auerbach said...

I love Disch, and I'm not sure that I feel the weight of the idea-driven plotting in this story. (This story's complement, Gene Wolfe's 7 American Nights, definitely does have that problem.) The diffuseness of the characters seems to match the weird sort of post-colonial feel he's going for. In contrast, the characters in 334 and Getting Into Death and a bunch of other stories carry enough visceral weight to override any abstract idea baggage they might carry.