by Thomas M. Disch
“Much that is terrible we do not know. Much that is beautiful we shall still discover. Let's sail till we come to the edge.” ― Thomas M. Disch
The most notable thing about the dystopic view of an alternative America in Thomas Disch's novel is the status of the narrator. This topic is important to me in part because of my familiarity with Vladimir Nabokov's postmodern novel Pale Fire for which the issue is paramount, but while thinking about that book my view of the status of other narratives was called into question. I mention this because Camp Concentration is told in the first person as the journal of Louis Sacchetti, poet and draft resistor (this is the 1970s), and the question of its reliability is just as important as in Nabokov's meta-fictional work. The story is somewhat reminiscent of Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon, but with a Dostoevskian twist.
Adding to the complexities of the narrative are many literary references, most important of which are references to the fictional poetry of Sacchetti himself and those to the Faust legend as reimagined by Goethe and Marlowe. There is the character of Mordecai Washington who plays Mephistofeles to Sacchetti's Faust. As another inmate undergoing the drug treatment that enhances intelligence, Mordecai has become obsessed with alchemy to the bewilderment of Sachetti. Unfortunately, the drug is based on a bug that is related to syphilis and results in the untimely death of the test subject. The parallels in this book abound, but with the notion of poisoned minds, whether by the State which is engaged in perpetual war) or through the experiments in Camp Archimedes, where Sacchetti has been sent to participate in tests of a new mind-expanding drug, one is reminded that this book was written during the middle of the Viet Nam War era. The prisoners in the book appear to be fascinated by alchemy, which they used as an elaborate cover for their escape plans. Sacchetti, who is obese, has a number of ironic visions involving other obese historical and intellectual figures, such as Thomas Aquinas. In addition to the staging of Marlowe's play, the book references the Thomas Mann novel Doctor Faustus, which is about a composer named Adrian Leverkühn who intentionally contracts syphilis. Disch's book mentions a female composer named Adrienne Leverkuhn.
Sacchetti's journal tells a horrific story, but how much can we believe when it (apparently) has been through the prison censors. Is Sacchetti like one of Plato's banished artists? Is he a revolutionary, in spite of his claims to the contrary? Or is his story a figment of his imagination? The reader will have to decide for himself and this book has more depth than most I have read leading me to recommend it to all. The reviewer who called it "exciting, allegorical, suspenseful, disturbing. Superb prose and [a} novelist's integrity." (Amazing) was close to describing the feelings I had while reading Camp Concentration. Reading it was a journey into an alternative world that, unfortunately, was all too believable.
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