Filed under: Reviews | Tags: blogger's book club discussion, camp concentration, Reviews, science fiction, speculative fiction, thomas m. disch
Given that WordPress has now eaten my review for the second time for no apparent reason when it has never done this before, I’m starting to get extremely frustrated. So, I’m going to go after a somewhat different, more compressed, format, since I’m getting sick of typing out the same damn thing over and over.
Thomas M. Disch published Camp Concentration in 1968. Timing-wise, this places the book in the midst of a) political upheaval and both internal and international conflict in the US, b) the New Wave movement in science fiction literature spear-headed by Michael Moorcock, c) a time when several other prominent SF authors wrote books with Faustian references. This last point amuses me in a general sense; authors include Phillip K. Dick (in 1969) and Roger Zelazny (in 1966).
Plot summary available from Wikipedia if you aren’t familiar with it.
Narrative structure is journal format, divided structurally into two books. Our records-keeper is Louis Sacchetti: poet, conscientious objectioner (“conchie”), obese man, Pallidine-carrier, and unreliable narrator. Why? Well, I would be unreliable too if I knew the director of my newfound prison and his pet military researcher running the experiment received copies of my journal as a daily newsfeed.
Did I like Camp Concentration? No, I did not. Not only does Disch align the reader with those holding power over Sacchetti by giving us the same “gaze” that they have–we join the heads of Camp Archimedes as the journal’s audience–but also creates a separation between us and Sacchetti with this same practice. I could not fall into the narrative per se, and further to that, with all the name-dropping literary-referencing madness-tinged-discourse-inserting it was just too much work for a payoff I didn’t even want by the end of it. Disch writes in a dense, compressed style that packs a lot of punch with a low word-count: his poetic leanings win out in his prose, which makes it a work-heavy read that necessitates interpretation.
What do I think of Louis Sacchetti as the main character? Hard to tell, since he censors himself as a record-keeper. This is something that bears analysis, and to be honest, I didn’t like the book enough to read it over 2-3 more times to put every single piece together of a complex, unlikable, and unsympathetic character. For example, it takes Sacchetti until the end of the first book to acknowledge he has been infected by Pallidine: is this denial, inability to connect the dots, or purposeful concealment of his knowledge from his captors? I could not tell you.
That said, what do I think of Camp Concentration? It’s a book that espouses ideas more than characters. What is the nature of genius? Is genius book knowledge, self knowledge, power over the natural world, or ability to exact what you want from other people? Is it genius, or an illness, or something else? As Sacchetti muses near the end of the novel: “I exist without instincts, almost without images; and I no longer have an aim. I resemble nothing. The poison has had not two effects–genius and death–but one. Call it by which name you will.” (p. 184).
It also brings into question the ethics of biological warfare and human test subjects, rampant government control, and war in general. Throughout the course of the book identity, the nature of science, and the regulation and politics of knowledge production are hot-button issues, as is a hard look at the compromises made for meeting one’s goals. Disch provides us with a large amount of commentary on social control relating to the government, the separate groups of prisoners (more so in the latter half of the book), and religious beliefs within this context. Definitely more idea-driven than character-driven, though character certainly plays a large role in the book itself.
The ideas? Fascinating. Worth the read if you like to consider big questions, but if you are a completist and feel a need to look up and search out context for various quotations and references, you can spend an awful lot of time on Camp Concentration, which is relatively short. Really, the title itself gives one enough pause: allusion to concentration camps in Nazi Germany, within the bounds of the story there is Camp Archimedes itself which promotes concentration and study within the camp, and the concentration required from the reader. Imagine what you could pull out of 184 pages packed with multiplicities of meaning, if you are so inclined.
If anyone out there is looking for fodder for a scholarly study, this book would be a grand topic. It might not be your cup of tea for an engaging, escapist read–though I suppose that depends on what you like your escape to be. Although certainly a worthwhile and thought-provoking read, Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration will never be a favourite of mine.
Disch, Thomas M. Camp Concentration. New York: Vintage Books, 1968. $17.95 (Canadian), but likely at your local library, trade paperback.