On Wings of Song

Of course, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but there are covers, and there are covers.

Take Thomas Disch’s On Wings of Song, which was recommended several years ago by John Crowley, who taught me at Yale. Like much of Crowley’s work, On Wings of Song is finely written, richly imagined “science fiction.” The novel, published in 1979 and set in an imagined 21st century America, pirouettes from a Iowan police-state—complete with fundamentalists, horrific termite farms (protein), and neo-feudal manors—to a decadent, unstable, bohemian New York. The protagonist, a sometime singer and frequent sufferer, wants to, through music, depart from his body and fly (as is possible in his day). It’s a very sad novel about, among other things, artistic transcendence, and it is itself, as a result of remarkable artistic control and workmanship, transcendent. Without knowing much about Disch’s life, one can sense that there’s been a remarkable transmutation of autobiography into something far stranger.

And then there’s the cover.

Never mind the “Masters of Science Fiction” emblazoned in a bizarrely artificial cursive on one side, nor the price (an embarrassingly cheap $3.95) marked above it. Never mind the name, spelled out in bold caps, the letters in “Thomas” actually possessing shadows. Never mind the dimensions of the sci-fi paperback, which alert even the dullest of observers that you are not reading serious literature. What’s really embarrassing is the illustration: a muscular, generically smiling, bronze-skinned man in a sleeveless leather jacket, standing high above the New York skyline.

Actually, I suppose he’s flying: there are vapor trails to prove it, straight lines emitted from his body, the spaces in between shaded in white. This has precisely nothing to do with the book’s depiction of flight (which remains both precisely bounded by accurate descriptions of its paraphernalia and sociology, but itself wonderfully, religiously mysterious).

It is also extremely embarrassing for the reader who has brought this book to synagogue, who, reading it in the interstices and pauses of the Torah reading, already faces an uphill battle to convince his neighbors that he is not a deviant. “Rich in black comedy and sexual adventurism,” they see on the back cover, and there goes your respectability.

If it seems awfully shallow of me to be bitter about the whole thing, the least I can do is provide an excerpt. It’s tough to sample Disch, because his writing is so even and understated. You only get a sense of its wonder when it sinks in that almost every sentence has a sly irony to it, that quiet and miraculous metaphors appear on almost every page. The prose is at once decorous, complex, and clean; though the novel will use “quincunx” when it’s the right word, Disch doesn’t ever stretch beyond what’s needed.

Here’s a description of the protagonist’s first experience with music, in an Iowa prison camp. Though the passage lacks the humor that is one of the book’s great charms, it does exhibit well Disch’s ability to describe the abstract and musical in a way that’s both matter of fact and (for me) thrilling. It also has, especially in light of the novel’s larger tragedies, some dreadfully sad ironies to it: insofar as song is a transmutation of Disch’s own fictional art, of course, there’s the fact that the whole novel is a lie (a problem that bothered Disch so much he wrote a book about it, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of), but there’re also the narrower dramatic ironies of what music will do to the protagonist, and those complicate that last line too.

But it was the music that had the largest (if least understandable) effect on him. Night after night there was music. Not music such as he’d ever conceived of before; not music that could be named, the way, when it was your turn to ask for your favorite song in Mrs. Boismortier’s class you could ask for “Santa Lucia” or “Old Black Joe” and the class would sing it and it would be there, recognizably the same, fixed always in that certain shape. Here there were tunes usually, yes, but they were always shifting round, disintegrating into mere raw rows of notes that still somehow managed to be music. The way they did it was beyond him, and at times the why of it as well. Especially, it seemed, when the three prisoners who were generally accounted the best musicians got together to play. Then, though he might be swept off his feet at the start, inevitably their music would move off somewhere he couldn’t follow. It was like being a three-year-old and trying to pay attention to grown-up talk. But there seemed to be this difference between the language of words. It didn’t seem possible, in the language of music, to lie.

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2 thoughts on “On Wings of Song

    • Thanks for commenting, and for the long-ago recommendation—I’ve read plenty of good sci-fi this year (The Left Hand of Darkness, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Red Mars), and this is easily the best of the batch. Strange, powerful stuff.

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