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334: A Novel Paperback – April 27, 1999
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover,"" illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Pre-order today
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The stories in 334 revolve loosely around a government housing project at 334 East 11th Street in New York City in the 2020s. The project's inhabitants are universally poor, often jobless, sometimes squalid. Some are happy, others angry, depressed, or just numb. The stories study their hopes and disappointments, and all are deeply introspective.
The early 21st-century setting might, in the hands of another author, be only a guise, a shortcut to making a world that's more gritty, shabby, and used up than ours. But Disch's future is thoroughly imagined, and he's adept at dropping in details of his characters' lives that are commonplace to them but jarring to us. It might be something as simple as going to the kitchen to "mix up a glass of milk." Occasionally it's radical, as in the case of Millie, who wants to have a baby but also keep her career. The answer? The child is gestated in an artificial womb and Millie's husband gets mammary implants.
Though American, Disch is closely associated with the UK's New Wave movement, and these stories reflect the New Wave emphasis on character above ideas. He's also a well-known poet, and in 334 you'll find some of the most lyrical science fiction written. --Brooks Peck
About the Author
Thomas M. Disch is the author of many novels, including such classic works of science fiction as Camp Concentration and 334. He lives in Manhattan and in Sullivan County, New York.
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Forty-eight chapters, five long and forty-three short, feature interlinking snapshosts of a dozen or so men and women bound by their common plight of sordidness and desperation. To share a glimpse of what a reader is in for, below are commentary on two of the chapters: first, a longer one, a tale about college student Birdie Ludd in battle with the forces of darkness; and the second, a shorter tale, a vivid sketch of an outing at a most unusual art exhibit:
THE DEATH OF SOCRATES
Degrading Education, One: Birdie Ludd has finally made it out of high school (P.S. 141) into one of New York City’s colleges only to sit in class listening to a professor on a TV yack nonstop about the life of Dante and how nearly everyone according to the Italian author’s Inferno will be tormented in hell, most certainly all the Jews. When a Jewish girl in the class says that doesn’t seem fair, the professor’s assistant simply replies there will be a test on the covered material. As Birdie is quick to recognize, none of what he is being force fed has any relevance to his everyday life and since teaching is done by television, there is absolutely no possibility of dialogue or a lively interchange of ideas; rather, he is required to simply swallow and regurgitate what he is given.
Degrading Education, Two: Summoned to the front office, a Mr. Mack informs Birdie his score on the mandatory state test of “twenty-seven” was a mistake and Birdie is now being reclassified as a “twenty-four,” which means he will not be allowed to father any children. Poor Birdie! He complains it isn’t his fault his father has diabetes. But we learn there are more factors to consider, things like Birdie lacking any exceptional service for the country or the economy. Additionally, we read how Birdie losses points because of his father’s unemployment pattern but gains a few points “by being a Negro.” Goodness, sound like Disch’s futuristic world has the deck stacked against blacks. What else is new? Perhaps not so coincidentally, Philip K. Dick's novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, also published in the 1970s, maps out genetic engineering geared to eliminate the US black population.
Degrading Education, Three: Birdie pens an essay for class entitled Problems of Creativeness, that ends “Another criteria of Creativeness was made by Socrates, so cruelly put to death by his own people, and I quote, “To know nothing is the first condition of all knowledge.” From the wisdom of that great Greek Philosopher may we not draw our own conclusions concerning these problems. Creativeness is the ability to see relationships where none exist.” Read carefully, this essay reveals a highly imaginative, creative, intelligent mind buried under bad English and disastrous inner city public education. Thus the title of Disch’s tale, The Death of Socrates, bestows a double meaning. As they say, a mind is a terrible thing to waste – and observing the social forces crushing Birdie Lund’s brilliant mind makes for one sad, profound story.
Crowd on the Anthill: Although Birdie is squashed and squeezed by cramped urban seediness, our young man has the capacity to perceive beauty radiating, glowing on the inside, even in dumb vending machines and blind, downtrodden faces. And, as to be expected, he has to continually fight through mass media and pop culture saturation – singing the words of commercials and viewing the movement of autos and ships as if moments from movies and television shows.
Extreme Military Service: One of the saddest endings I’ve ever encountered: Highly intellectual, sensitive, aesthetically attuned Birdie Lund feels trapped no matter which way he turns. As a last resort, he sees but one option open to him. Here are Disch’s concluding words: “The same afternoon, without even bothering to get drunk, he went to Times Square and enlisted in the U.S. Marines to go and defend democracy in Burma. Eight other guys were sworn in at the same time. They raised their right arms and took one step forward and rattled off the Pledge of Allegiance or whatever. Then the sergeant came up and slipped the black Marine Crops mask over Birdie’s sullen face. His new ID number was stenciled across the forehead in big white letters: USMC 100-7011-D07. And that was it, they were gorillas.”
A & P (2021)
Lottie is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at an exhibit were there are rows and stacks and pyramids of cans, boxes, meats, dairy, candy, cigarettes, bread, fruits, vegetables – all with individual brand names. Juan is so delighted just to be with her here at the museum. For Lottie, this is a time of perfection, one she wishes she could hold forever: “The real magic, which couldn’t be laid hold of, was simply that Juan was happy and interested and willing to spend perhaps the whole day with her. The trouble was that when you tried this hard to stop the flow it ran through your fingers and you were left squeezing air.”
Juan picks up a carrot that has the look and feel of being real but, of course, as part of the art exhibit, the carrot is not real. Visitors were given instructions as they entered the exhibit on what they would see and how to appreciate the art. The food and containers and cans are all fake, no matter how “real” they look – the Met’s tape said so, thus it must be true. But Juan insists, at the top of his lungs, that the carrot is real. One of the guards strides toward Juan and both he and Lottie are thrown out.
We can all recognize how this unusual art exhibit takes Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and Campbell Soup Cans and expands the concept quantitatively. Arthur C. Danto has written extensively on how Warhol’s creations herald in the “death of art” in the sense that objects of art are no longer separate from everyday objects, no longer special pieces like landscape oil paintings or marble sculptures; rather, the art world defines what is and what is not art. Traveling uptown from his downtown cockroach infested 334 mega-apartment, Juan doesn’t buy into the art world’s artificial distinction. Damn, it’s a carrot! A subtle Thomas M. Disch comment on the would-be state of the visual arts in the years following Warhol and the “death of art.”
Again, these are but two of forty-eight chapters. I hope I have whetted your appetite to sample more of Disch's novel. Special thanks to Goodreads friend Manny Rayner for alerting me to this forgotten classic.
The time frame jumps between 2020 and 2026, and especially in Part III the time frames jump from chapter to chapter, even with the same characters. It got a little frustrating when something would happen to one of them, and suddenly you are back in a time frame with this same character that you read about already, 50 pages ago. Some of Disch's characters are fully formed and multi-dimensional, but unfortunatly those are not the ones we get to see the most of.
Mainly, the story follows the Hansen's and the people they know and come in contact with in 334. Despite not being the best story Disch has written, the prose and poetry of his writing is still very much present, and at only 250 pages this is still a good addition to your reading pile.
1. It is billed as a novel, but it is more a collage or mosaic novel, constructed out of a series of connected stories and novellas that Disch published around 1971-72. Publication was mostly in _New Worlds Quarterly_ and Samuel R. Delany's _Quark_, original anthologies geared towards New Wave fiction that did not receive incredibly widespread distribution.
2. The long section originally published as the novella "334" is written in a decidedly non-linear style--the narrative jumps back and forth in time. This can be a little unsettling if not read with care and attention. As a whole, the work is fairly "literary" (for the tastes of science fiction readers, anyway).
3. The story is at times fairly down beat, if not actually depressing. This isn't a "pink-and-white bunny rabbit" story. :-)
So it's not a conventional novel. Still, looked at as a collection of stories, this book is great. The stories "Angouleme," "Bodies," "Emancipation," and "334" are each among Disch's finest work at this length. Highly recommended for those with a taste for this sort of thing.
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