‘The City of Penetrating Light’ by Thomas M. Disch

In a supposed age of irony Thomas M. Disch was the most skillful ironist I know. Very much an American ironist, too; to misquote Auden, “Mid-America hurt you into poetry.” Bible-thumping flag-waving hypocrisy remained a favorite target, and he never freed himself from the paranoia, villainizing, and feuding endemic to our homeland; their garbage-incinerator stench pervades his last writings.

The ironist’s razor-edge dance can’t be sustained indefinitely, and although Disch was equally effective on either the sardonic or sentimental side of the blade, both modes are difficult for readers to enjoy unalloyed except in bursts. His novels were always crafty, and some are treasurable concepts, but I think of him first as a writer of short stories. If I wanted to sell you on Disch, I might suggest (depending on your own proclivities) ‘The Squirrel Cage’, ‘Descending’, ‘The Asian Shore’, ‘Et in Arcardia Ego’, one of the 334 stories, or ‘Getting into Death’. If I thought you shared my own proclivities I might risk ‘Slaves’, with the sentence that seems to me his apotheosis:

There were red balloons and blue balloons and yellow balloons and pink balloons and green balloons and orange balloons.

If I wanted to select a personal Disch, though, that would be his short and never-reprinted monologue ‘The City of Penetrating Light’, which latched onto me in a basement in small-town Missouri and hasn’t yet loosened its grip: visceral nostalgia for what’s never been experienced and never will be.

Published in Fun With Your New Head, 1968. Available online here by kind permission of the estate of Thomas M. Disch