On Wings Of Song - Thomas M Disch

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

On Wings Of Song
Thomas M Disch
Carroll & Graf
ISBN: 0786711221 (Amazon link)

I'm not really sure how to go about this review. I like Disch's work quite a bit, though I've not read everything by him. Camp Concentration in particular I thought was excellent. However, I don't really have the tools to discuss a novel of this type.

On Wings Of Song is a strange book, and I fear that, although I enjoyed reading it, I have very little to say about what it was about, or what the author was trying to do. It comes covered with critical praise, and I'd agree that it's impressive technically, and there were some very funny, very moving, and very enjoyable parts of this novel. I still have no coherent comment on the story therein!

On The Wings Of Song is clearly allegorical in places, but I'm not 100% clear on the allegory. Sections are satirical, but what is being satirised isn't always clear. Despite my failure to grasp the overall themes being explored I enjoyed being carried along with events.

(Before you ask, yes, I read a fair bit of mainstream, and literary fiction, and frequently manage to discern elements similar to those in Critical reviews. My failure to decide if Disch was discussing death, or art, or genius, or just having fun drawing a colourful picture is annoying me.)

It's set in a future USA, though equally large sections of it could be in the past, or an alternate history. The history isn't discussed anywhere, and it seems to be basically the same world we inhabit, just warped. In Iowa, where the action is set, singing (and most music) is outlawed, sex is filthy and never discussed, and people elsewhere are regarded with both fear and envy. The major McGuffin in this story is Flying - a literal out of body experience mediated by a machine, and enabled by achieving a transcendent state while singing. People fly away, and some never come back. There is clearly a level of allegory here. The hero of the novel is Daniel, who is obsessed with flying, but can't sing to save his life.

What we have is basically Daniel's biography, from his childhood, to his death. A wandering journey through weird circumstances, with stranger family and friends along the way. I'm going to avoid trying to say anything about what happens, as really, the whole point is to enjoy the journey with Daniel.

Is it SF? In places, maybe. It's certainly slipstream, and plenty of people, David Pringle among them, say it's SF. It's really one of those books that resists labels.

Recommended? Maybe. If you like literary fiction which makes no bones about being obscure then "Yes". If you like challenging cerebral SF with no spaceships, then "Yes", this is a very enjoyable read, and it might mean something to you in the way that, say, Camp Concentration did to me. For genre SF readers - maybe not your cup of tea, but try a few pages and see if the writing is to your taste. This isn't a difficult read, but it's a difficult story to follow.

Me? I can't decide if I enjoyed it or not. To sum up: what the heck was the ending about?!

Posted: Thu - March 20, 2003 at 08:47 PM