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Darkness and light

July 13, 2008|James Sallis | James Sallis is the author of many novels, including "Salt River," "Cripple Creek" and the Lew Griffin cycle. He is also the author of "Chester Himes: A Life."

Tom is in the next room but one, calling out. He's working on his novelization of "The Prisoner" and wants to read a paragraph to me. November light pushes through my bay window to lie quietly expiring on the floor. Down in the yard I see the mounds of leaves he raked together earlier, then abandoned. Deciding to leave the Selectric running, I go up and down the three stairs, through the narrow hallway, to his office.

Thomas M. DISCH died, of suicide, this Independence Day. Recent years had been hard ones for him, I gather: a sense of lost readership, considerable physical pain such that he became virtually housebound in his New York apartment, an ever-deepening depression following the death of his partner, Charles Naylor. There at the end, Tom's bitterness, the ragged leading edge of the ambition that so animated him, seems to have broken through, though still liberally seasoned with wit and self-deprecation.

Endings are seldom pretty. Tom knew that. He knew that not very much is pretty, in fact, once you scrape the patina off.

Except the arts. Tom was a great patron not only of poetry and fiction but also of opera, music, painting and sculpture. I don't think he believed our arts would magically save us, but he was pretty sure they were our best bet, perhaps our only bet -- even if they, like everything else in life, might well be taken with a sprinkling of salt, a dash of cynicism, and half a cup of good-natured fun.

Searching for words here (in silence, without the hum of the Selectric these days), I remember our sitting on the porch in Milford discussing a change from "could" to "would" in one of his poems. I recall the growing list of "Hard Words" he kept over his typewriter for years, and I wonder if he ever got the chance to use them all. I remember him, Pam Zoline and John Sladek trading nonce words back in London, "epithesis" being a favorite. And later, his childlike joy at the sound of the word "micturation," his delight at our describing a lawn game to be played "with mallets and forethought."

Breakfast at our hotel in Notting Hill Gate, Tom on his way in from Turkey to settle a while, me having recently moved to London. Tom has just published "Camp Concentration" in New Worlds, and I've come to help edit the magazine. I remembered his stories from Cele Goldsmith's Amazing Stories and Fantastic, read his first novel. A correspondence ensued, and it was his example, a living, working writer, that more than anything else convinced me to give it a try myself, that such might be possible.

He has brought something to read to me, possibly a bit of the unfinished novel "The Pressures of Time," or some new beginning. In subsequent weeks one of his great stories, "The Asian Shore," takes form before my eyes. He'll go away for a day or two, turn up at my flat in late afternoon with new pages.

He removes a slice of toast from the toast rack. Crumbs fall onto the pages. He reads through them as I pour our tea.

Pictures on cave walls, fiction of both low- and highbrow caste, history, opera and musicals -- it's all a way of remembering, which is all we can do, finally. It's what I've been doing since learning of Tom's death. Both difficult people, we moved and grew apart; the braid of our lives unraveled. I thought of him often, read virtually all his books as they came out, fondly knew how important he had been to me.

Here's what else I know: He was a great writer.

Outside the science fiction world, little notice seems to have been taken of Tom's death. Not that he fit at all comfortably in that world either, mind you. He was one of a kind, possessed of a particular, quirkily American genius, forever on the fence between the literary and the pulpish, poetry and fiction, realism and the fantastic, genteel and aggressive, uptown, downtown.

He wrote some of the best short stories ever put to page. A lot of the best short stories ever put to page. And his novels, especially "Camp Concentration," "334" and "On Wings of Song," for their quality and their influence, merit a place among the classics of SF. Add reams of astute criticism, hundreds of poems, marvelous romps like "Black Alice."

Making their way to the inmost chambers of caves, bypassing other interiors that seem to us just as suitable, our ancestors covered walls with their paintings. We've little idea what purposes (social? religious?) the chambers served, all those detailed renderings, those grand animals. But there in privacy a few invented, for us all, the entire vocabulary of our arts: image, narrative, celebration, form. They speak to us still: We were here. This is what we saw. This is how we experienced our world.

So it is with each individual writer or artist today.

Style is not about word choice, cadence, sentence structure, point of view, momentum; finally, it's not even about writing well.

Style is, finally, the direct reflection of how the writer connects with his or her world, the way in which he or she lets us see our world anew, new perspectives, new visions, new glimmers of comprehension here in darkness.

Tom has left the cave.

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