I've been dreading reading Thomas M. Disch's The Word of God since I first heard about it. The book, subtitled "Holy Writ Rewritten," is Disch's tongue-in-cheek declaration of his own divinity, and includes a not-too-pretty picture of Philip K. Dick. Disch, the author-turned-deity, tells us that Dick has been languishing in the suburbs of Hell thanks to a letter he wrote to the FBI in a fit of paranoia in which he declared his suspicion that Disch was a communist agent. (A broader picture: the day after that letter, Dick wrote Disch a fan letter declaring his Camp Concentration to be the best novel he'd ever read, which makes me wonder if the whole thing wasn't intended as some kind of bizarre prank.) In any event, I'd heard the book was disjointed, mean-spirited, and just plain confusing—and Disch's suicide in the immediate aftermath of its release made the whole thing seem even more unpleasant.
And yet. I mean, how could I not read it? Science fiction author (or, to be fair, former science fiction author) declares himself God? Onetime friend of Philip K. Dick pondering the state of that great author and mystic's eternal soul? This is pretty much all of my obsessions in a nutshell, albeit a slightly tough one to crack. But trepidation remained, hence my waiting a year or so after The Word of God's release to actual take a look.
The book is a self-aware hodgepodge: part memoir, part collection of stories and poems, and part a novella about the aforementioned Philip K. Dick, who reincarnates himself as a young Nazi in 1939 to kill Disch's fictional father, the German novelist Thomas Mann. (Really.) It's all over the place in terms of subject matter, and it's also of varying quality: the memoir bits are frequently great, though they can also be bitchy; the previously published stories and poems are generally good; the Dickian novella is... well... terrible, frankly. I've generally preferred Disch as a critic and non-fiction author rather than a novelist—his history of SF, The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, is great (with one caveat I'll discuss below). His fiction, though multiply-award-winning, never quite grabbed me, and this book doesn't change that fact.*
But what I really ought to be talking about is the religion. How does the theology of Dischianism stand up? Not too well, sadly. Disch has never been a friend of religion, and his discussions of the subject throughout this book give his basic reasons, most of which boil down to criticisms of closed-mindedness and violence. He views religion in general—and Christianity in particular, but Islam too—in harshly extreme terms that preclude any kind of complexity or nuance. To Disch, one is either an atheist or a creationist who bombs abortion clinics; there is no third option (well, besides the worship of Disch himself). One gets the sense that Disch only knows about religion through reading books—books like the mid-'70s creationist textbook Scientific Creationism. He's read the Bible, sure, but only through the most conservative lens imaginable. Like that grand alliance of Richard Dawkins and Ray Comfort, he believes there's only one way to read Scripture, despite a grand and varied history of competing and conflicting hermeneutics. And through Disch's lens, all religion gets blurred into a vast, ugly sameness. He attacks the Catholic Church, Islam, and American evangelicalism in the same breath, in a way that suggests that he really believes they're all the same. Dawkins believes that, but he at least tries to make a case for it; with Disch, it seems he hasn't bothered to ponder the distinctions. And there's no sense that he ever, y'know, talked to anybody about their religious beliefs—that might have disrupted his insistence that religious faith requires that one be a bomb-planting maniac or a dimwitted yokel.**
That same shortsightedness seems to be behind the very impulse that led to his satirical declaration of his own godhead. The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of has a chapter on religion in SF, for which Disch gives us three main examples: L. Ron Hubbard, Philip K. Dick, and the Heaven's Gate community. One of these things, if you'll forgive the musical intrusion, is not like the others; but Disch sees no qualitative difference between them. Dicks' religious experiences were strange, to be sure, but he didn't found a cynically money-driven church on them, nor did he attempt to convince anyone to commit ritual mass suicide. But Disch can't see the difference; he even implies, quite falsely, that Dick had a temptation "to parlay the muddy revelations of the Exegesis into official doctrine and a church." He only begrudgingly admits that, no, Dick didn't try to launch a church or begin a vast evangelical mission to convince people that he had The Truth, but he implies that Dick would have, had he lived longer. Disch can't seem to comprehend the concept of religious ideas outside of ideas of power and authority; indeed, he seems confused by the fact that Dick didn't believe he had The Truth—just many shards of a complex and confusing truth that he was never quite able to figure out. Disch doesn't see any distinction between having a mystical experience (as Dick did), presenting oneself a prophet (Hubbard), and declaring oneself God. Thus I can't help but think that the central conceit of The Word of God is based on a basic misunderstanding of the last few years of Dick's life; for Disch, believing that God has spoken to you is no different from believing that you are God.
The book review column in the April/May 2009 issue of Asimov's was an extended essay on The Word of God by Norman Spinrad, who was a friend to both Dick and Disch. Asimov's has made the full text of the essay available online—thankfully, because it's highly recommended reading for anyone who wants to understand the factors that culminated in Disch's suicide and his dying-breath slander of an author he once admired. Read it. Now. Even if you never plan on reading The Word of God, it's a powerful piece, and does much more to reconcile the contradictions of Disch's life and death than I ever could. What emerges, both in Spinrad's piece and in Disch's final work, is a portrait of an extremely intelligent, extremely funny and extremely cynical man—but it's the cynicism that won in the end. And I think it's that same cynicism that painted such a starkly-divided picture of what faith is and does in The Word of God. If Disch hadn't been that cynic, if he had allowed for a bit more nuance in his understanding of the things in the world he didn't like, he might still be alive today. But then, would he have still been Thomas Disch? I'll leave that question for people who knew him better—either personally and as a writer. The view from the sidelines (where I am) is that Disch's cynicism demanded a sad ending to his life, and The Word of God is a central part of that tragedy.
*I'm planning to give another shot at his early novels soon. I did rather like Echo Round His Bones, and I have high hopes for The Genocides and White Fang Goes Dingo (or The Puppies of Terra, or Mankind Under the Leash, or whatever they're calling it this week).
**I'm talking here about the tone of his writing, not attempting to state facts on matters of which I am quite ignorant. If I'm wrong, if there is any person out there of faith—any faith!—who conversed with Disch about matters religious, please let me know. I'm curious.