Monday, October 13, 2008

Camp Concentration, by Thomas M. Disch

Camp Concentration
Thomas M. Disch

Welcome to the first selection of what I'm calling Larry's Book Club. I suspect Larry won't be overly excited by that moniker, but that's what he gets for coming up with the idea, running the poll, and breaking the tie to select the book. Sorry, Larry.

Camp Concentration is a difficult novel to write about. Disch wrote a very intellectual novel and those are the sort of books I struggle with both in the reading as well in the talking.

I'll very briefly start with the title. Camp Concentration. Obviously the first thing we are supposed to think about is the comparison to the term "concentration camp". That sort of title is not chosen by mistake. It is a title to remember throughout the novel.

Sometime in the 1970's the war in Vietnam is still raging, has expanded. Robert McNamara is President. The United States is fighting with germ warfare. It is a nasty time in America. This is all window dressing for the story. The story is Louis Sacchetti, a poet and conscientious objector who is imprisoned for avoiding the draft. He goes voluntarily, figures that five years of prison is worth the objection and will resolve his problem with the government.

Louis is moved from his initial prison to Camp Archimedes. The warden, a United States General (retired?), wants Louis to continue to write his diaries, which he did in the previous prison. Only now Louis is to report the facts of everything he sees in the prison. Only the facts. Facts are important here. See, Camp Archimedes is not just your run of the mill secret military prison. Oh no, it is more. Camp Archimedes is your run of the mill secret military prison performing experiments on the inmates and Louis is to observe the results of the experiments. The experiment is to inject a special strain of the syphilis virus to make those infect geniuses and those genius prisoners will hopefully come up with something special. The flip side - those infected will die in 9 months.

The novel is told in diary format, it is the reportage of Louis Saccheti. The first half of the novel is straightforward storytelling, more or less. Louis meets the other inmates, writes poetry, reports on them and gives the reader an overall experience of the underground prison.

I realize right now that this is more a Book Report than a Book Review. I'm just not sure what to do with Camp Concentration. According to Wikipedia the novel references and mirrors in some ways the story of Faustus. Perhaps. My issue with this is that Faustus willingly made a deal with the Devil. Louis didn't. It is an important distinction.

My central issue is that because of the intellectualism of Camp Concentration I, as a reader, had a difficult time engaging with the novel. I don't work very well on that level and while it is not a flaw of the novel, it is a fact of how I read. Yes, Camp Concentration requires more work than the average novel, but there are novels which require more work but can still be enjoyed by a more "average" reader and then there are those novels which require more work but aspire to something higher, something more elite. I think Camp Concentration falls into the second category. It is (L)iterature in the sense that despite having a very particular and set plotline (something that is not often the case in the character studies of Literary Fiction as a genre), Camp Concentration focuses tightly on the character of Louis Saccheti and his observations rather than his experiences. It is an internal novel, not an external.

While I am drawn to novels which live and breath by their characters, I do recognize that frequently I require something to happen. Character as explored by action (of some sort). Camp Concentration is not that novel, though Disch has written a clear chronology of what is happening in the prison and through the changes of Louis we get a plotline. This is especially clear in the second half of the novel, which I will not spoil as to what exactly is happening.

Camp Concentration is likely an important novel and from all reports, one of Disch's best (and certainly most well known), but it is not a novel all readers will enjoy.

That's a stupid thing to say. No novel will be enjoyed for all readers. What I'm trying to say is that Camp Concentration is aimed at a more particular, perhaps more "discerning" audience. It isn't going to appeal to a wide SFF audience. Actually, the largest audience for Camp Concentration is likely outside the genre, the ones who read Camus and Sarte.


Braulio Tavares said...

Hello, Joe. You are right in that Disch's novel is very complex and demanding. I have been re-reading it in the last 30 days in order to join this book-club discussion. I did find some interesting things but I think I've barely scratched the surface. It is a book that deserves to be rediscovered. When you have time drop by: Thanks!

Larry Nolen said...


I think this is one of those books that will take many people blogging about it in order for an undecided reader to get a fuller picture of what's going on here - thus my tiebreaking vote! :P (By the way, I prefer Blogger Book Club for the title, since I'm not hosting it past this edition ;)).

While I don't disagree with your summation of the basic plot points, perhaps approaching the book as being a commentary on the 20th century might aid in wresting meaning from the text? I thought the book had a lot of interesting things to say about Death, Life, and the horrendous possibilities embedded in that "joke."


I'm hoping to have something worthwhile to add over on your blog later tonight, as it's been a fascinating read (one I haven't finished yet). Like your approach quite a bit towards the novel :D

Kristen said...


I enjoyed reading your very reflective review. Like you, I am drawn to novels which live and breath by their characters (loved that wording!) and I also found this one a hard one to engage with.