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REVIEW: 334 by Thomas M. Disch

REVIEW SUMMARY: More of a literary experiment and character study than a story.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A collection of interwoven stories about the inhabitants of an apartment building in a near-future Dystopia.


PROS: Realistic characters in a well-imagined and wonderfully depressing setting.
CONS: More literary experiment than story. More character study than plot. Sometimes hard to follow.
BOTTOM LINE: Worth a read if you’re looking for something literary and different.

Having read and immensely enjoyed Thomas M. Disch’s The Genocides, I went into 334 with some high expectations.

334 is a fix-up novel that collects a series of related short stories, each revolving around a public housing building with the address 334 East 11th Street located in an early 21st century Manhattan. In this Dystopian society, one where welfare is an inherent way of life, overpopulation has resulted in serious family planning laws – the right to procreate is a factor of genetic worth and intelligence.

In a nutshell, the stories that make up the novel can be summarized as follows:

  • “The Death of Socrates” focuses on Birdie and his girlfriend Milly. Birdie struggles to keep his procreation rights after his father is diagnosed with Diabetes and his rating plummets. Birdie must re-take the Regents tests and risk getting an even lower score.
  • In “Bodies”, Milly’s dad, Ab, works in the morgue with dimwitted accomplice Chapel. For extra cash, Ab sells the freshly deceased to necrophiles. Things go amiss when he discovers that a girl due for cremation is recalled by her insurance company. Ab must come up with a solution or face hefty penalties.
  • “Everyday Life in the Roman Empire” was just an incomprehensible mess. Afterward, I wasn’t entirely sure what it was about (I suspected a modern day Greek tragedy) so I Googled and found this explanation: “Alexa takes the drug Morbihnine to help her more fully visualize the fantasy life she leads in the late Roman Empire.” Err…OK.
  • “Emancipation” explores the relationship between twenty-somethings Milly (the same Milly from “The Death of Socrates”) and Boz who have drifted apart and seek psychological help. The recommended fix for their broken relationship is to let Boz carry their baby to term.
  • In “Angouleme”, a teenage gang plan a murder but only one of them, Little Mister Kissy Lips, is serious enough to attempt it.
  • The novella “334” is a series of interleaved vignettes cycling between past and present whose timeline is made navigable by a nifty 3D perspective map. The map dimensions include character (3 units deep: Mrs. Hanson, her daughter Lottie and her other daughter Shrimp), the year (3 of them: 2021, 2024, 2025) and, for lack of a better label, “storytelling mode” (4 of them: fantasy, reality, monolog and another point of view). So, any given vignette could be anywhere on the map (say a fantasy vignette featuring Shrimp in the year 2021) but all vignettes are connected via a single line path on the map. From a mathematical geek perspective, this is a way cool map. (More on mathematical geek stuff later). The plotline here is mostly pushed aside in favor of character study.

My impressions? Sorry, I don’t do impressions. But I found the most enjoyable stories to be the two early ones: “The Death of Socrates” and “Bodies”. Each story had an interesting plotline and wonderfully depressing characters. (All of the characters seen in 334 are depressing in some way or another. The happiest characters are probably the dead ones. Oddly, I found this to be an appealing aspect of the book.) The other stories were less engaging for me, at times to the point of skimming. The non-linear aspect of the novella “334” made that one a really tough read for me. Eventually I got tired of the characterizations and longed for something to actually happen. Ultimately I was left with the memory of the book’s construction rather than the ideas it presented.

Although an American, Disch is considered part of the UK New Wave SF movement of the 60’s. This novel is a great example of that style with its portrayal of a depressing, Dystopian society told in a way that focuses more on writing style than plot. The writing style shows through its verbiage, its frequent use of sexual frankness and its construction. In fact, I would sooner classify 334 as a writing experiment than I would a novel. Some research shows that the title “334” itself describes, as I highlighted above, “the three-dimensional narrative diagram according to which the book is constructed.” [That’s a quote from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by John Clute and Peter Nicholls under the Oulipo entry. Oulipo refers to a writing style where literature is considered a game of language rather than a means of representing the world – the prose is intentionally made difficult (usually using mathematics as the basis for some pattern of writing) to “force” great art.] While interesting in its methodology, the writing style, as I said, made for a very tough read at times.

One of the things I did like about the writing was the way Disch casually drops some new information (characters’ relationships, inventions, societal custom) in a matter-of-fact way that instantly makes it part of the norm. Heinlein used the same technique to great effect. Disch also manages to deftly interweave the characters and events between all the stories, building each character’s portrait one lonely piece at a time until all characterizations are fully portrayed by the end of the book.

Sadly though, I have to chalk this one up as another well-regarded classic (David Pringle, who includes this on his Top 100 SF list, calls this a “masterpiece”) that failed to overly impress me. But it’s worth a look to anybody looking for something literary and different.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

1 Comment on REVIEW: 334 by Thomas M. Disch

  1. To me, 334 is SF for folks who think they don’t like SF, i.e. general and “literary” readers. They may like what an SF reader may dislike about it, i.e. the lack of action.

    It’s more an immersion in a world of day-to-day life, where it is the small things that grind you down. This impression is built stealthily via the more conventional stories at the start of the series, until the last jump-around brings you into ground-rush.

    My copy of this urban, Earth-bound collection of short stories has a deep-space generation liner on the cover. Huh?

    Perhaps what I like most about 334, aside from luxurious characterization and dialog that’s often scarce in SF, is how it links loose short stories into cohesion. You could see this as a precursor of movies like Short Cuts, Magnolia, and many of Tarrantino’s films. Tim Winton uses the same approach in The Turning, which is an excellent set of stories to find and read!

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