“I am getting fat. Disgustingly fat.”
“(…) I know there is someone watching. Once I was convinced it was God, I assumed that this was either heaven or hell.”
“I have been wondering whether, if I were living in that world, the world of The Times, I would be a pacifist or not. It is certainly the central issue of modern morality, and one would have to take a stand”.
“The Squirrel Cage” is a typical modernist, experimental short story. In the Anti-Story anthology it is placed in the “Against Subject” section, which the editor Philip Stevick justifies thus:
“Is it possible to have a fiction which is coherent on its own terms but so tentative and exploratory that its writer seems never entirely clear what its center is, not even at its end?”
The end of "The Squirrel Cage" is worthy examining, because it presents one of those reversals that only modernist, experimental fiction seems capable of. This is the last paragraph:
It’s not terrifying. How can it be? It’s only a story, after all. Maybe you don’t think it’s a story, because you’re out there reading it on the billboard, but I know it’s a story because I have to sit here on this stool making it up. Oh, it might have been terrifying once upon a time, when I first got the idea, but I’ve been here now for years. Years. The story has gone on far too long. Nothing can be terrifying for years on end. I only say it’s terrifying because, you know, I have to say something. Something or other. The only thing that could terrify me now is if someone were to come in. If they came in and said, “All right, Disch, you can go now”. That, truly, would be terrifying.
Suddenly, that anonymous and faceless narrator, in a blank room, becomes someone we know (or al least someone we may assume is a real person), namely Thomas M. Disch, the writer. When I first read the story, a few days ago, I had at that point the same jolt I had, as a reader, when in Camp Concentration I read the lines: “Haast, I said. “Are you…?” “Mordecai Washington,” he said. By the magical utterance of a name, a person becomes another person, and an impossible transposition of identity has taken place.
The nameless narrator of “The Squirrel Cage” is no one, means nothing to anyone, unless we assume that he is, in fact, the writer Thomas M. Disch giving us a slightly exaggerated portrait of the culs-de-sac he gets into as a writer – the duty to type, to type anything, every day, in order to justify his presence in the world and his right to keep on living. From this viewpoint, the story is a metaphor for a writer’s life, and the final call (“All right, Disch, you can go now”) means Death. It is not a prisoner being released from prison, but a living man being released from life. It’s as if the writer said: “Look, I’m not complaining about the absurd, meaningless life I live. It is not terrifying. It is the ending of that life that, truly, would be terrifying”.
In Camp Concentration, that change of identity works for another purpose. Mordecai Washington and General Haast have tried a preposterous electric-alchemical experiment in order to attain eternal life: Mordecai died, and Haast survived. In the end of the book, when Louis Sacchetti notes the strange behavior of Haast, he asks him, and the General says that he is in fact Mordecai Washington. The utterance of this name is the dramatic peak of the whole novel, as much as “Disch” is the most significant word in the short story, the one that gives it a deeper and more personal (as well as universal) meaning.
"The Squirrel Cage" is a modernist short story which implies that all lives lead to Death. Camp Concentration is a pulp-ish novel (albeit an intellectual one) which, through a high-tech, sense-of-wonder, mumbo-jumbo contraption, gives us hope (at least I fiction) that it’s possible for a sane mind to abandon a diseased body and, maybe, survive indefinitely.