Friday, October 24, 2008

Camp Concentration 023 – The Squirrel Cage

While “reading around” Camp Concentration, I came across a short story by Disch which I had not read before. It is “The Squirrel Cage”, in Anti-Story – An Anthology of Experimental Fiction, edited by Philip Stevick (New York, The Free Press, 1971). The anthology registers that it was first published in New World (1967), which is certainly the British New Worlds, where Disch published much of his work at that time.

“The Squirrel Cage” may be seen as “a pendant” to Camp Concentration. The story is about a prisoner in a cell, a man who doesn’t remember who he is, or why he’s in prison. He writes all day long, in a typewriter; he never makes direct contact with his captors; he eats well; he is given The New York Times to read, on a daily basis; nobody ever talks to him or give him any kind of instruction. He can only keep himself alive… and write.

“I’m free to write down anything I like, but (…) no matter what I do write down it will not make any difference”.

The typewriter he uses is rigged in such a way that he can’t read what he has just written. There is a normal keyboard, but:

“There is not, however, either a margin control or a carriage return. The platen is not visible, and I can never see the words I am writing. What does it all look like? Perhaps it is made immediately into a book by automatic lynotipists. Wouldn’t that be nice? Or perhaps my words just go on and on in one endless line of writing. Or perhaps this typewriter is just a fraud and leaves no record at all”.

(In some aspects, this sounds like the first impressions of someone using a computer and registering its differences from a mechanical typewriter. It is an alternate machine, and the possibility of “automatic lynotipists” is a sort of avant-la-lettre steampunk.)

This is a type of story much discussed in literary workshops, called “The Empty Room Situation”. It always features an amnesiac person in an empty room, and this is just how most writers feel when confronted with the blank page or the blank screen. It is also a cliché of modernist, experimental fiction, in which the important thing is to examine the very act of writing, of creation through literature.

The narrator of “The Squirrel Cage” says that he’s being observed, because every time he tries to hurt himself in the hard edges of his stool and his typewriter they are withdrawn into the floor. But nobody makes contact with him, and he can only imagine who “they” must be. In brief paragraphs, Disch evokes some clichés of popular fiction.

“I think everybody is dead. I think I may be the only one left, the only survivor of the breed. And they just keep me here, the last one, alive, in this room, this cage, to look at, to observe, to make their observations of, to—I don’t know why they keep me alive”.

“Aliens? Are there aliens? I don’t know. Why are they studying me? What do they hope to learn? Is it an experiment?”

“But maybe they are only scientists, and not aliens at all. Psychologists at M.I.T., perhaps, such as frequently are shown in The Times: blurred, dotty faces, bald heads, occasionally a moustache, certificate of originality. Or, instead, young, crew-cut Army doctors studying various brainwashing techniques. (…) Are you reading this, Professor? Are you reading this, Major?”

It seems that this last hypothesis served to Disch as a basis for the development of the Camp Concentration plot.

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