Sunday, October 12, 2008

Camp Concentration 019 - Decamp

(Susan Sontag in Petra - photo by Annie Leibovitz)

“When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it's often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn't attempted to do anything really outlandish. ("It's too much," "It's too fantastic," "It's not to be believed," are standard phrases of Camp enthusiasm.)"—Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp”

This can be a good starting point for discussing the “camp” aspect of Disch’s book. It looks like Disch, who was a harsh critic of most SF, tried to attain in his novel the problematic synthesis between high literature and pulp drama. Camp Concentration is made up from a series of SF clichés: mad scientists, the Army’s secret projects, superpowers, underground shelters, Gothic technology, a miraculous escape. It’s just as if the writer had told himself: “This is an impossible task: to write a great book from this sort of material. If I succeed, I must be a genius. If I don’t, well, that is just what I was trying to prove in the first place”.

Camp Concentration is Jean-Paul Sartre and Thomas Mann innoculated in a Van Vogt plot. Most of the criticism I have read against the novel concerns the “coup de theatre” in the last pages, which in a certain sense spoils the seriousness of the rest of the book. Those commentaries say (without any enthusiasm): “It’s too much. It’s too fantastic. It’s not to be believed”.

And yet… and yet… This final twist (the revelation of what really happened between Mordecai and Haast, and Sacchetti’s salvation) is just what made me adore the book when I first read it. Pulp clichés are, usually, a short and easy way out from a narrative corner in which the writer has written himself. Abracadabra! And the eruption of a vulcan destroys the mad scientist’s lab, or the hero is saved from death thanks to a newfound drug which hadn’t been mentioned so far.

Such solutions are forbidden in a serious novel. There must be no easy way out. High literature doesn’t admit the impossible, especially when used to solve problems of narrative. If you have an underground prison in which the narrator has been innoculated with a mortal disease and is slowly dying, well, he has to die. Not because there is no escape from underground prisons, but because there is no escape from high literary conventions. And this is just the prison Camp Concentration escapes from: a genre convention, a cliché of the mainstream. The astounding mindswap that frees the prisoners is a victory of Pulp resources against mainstream constraints.

Curiously enough, had Disch’s novel been written in a pedestrian prose, with cardboard characters and run-of-the-mill situations, the same ending would not be a triumph – it would become equally weak. What makes the success of Camp Concentration for this reader is that the novelist achieved this most improbable of balances, between the sophistication of high literature and the sense of wonder (the sense that “anything is possible”) of Pulp, a sense of wonder that most high literature has lost, because it has become too tightly bound by the Principle of Reality.

Camp Concentration is the story of the impossible escape of a prisoner, and of a writer who finds a spectacular way of extricating himself from two literary imprisonments, simultaneously.

“The act of genius is simply the bringing together of two hitherto distinct spheres of reference, or matrices – a talent for juxtapositions”. (CC, p. 62, June 13 entry)

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