334: A Novel
|Author:||Thomas M. Disch|
If Charles Dickens has written speculative fiction, he might have created a novel as intricate, passionate, and lacerating as Thomas M. Disch’s visionary portrait of the underbelly of 21st-century New York City. The residents of the public housing project at 334 East 11th Street live in a world of rationed babied and sanctioned drug addiction. Real food is displayed in museums and hospital attendants moonlight as body-snatchers.
Nimbly hopscotching backward and forward in time, Disch charts the shifting relationships between this world’s inheritors: an aging matriarch who falls in love with her young social worker; a widow seeking comfort from the spirit of her dead husband; a privileged preteen choreographing the perfectly gratuitous murder. Poisonously funny, piercingly authentic, 344is a masterpiece of social realism disguised as science fiction.
The stories in 334 revolve loosely around a government housing project at 334 East 11th Street in New York City in the 2020s. The project’s inhabitants are universally poor, often jobless, sometimes squalid. Some are happy, others angry, depressed, or just numb. The stories study their hopes and disappointments, and all are deeply introspective.
The early 21st-century setting might, in the hands of another author, be only a guise, a shortcut to making a world that’s more gritty, shabby, and used up than ours. But Disch’s future is thoroughly imagined, and he’s adept at dropping in details of his characters’ lives that are commonplace to them but jarring to us. It might be something as simple as going to the kitchen to “mix up a glass of milk.” Occasionally it’s radical, as in the case of Millie, who wants to have a baby but also keep her career. The answer? The child is gestated in an artificial womb and Millie’s husband gets mammary implants.
Though American, Disch is closely associated with the UK’s New Wave movement, and these stories reflect the New Wave emphasis on character above ideas. He’s also a well-known poet, and in 334 you’ll find some of the most lyrical science fiction written. —Brooks Peck