Monday, October 13, 2008

Blogger Book Club Review of Camp Concentration

Camp Concentration
by Thomas M. Disch
192pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 6.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.81/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.81/5

Today marks the beginning of the first in what will hopefully be many Blogger Book Club Discussions. Larry from OF Blog of the Fallen came up with the idea of selecting an older book every month to discuss on various blogs. It's a casual discussion with an entire week for posting reviews and no obligation to participate every month. The October discussion book is the dystopia Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch, which was originally published in 1968.

During the 1970s, America is at war. The poet Louis Sacchetti has been imprisoned for dodging the draft, finding five years in jail preferable to life as a soldier, possible death, and participating in a cause he believes to be morally wrong. The story begins when Louis has finally been allowed to have some paper and immediately begins writing a journal about his time as an inmate. Shortly after the writer has started his daily musings, there is a gap in time between entries and it is noted that the format has changed from handwriting to typing. Louis then tells of being snatched away from this prison to a new prison known as Camp Archimedes, which one of his captors promises will be a better place for him with movie nights, access to a library, coffee, and a weekly allowance of funds. In return, Louis must continue writing his journal and recounting his factual observations.

Soon Louis discovers the real purpose of Camp Archimedes - its residents are part of an experiment to test Pallidine, a new drug derived from syphilis spirochete intended to enhance intelligence. Those who have taken the medication are becoming smarter; however, any person who has taken it dies approximately nine months later. This leads the inmates to study alchemy and ways to create an elixir of youth so they do not meet this fate of an early death.

Camp Concentration has a very academic feel and was reminiscent of books I read in college because of the journal format, the references to literature such as Faust, and the discussion of concepts such as genius being inseparable from madness without the involvement of the factor of luck. It was a book that seemed to be more about ideas and making points through plot and character than one that was about plot and character featuring some contributing ideas. This book fell more into the category of interesting than enjoyable - while I'm glad I read it, it wouldn't be my ideal choice for curling up on the couch with a cup of tea and a book on a lazy day.

The weakest aspect of the novel for me was that I didn't form any emotional connection whatsoever to anyone in the book, including the narrator. My favorite books are those where the characters take on a life of their own and seem like real people. In spite of the fact that the entire book is written in first person perspective through journal entries, which would afford the most intimate look into a character's mind, the personalities in the book always seemed very distanced to me, as a reader. Although we know about how Louis struggles with his religious faith as a Catholic, his strong views about the war, and his love of poetry, the book never delves into why the narrator has specific viewpoints, likes, dislikes, and beliefs. It is just expressed as a fact - which is fitting with the instructions Louis was given on writing in his journal and with the overall tone of the story. However, a story very tragic at heart - about people who are condemned to die by a corrupt society to gain knowledge for said society to use - failed to move me in any way since it never made me care about what happened to anyone in the book.

This is a book that would probably benefit from a reread since I'm sure pieces of it would come together better after knowing what was coming. On the first read through, I found myself feeling like it was not that original or challenging since it did not introduce me to concepts I had not encountered and thought about before (which may also have something to do with the fact that it was written before I was born - I would be interested in knowing how much influence it had on later works). This makes me think that I probably missed a lot since it is supposed to be a very thoughtful book - or perhaps my expectations based on what I'd heard about this book were just too high.

Camp Concentration is an engaging story containing a vast amalgam of ideas, and while I am glad I read it, it did not leave much of an impact on me.


Other Blogger Book Club reviews of Camp Concentration:


Joe said...

Except for your last paragraph, I agree. It's very academic (note the discussions going on at Larry's blog as well as Reading Gaol), and it does feel like one of the literary texts from college.

I disagree with the original and challenging part. It felt rather challenging (for me) to quite get what Disch was attempting to do / say, or what conversation he wanted to have with the reader. Original? It's original enough, depending on how well read one is or where ones experiences come from. But, I think so. I don't think I've run across too many science fiction / fantasy novels written as a prison diary. :)

Kristen said...


Thanks for your comment. I read your review as well and thought you pretty much summed up what I thought about the book.

As far as it being original and challenging goes... I'm sure I probably missed some of the things that made it that way and would possibly pick up more of the subtleties on a reread. I didn't find it particularly original or challenging because on the first read, at least, I didn't come across any ideas that I hadn't been introduced to previously. The whole was original, but the individual pieces seemed like nothing new to me. If that makes any sense.

Novels as prison diaries are something I've seen before, although I don't think I've read any science fiction or fantasy novels in that format, now that you mention it.

Mihai A. said...

Very good review, Kristen :)

And like you I too failed to feel something or identify myself with any of the characters. Although it is written in the first person. It is an interesting read and I don't regret doing it, but I don't think I will make a re-read. I totally agree with what you said, I mean that with certainty a second (even a third) reading will lead me to the discovery of new things, but this novel is not for me. I don't have any problem with the more academic readings, but they have to meet some of my criteria for an enjoyable read.

I wonder what book will be next? ;)

Lsrry said...

It's odd, but I never felt as though Disch's novel was "academic," although there are some shared motifs with G√ľnter Grass's The Tin Drum, come to think of it. I think the journal approach might represent an attempt to express a societal malaise that was developing in a fashion that wouldn't be so negative in feel. Not for sure if Disch nailed this, however, although I think he had more "hits" than "misses" with this narrative approach.

Speaking of novels as prison diaries, have you read Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon? I had to read that for a Cultural History of the 20th Century class 12 years ago and it is one of my favorite novels even today. Chilling is the word for it, but it is also more "accessible" than many would find Disch's novel.

Joe said...

Larry: I didn't think of The Tin Drum, but I do prefer that to Camp Concentration.

Not sure how comparable the two are, but I'd rather read the Grass than the Disch.

Kristen said...

Dark Wolf,

As I said in the comments on your blog, it does sound as though we had very similar thoughts on this one. I'm not sure if I would reread it or not. Initially, I did not think I would but after reading all the discussion on this it is making me curious as to what I'd think of it if I read it knowing what would happen from the very beginning.


I have not read Darkness at Noon but I might have to check it out. "Chilling" tends to resonate well with me and one of the things that frustrates me about reading Camp Concentration is that I really could have liked it if it had just made me feel something for the people involved.

Joe and Larry,

The Tin Drum sounds like it may be worth checking out as well. Thanks for the ideas!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post, Kristen. It´s intriguing to see how some ideas maybe fail to pass the test of time. After all, it´s been 40 years since Camp Concentration was first published. That´s a long time for us SF readers, though, I think, not for literature in general - and that´s another interesting point, I think.

Kristen said...


Thanks for your comment. That is true that for science fiction this book is pretty ancient and that is a point that is important to remember. I hadn't thought of it until yesterday, but for science fiction written in the 1960s, Camp Concentration is a very character driven story, even if the characterization didn't quite work for some of us.

Sara J. said...

It took character more into account I think, but I wouldn't consider it a book that was intended to be character-driven. This book was certainly much more literary and academic in tone than most sci-fi at the time, I agree. I think this book is a little onion-like... you end up having to peel away layers to get at the goods.

Kristen said...


It was more character-centric than a lot of science fiction at the time, but I agree it wasn't really all about the character.