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: