This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
So, we’ve seen the beginning of Dick’s career as an SF author, the flourishing of his talents as a short story writer – and the mixed results which arose from some of his longer stories being expanded to novel length – and the gear switch he made to writing novels. Dick started focusing on novels after A.E. van Vogt, one of his idols, gave him some pointers on publishing economics at a SF convention; however, it seems to have quickly rekindled his ambitions of becoming a respectable mainstream author, which had laid mostly dormant since the early attempts of Gather Yourselves Together and Voices From the Street. In the midst of a run of SF novels for Ace Books, Dick produced Mary and the Giant, and whilst that didn’t manage to get published it came close enough to acceptance for Dick to almost completely abandon writing original SF material after The Man Who Japed, spending most of the rest of the 1950s working on his mainstream novels and keeping SF firmly on the back burner.
Dick’s first two stabs at the mainstream from this period of his career – A Time For George Stavros and Pilgrim On the Hill – are lost. Of the two, A Time For George Stavros is a little bit less lost than Pilgrim On the Hill – Dick retooled George Stavros extensively to get his 1960 novel Humpty Dumpty In Oakland, and according to those few who read both manuscripts at the time the overlap between the two was substantial. Pilgrim On the Hill, though, we know barely anything about aside from an unhappy appraisal from a reviewer at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, Dick’s agents:
Another rambling, uneven totally murky novel. Man with psychosis brought on by war thinks he’s murdered his wife, flees. Meets 3 eccentrics: an impotent man who refuses to have sex with his wife, the wife – a beautiful woman who’s going to a quack doctor for treatment, an animalistic writer with ambition but no talent. Man has affair with wife, is kicked out by husband, tries to help slob. Finally collapses, is sent to hospital, recovers, returns to home. BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN? Try Miss Pat Schartle at Appleton.
I do feel for Dick’s agents at this time, because from their point of view it must have seemed like he was bombarding them with commercially useless manuscripts and lumbering them with the task of trying to sell them. Dick’s mainstream novels from this period would undergo dozens of rejections and – with one exception – wouldn’t emerge during his lifetime (sharing this fate with the earlier mainstream novels Dick had produced). The first surviving novel from this period – The Broken Bubble – is no exception to this, and to an extent Dick became reconciled to this in later life; though he eventually managed to see Confessions of a Crap Artist reach print in his lifetime, and considered it an important landmark in his career, in 1980 Dick was dismissive of the remaining unpublished manuscripts:
Their time has passed. They’re essentially fossils. When I’m dead and lying in the marble orchards, I won’t stop my heirs from digging them up and publishing them. But I don’t want to flood the market with a bunch of my old non-sf now.
As I found out to my horror, this was a good call on Dick’s part. These novels don’t exactly cover him in glory.
1956: The Broken Bubble
Once more drawing on his love of music for inspiration – in particular, on his purported stint as a classical music DJ back in 1947 – Dick crafts the action of The Broken Bubble around two couples. Jim Briskin and Patricia Gray both work at a small local radio station, KOIF, Jim being the DJ of the afternoon rock and roll show for the kids’ as well as the respectable evening classical music show whilst Pat does secretarial work. Jim and Pat used to be husband and wife, but their marriage drifted apart under the stresses caused by the discovery of Jim’s infertility, and Jim being too uncomfortable with the idea of artificial insemination getting into the equation. Meanwhile, teenage newlyweds Art and Rachael Emmanuel are big fans of Jim’s rock and roll show and find in it a momentary escape from their own troubles; their own marriage is under strain in part because of Art’s failure to take Rachael’s pregnancy seriously and his insistence on running around with his buddies like he’s got no responsibilities, and in part because of the general legal and societal hostility towards teenagers at the time.
The two couples become entangled after Jim, infuriated by the sheer crassness of a used car saleman’s advert, refuses to read it out during the classical music show. Haynes, KOIF’s boss, gives Jim a month off, with the implication being that if he isn’t ready to play nicely by the end of the month he needn’t come back. At a loose end, Jim spends his time trying to convince Pat to come back to him whilst also showing an interest in the Emmanuel’s problems. When Pat meets Art, she is overcome with lust for the decade-younger man, and becomes convinced that if she and Jim were to have affairs with Art and Rachael respectively that might just be the catalyst that solves all their problems.
OK, so in Dick’s previous attempts at mainstream novels a recurring thing was the characters being really weird about sex, and the pattern continues here. This seems to be intentional on Dick’s part; a lot of the novel is based around Jim and Pat, who have a rather jaded attitude to sex and relationships thanks to the emotional scars left by their marriage, and the contrast between their worldview and the more idealistic and at times incredibly naive views of Art and Rachael, who haven’t been remotely prepared by the schooling system for the situation they’ve found themselves in. In fact, all four of them are messed up in one way or another: Jim is fixated on getting back with Pat but is also obsessed with trying to help out Rachael, Rachael is convinced that Jim is the ideal husband for her and is intent on winning him back from Pat, Pat is driven by lusts she doesn’t entirely understand and is actually kind of afraid of, Art is much the same but is also so prudish that he can’t have sex with the lights on and has a terrifyingly violent side to him.
Dick on the subject of sex usually just serves up a smorgasboard of misogyny, and you kind of get that here, but there’s occasional flashes here of something more interesting – a look into how a bunch of people all end up being messed up in different but comparable ways thanks to a socially-imposed inability to talk about sex in anything but the most indirect and roundabout terms, let alone actually work out what their actual feelings are. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite sustain that over the course of the novel. Firstly, whilst both Jim and Art have very individual and divergent motivations and responses to things, Pat and Rachael both seem to have the same motivation – ensnaring men. (Dick seems to be decidedly alarmed by Pat’s sexuality in particular, and has her talking about how she’d bed both Art and Rachael herself if she could in a manner which I think is meant to suggest to us that she’s gone into full on sex-mad predator mode). On top of that, Jim’s own perspective seems to be given mildly more precedence than the others; he doesn’t actually seem to get up to any extramarital shenanigans, despite Rachael practically begging him to, he doesn’t hit anyone, he saves Pat from the weird abusive situation she gets herself in with Art.
This doesn’t sit nicely with the way he kind of bullies Pat into letting him back into her life over and over again, including some alarming physical grabbing at her in order to force her to continue the conversation after she’s tried to make him leave. At the conclusion of the book the Emmanuels and Jim and Pat come to an uneasy accord where Pat goes back to Jim and the older couple decide that what they really need to do is just give the youngsters their space, popping in to offer help only as and when their intervention or money is needed when The Man causes the Emmanuels problems; I suppose Jim and Pat coming to the end of their respective emotional journeys to discover a new appreciation of each other just about hangs together, and certainly the idea that Jim and Pat should just keep a respectful distance has been amply demonstrated, but Dick struggles to find a convincing way to slot the “kids are being repressed by the state and adults of conscience should be helping them out” angle into things.
Not, mind, that he doesn’t try. Here hs previous SF novel, The Man Who Japed, seems to feed into proceedings: the curfew and the hostility of the authorities tends to be attributed to the same sort of ugly puritanism that informs the busybodies of the dystopian state in that book. Moreover, Art’s rebellion against society takes the form of his association with Grimmelman, a draft-dodger and paranoid conspiracy theorist who forges Art and his friends into The Organisation, a cabal out to overthrow society but whose activities (involving the Horch, a car which they’ve adapted to be controlled remotely) seem to revolve around futile pranks played on privileged kids. The titular broken bubble – a large plastic bubble filled with junk and water and tossed off a tall building to distress people – might fit neatly into the narrative had it been one of the Organisation’s schemes, but instead it’s a prop used by Thisbe Holt, a woman who provides titillating entertainment for the attendees of an optometrist’s convention by climbing naked into the bubble and letting these grown men kick her about like a pornographic football until she decides they’re being too rough and storms out (prompting them to fill it with trash and water and toss it off a building as mentioned).
The Grimmelman and Thisbe Holt strands in the novel stand out for being at once woefully underdeveloped and at the same time clearly something Dick considers to be important to the overall structure of the book, devoting entire chapters to them despite the fact that both of these subplots sort of fizzle out with nowhere to go. We don’t seem to have much insight from the publishers’ side as to why The Broken Bubble was rejected when it was first submitted; whilst pro-Dick partisans might want to argue that its frank treatment of sexuality might have been to blame, it’s hard not to see the fact that Dick leaves these two threads dangling uselessly as indicating just how far his mainstream writing still needed to come before it was ready for primetime.
1957: Puttering About In a Small Land
Puttering About In a Small Land takes us inside the world of Roger and Virginia Lindahl. Having met during World War II and moved from Washington DC to Los Angeles in order to work high-paying manufacturing jobs at the aircraft factories, the Lindahls’ marriage ends up on the rocks by the mid-1950s. Roger just wants to keep his small television retail business ticking over and doesn’t appreciate the way the well-bred Virginia looks down on his rural Arkansas background; Virginia, for her part, is acutely aware that Roger has a history of just plain walking away from his responsibilities to start a new life whenever he feels like it, and worries that she may end up being the next ex-wife he leaves in his wake.
Though there are a few flashbacks which fill in the history of the Lindahls’ relationship, and a final chapter which jumps ahead a couple of years to show us how the aftermath of the story pans out, the novel mostly focuses on a single month in the life of the Lindahls. We join Virginia as she takes the Lindahls’ young son Gregg off to visit the Los Padres Valley School, a residential school run by the formidable Mrs Alt, where Gregg will get to combine conventional schooling with lots of camping, horse riding, hiking, and other exciting outdoor activities during the week, only returning home at weekends.
Virginia doesn’t like Alt, but thinks the school would do Gregg a lot of good; Roger comes to respect Alt but doesn’t want to pay the tuition rates. Roger, however, changes his mind after he goes up to the school to request the return of the cheque Virginia wrote for Gregg’s first month, and in doing so encounters Chic and Liz Bonner, whose two children also attend the Valley School. Liz excites Roger, who becomes convinced that she has reciprocal feelings about him, and Roger decides to let Gregg go to the Valley School after all for the sake of giving Roger a chance to get closer to Liz, setting the stage for the destruction of both the Lindahls’ and Bonners’ marriages.
It is the interaction of the Lindahls and Bonners which drives the novel, Dick avoiding distracting subplots and tangents this time around. Chic is patronising towards Liz and is embarrassed by her apparent unworldliness and ditziness, but seems to act out of genuine friendship and benevolence when it comes to his interactions with the Lindahls – he’s interested in getting into the retail business himself, and has both the funds and the commercial savvy to substantially boost the television store’s fortunes. Virginia is dismissive of Liz, sharing the consensus of most people that Liz, whilst charming, is as dumb as a sack of rocks; she’s also frustrated by Roger’s failure to engage with Chic’s very generous proposals, and by the end of the book she’s not only gone into business with Chic in her own right but it’s also implied that the balance of power is with her, Chic being distracted by his grief over the disintegration of his marriage to Liz. Roger has no real ambitions in life beyond scraping by with his business and getting laid; he daydreams about the exciting future of the television industry, but when he turns his hand to actually trying to devise an inventive contribution to it his experiments are fruitless. Liz…
Well, the characterisation of Liz is kind of a disaster. There’s a conversation Roger has just under halfway into the book with Olsen, one of his employees, in which Olsen sets out a typically hypocritical double standard for the time: it’s natural and OK for men to want and pursue sex (especially outside of marriage, because sex with your wife doesn’t count), but women who actually want sex are bad people with alien values and you shouldn’t respect a woman who actually lets you put your cock inside her. Grossly offensive, yes, but there were (and still are) a lot of people who think like that and I don’t think Dick intended us to actually agree with Olsen on this score: it’s presented very much as a character holding forth their opinions without much in the way of support or tacit endorsement from the narration, and Roger specifically points out the gaping logical flaws and the enormous double standards in Olsen’s position. Likewise, Olsen does shame Roger into dropping the subject in response to Roger calling him out on this stuff, but I genuinely think that Roger backing down rather than standing up for the principles he gives lip service to later on in the conversation is meant to be a moral failing on Roger’s part; he can talk an egalitarian talk but when it comes to walking the walk he has no compunction about behaving entirely consistently with Olsen’s worldview and flat-out lying to Virginia about it.
However, Olsen’s statements become problematic when you factor in the point that there’s only one woman in the book who shows much evidence of being interested in sex. That is Liz, who – it is implied as a result of her deliberately trying to be a sexual and sensual person – is a walking disaster area. She inherits Mary from Mary and the Giant‘s issues with vacillation, to the point where she switches from being all about banging Roger to wanting to break it off with him to lusting after him again in the space of a few sentences. Dick seems to want to present her as being carefree and spontaneous and uninhibited, but a lot of the behaviours he gives her to establish that (like dashing across the road to pick flowers from a complete stranger’s garden) don’t inspire me to think “Wow, what a free and gentle child of the universe” but do make me think “Should this person really be roaming free without a carer?”
Then again, it’s possible that Liz is meant to be more on the ball than she presents herself as being, but this interpretation just makes her seem manipulative. For instance, in one part where she forgets that she didn’t take the driving duties on the way up to the school to deliver Gregg and the Bonner kids, and insists that Roger (who is accompanying her because he wants an opportunity to be alone with her) should drive on the way back because it’s his turn, even though he just drove up with her and she’s been sat in a car with him driving for two hours. If she really is confused on this point, that’s the sort of forgetfulness which makes your relatives seriously consider getting some sort of dementia support for you, but given that she’s able to use this bout of oh-dear-me-I’m-so-silly to get out of the chore of driving you have to wonder whether she isn’t leveraging people’s perceptions of her for her own benefit.
It is genuinely hard to say, because for the most part the novel is rooted in Virginia and Roger’s viewpoints. We get at least one chapter from Liz’s point of view, and it’s completely terrible; Dick was never big on sex scenes, and combining ridiculous descriptions (“She held him in her arms; she held him in her, as close and far as he would go.”) with Liz’s quasi-mystical attitude to sex yields downright embarrassing results:
What does Virginia get back? she thought. What do I leave when I’m through? What comes trembling back to the house, putting its feeble hand on the doorknob… a worn-out thing. Colorless. I got everything out of it, she thought. He poured himself into me; I felt him. He came into me with everything he is and has. The wet life inside the skin. The actual life. There is that one tiny place where it can come out, that imperfection. And if you know how-and I do-you can gather up that and tuck it away, and pretty soon, if everything is right, the person you love spurts across. And the part that tells you is the moment that he knows what he has done; he knows that he is coming, and he can’t stop; he has no control. He is leaving himself, leaving his body, and he tries to go back, and he can’t. Then you know you have him. You have got him.
Why, she thought, does he think he has got something? What has he got? Show it to me. He has only been somewhere; he has been here (she took a Kleenex from the box beside the bed and began to wipe herself off) and now he has left again. But I took in something, and it is still there. Despite what I’ve read in the Britannica, I believe that what I took in is absorbed into my system and becomes a permanent part of me. I can feel it all through me. She lifted her hands and pressed them over her eyes. Powerful lights flashed, color and shapes. All the way, she thought. Everywhere. And if somebody knows, they can tell. Virginia could tell that night, as soon as she saw me. She saw it like a color around me.
I think Dick intends us to see Liz as being sexually liberated; certainly, there’s a part where she gives a little speech which makes it reasonably clear she at least understands the mechanics of sexual pleasure and the relevance of the clitoris, even though she’s forgotten the word for it. But when your representative of modern, liberated sexuality is a vapid, buxom trophy wife who gets semi-cajoled into an affair which she spends half the time trying to break off and half the time daydreaming about how she’s totally stolen her rival’s man and is glad she’s done so… Well, Olsen’s slurs against women who like sex aren’t necessarily as undermined by Liz as Dick would like us to think they are.
The other major female characters in the book are Virginia and her mother, who are kind of awesome but I suspect weren’t meant to be as sympathetic as I found them. Virginia, in particular, uses the leverage her discovery of Roger butt naked in Liz’s bed to her advantage, seizing control of the business side of things from Roger entirely and becoming the solid bedrock on which the new L&B Appliance Mart rests. I think we are meant to read this as a cruel powerplay from Virginia – that she is being selfish by refusing to give Roger a divorce so he can go off and marry Liz or do whatever it is he wants to do with his life, and she’s turned his small but soulful store into something soulless which he hates (to the point where he doesn’t actually work there anymore), and she’s trapped him in a life he doesn’t care for and used him as a vehicle to regain the affluent lifestyle she was used to growing up.
However, to give Dick his due he constructs Roger and Virginia with much more nuance than he offers Liz; they are complicated enough characters that a reader could potentially side with either of them, and Dick is willing to play up the bad side of Roger’s wandering ways and the good side of Virginia’s character development from vacillating and unhappy housewife to stern captain of her own destiny. Roger’s established tendency to fuck right off and just not pay child support or alimony means it would be absolutely ridiculous for Virginia to give Roger a divorce unless and until she were absolutely certain she and Gregg’s material needs were covered – don’t blame Virginia for that, blame the state of divorce law and alimony enforcement in the 1950s. Equally, Virginia and Chic’s vision of the shop might be a bit corporate and modern and not very cozy, but it actually seems to turn a goddamn profit and offer high-quality customer service. The conclusion, in which Roger ditches his entire life – wife, son, lover, TV shop and all – to steal some televisions from the shop and drive off with them so he can sell them on the road to fund a new life somewhere else is also ambiguous; just as we don’t know whether Roger actually gets away or whether he just gets caught and goes to jail for the theft, the ending also gives the reader space to interpret this as Roger making the bold decision to not let the past rule him and exit a life which is only causing him and those who interact with him misery anyway, or whether it’s the final weaselly act of a man who is pathologically incapable of holding himself responsible for anything.
Where the book succeeds, it succeeds because Dick reverts to showing us a series of things that happen and gives us the space to interpret them how we choose, whether or not that matches how Dick sees things. Where it fails, it fails because Dick butts in to try and get us to sympathise with someone we can’t sympathise with, or feel bad about someone we’re actually rooting for, or to just plain present something completely goofy and ridiculous which we can’t believe in altogether. Most Liz-heavy sections fall into that sort of category, but perhaps the most ridiculous part of the novel is the bit in the “some years later” chapters where Roger and Liz meet up, as apparently they regularly do, at the Valley School. There, the teachers apparently have allowed them to set up a little room for themselves to have their erotic rendezvous in, which seems staggeringly unprofessional and a massive waste of school resources to do a favour for two parents for absolutely no reason aside from the fact that the school staff feel vaguely sorry for Roger and Liz and think it is sad that Virginia won’t give Roger a divorce so he can marry Liz.
This, of course, naturally makes it feel like we’re meant to agree with the teachers, who seem to be genuinely nice sorts throughout the novel, but instead I was left wondering why the teachers seem to uniformly approve a) of Roger and Liz shacking up like this (aren’t any of them concerned with how Virginia or Chic feel?) and b) of the headteacher’s massively unprofessional actions which are effectively entangling the school in Roger and Liz’s trysts and making the school complicit in something which is absolutely none of its business. I think there are plenty of reasons why a teacher might object to the head setting up two of the parents with a school-sanctioned boinking closet, reasons which have nothing to do with 1950s prudishness and everything to do with it not being the school’s role to facilitate the sex lives of parents.
Of course, this oddness might be down to Dick not necessarily feeling the material at this point. Fellow SF author and childhood pal of Dick’s, Ray Nelson, claims that Dick changed the ending to Puttering in an attempt to make it more commercially viable; according to Nelson, the original version didn’t have the current chapters 21 and 22, which are the parts set some years down the line where Virginia and Chic are running the shop and Roger and Liz have their boinking closet up at the school; it simply ended after the present chapter 20 (which concludes with Virginia discovering definitive proof of Roger’s infidelity and laying down the law to him as to how they’re going to handle this) and a short epilogue which is now lost. Little is known of the epilogue except that it has a “moving vehicle” theme, which would mirror the opening of the novel (Virginia driving Gregg to visit the school), though since the present ending has Roger driving off in a car full of stolen TVs I suspect the ending we have simply expands on the coda to give that moving vehicle a bit more context.
Either way, I was surprised to learn that the ending was new because it seems to fit naturally with the story arc – Virginia and Chic at least seem to end up in a logical place, and whilst I think Roger is a heel for behaving as he does in these last chapters I’d come to the conclusion he was a heel some time earlier – and it’s also precisely the sort of frustrating mix the rest of the novel offers. On one hand, you have genuinely interesting slice-of-life drama that provides observations of California life in the 1950s which prompts the reader to think about what’s going on without forcing a particular conclusion on the reader, and on the other hand you have Dick writing this bizarre stuff which doesn’t feel real or credible or even interesting and alternating between writing women who feel like actual people (Dick hates these women) and writing women who feel like replicants (Dick likes these).
In short, it’s yet another mainstream Dick which is of interest only to completists and scholars. Dick biographers may wish to note this little speech from Jules Neame, the elderly manager of the garden furniture shop next to Roger’s TV store:
“It comes a lot of different ways, doesn’t it? You never know. I guess we ought to be glad of what we have. We shouldn’t look too far ahead: we should enjoy it now.” Neame gnawed at his sandwich, speaking with his mouth full. “Here we are, Mr. Lindahl; we know that, but what else do we know? They talk about heaven and the afterlife. I think we’d be better off not worrying about that. Life is too short. We torment ourselves with worries about that, when we have enough to worry about already. We have enough travail in our lives. Guilt is useless. The world torments us, and we react by tormenting ourselves. I wonder how we can ever have such a low opinion of ourselves that we join in. I suppose we agree that they’re right about us. We don’t merit any happiness, and when we do get a trace of it we feel we’ve stolen something that doesn’t belong to us.”
This ties into the concept that we’re all of us out for a little fun but the world punishes us for getting it with a harshness way beyond what our actions merit, which would be an enduring belief of Dick’s which he would hold to for most of his life; he applies it to drugs and the nastier consequences of a narcotics habit in A Scanner Darkly, it recurs an awful lot in the Exegesis, in which he theorised that the Christ/VALIS word virus was invading the universe in order to put an end to this sorry state of affairs, and I guess that Puttering About – along with a lot of his other mainstream novels – applies that concept to extramarital affairs.
1958: Time Out of Joint
Perhaps inspired by the expansion work he had been called on to do the previous year for the novel version of The Cosmic Puppets, Dick found himself back in a SF mood in early 1958. Nicholas and the Higs, another lost manuscript, apparently sneaks a few SF themes into a mostly mainstream narrative. After submitting Higs, Dick penned Time Out of Joint, a novel which takes 1950s paranoia to its illogical extreme – and the only original novel Dick wrote between 1956 and 1960 to win over the publishers, being snatched up almost as soon as it was submitted.
Our hero, Ragle Gumm, lives in an idyllic town somewhere in the mid-to-late 1950s. The news is full of speculation about Soviet expansionism and President Eisenhower’s poor health, but Ragle spends far more time on one particular part of the newspaper. Ragle, you see, has a strange talent: he can see underlying patterns in the otherwise apparently random outcomes of the Where Will the Little Green Man Land Next? guessing game from the puzzle section. Playing it daily, his contest submissions always win – with a little massaging from the publishers, who like the publicity a hot streak like Ragle’s offers them – and his contest winnings set him up with a fairly steady income.
Ragle lives with his sister Margo, his brother-in-law Vic, and nephew Sammy. It’s a happy enough existence, and with the amount he brings in they don’t bug him too much about getting a real job. Ragle’s main concerns in life are twofold: firstly, he seems to be gradually beginning an affair with June, the wife of his neighbour (the snobbish city official Bill Black) almost despite himself, and secondly solid objects have developed an alarming habit of vanishing into thin air when he tries to interact with them, leaving behind only strips of paper with their names printed on them (like “SOFT DRINK STAND”).
Ragle gradually opens up to Margo and Vic about his increasingly paranoid concerns, and soon they are convinced – thanks, in part, to Sammy. Sammy has been building a crystal set radio for fun, and the adults don’t expect him to pick up much aside from official traffic, because as everyone knows all the commercial radio stations closed when TV took off – but what Sammy picks up on the radio when he gets it working becomes downright alarming. On top of that, whilst playing in some ruined house foundations in an abandoned part of town, Sammy uncovers a cache of documents which the adults promptly confiscate – phone books where none of the numbers work and all the place names are unfamiliar, and celebrity gossip magazines that gush about a supposedly world-famous actress called Marilyn Monroe that none of the adults can remember seeing in a film or even hearing of. Soon, it is clear that information in the town is being tightly controlled and efforts are being made to prevent the town’s residents from leaving. But to what end? Surely this vast conspiracy can’t solely exist just to convince poor old Ragle Gumm he lives in an idealised 1950s suburbia?
Bill Black, meanwhile, is keeping track of everything and wondering whether Ragle is finally becoming sane…
What is particularly notable about Time Out of Joint is the sheer extent to which it lifts techniques from the mainstream novels Dick had written in the buildup to it. Of course, The Cosmic Puppets dabbled in depicting 1950s small town America a little bit, but it was still clearly built as a fantasy story from the ground up. Here, it feels more as though a collection of paradoxes and anachronisms have invaded a mainstream Dick novel, with the mainstream story of layabout dropout Ragle sleepwalking into adultery with June being a false shell that eventually completely disintegrates when Ragle leaves town and confronts reality. It’s no surprise that Dick would become fixated on Joint in later life as he was compiling the Exegesis, because a lot of the ideas in that have clear precedents here. A false reality that amongst other things blinds its occupants to the true history and time period; secret agents opposed to the prison-builders infiltrating and leaving behind apparently innocuous signs which, when seen by the right person, clues them in to the false nature of the world; the concealment of these signs in the rubbish and refuse of the world; amnesia inflicted on the prisoner whose true identity is asserted when he escapes to the outer world; the prison-builders representing an ugly authoritarian regime faced down by a radical liberation movement. When you put all of those ingredients together, the book reads like a dress rehearsal for 2-3-74, and this wasn’t lost on Dick – Time Out of Joint is one of the earliests work of his which comes up for regular and sustained scrutiny in the Exegesis, preceded only by Eye In the Sky, and most of the various versions Dick proposed of the multi-volume Gnostic meta-novel he’d accidentally written include Time Out of Joint as one of the parts..
In truth, whilst Dick might or might not have been justified in his belief that Joint was part of an SF epic dictated subconsciously by a satellite God, he was correct in regarding it as one of his major works, since it represents a big leap forward in his writing. Dick’s prose flows better here than in any of the mainstream novels preceding it, which feel fussy and constrained and disinterested in comparison. (He even gets in some jabs at the very small town/extramarital affairs/weeping and drama genre he’d been trying to break into.) Though he may have had lofty literary ambitions, Dick’s enthusiasm for SF here is quite apparent, especially when it comes to the concluding chapters which read like a classic SF appeal to the audience’s love of exploration and new frontiers; in particular, he shows a SF writer’s knack for slipping in worldbuilding details here and there to give the reader an idea of the setting the characters are living in – the twist here being that Dick isn’t working to familiarise the reader with an initially unfamiliar setting, but to alienate the reader from an initially familiar setting, working in inconsistencies and anachronisms and factual screw-ups that combine to reveal to the attentive reader that this isn’t the real 1950s well before the characters suss this out.
Ironically, however, by crossing the streams of his SF and mainstream fiction to the extent that he does here, Dick incurred the wrath of Don Wollheim, editor of Ace Books, who – by Dick’s own account at least – despised the book for failing to measure up to his tastes. Dick’s account of how hilariously mad Wollheim got is worth a read, because whether or not it’s true that Wollheim had this reaction, I could certainly imagine hard SF fans getting all upset for similar reasons:
[…] I’ve never read such a long, angry letter from an editor in my life. He was incredibly threatened by that novel. He saw everything that he construed as science fiction as going down the tubes with what that novel did. If it ever got into print, which he doubted it ever would, he said the only thing salvageable was the last chapter, where there was the war on the moon. And I should build back from the last chapter. And the style was wrong, because it was essentially pedestrian, he said…
In all honesty, there are some parts of the novel which are never adequately explained – the actual disappearances being a notable example – but to be honest, for the purpose of the narrative we don’t need to know the actual mechanism for the mind control technology involved. Either way, Wollheim’s animosity for the book actually threatened the novel’s commercial success, since at the time if Wollheim turned against a book it would be tricky to get it published by an SF publisher. Wollheim told Dick that he might consider taking it if and only if Dick gave it a substantial rewrite to remove the bits Wollheim didn’t like (including the disappearing soft drink stand which is one of the most enduring images of the book), but the novel was saved by the intervention of Lippincott, a hardcover publisher who’d decided to dabble in starting an SF line and had asked the Scott Meredith Agency to pass along some manuscripts to them. Even then, Lippincott didn’t entirely know how to pigeonhole Time Out of Joint, publishing it simply as “a novel of menace” rather than overtly marketing it as SF.
The question of Time Out of Joint‘s genre is an interesting one, though. It could be soft, socially focused science fiction of the sort which was emerging at the time to the discomfort of the Don Wollheims of the era and other partisans for hard SF. Alternately, you could look at it as a companion piece to The Cosmic Puppets, which would tend to shift it towards fantasy. The interesting thing about setting those two books next to each other is the way they illustrate different aspects of paranoia. Puppets features a metaphysical conspiracy that embroils Ted Barton mainly by accident. Conversely, Joint depicts a more acutely paranoid scenario in which the imposition of a false reality on a small town really is all about fooling one guy, who truly is the centre of a universe invented to distract him. (In this respect, Ragle Gumm actually has more in common with the antagonist of Puppets than the protagonist.) If Time Out of Joint has a weakness, it is that the imprisonment is a bit more interesting than the reality Ragle Gumm discovers, though with its totalitarian overtones and its roving gangs of kids in odd costume speaking some sort of NadSat based more on West African pidgin English than Russian slang the final segments do at least feel like a rough precursor to cyberpunk. The ending of the book is, in fact, oddly melancholy; in particular, there’s no climactic confrontation with Bill Black, who instead we leave gently breaking the news to Margo about who she really was before she brainwashed for the containment program..
Whilst there are flashes of Dick’s habitual misogyny here and there, these mostly surround how vapid June is, which it is implied is an implanted character trait intended to help provide a pleasant environment for Ragle. As such, Time Out of Joint is perhaps the best of Dick’s 1950s novels. (That’s slightly faint praise – Dick wouldn’t really be firing on all cylinders as a novelist until the 1960s – but it’s still a good book.) The main downside to it is that its central premise has been dug up and rehashed so often – see The Truman Show, for instance – that it can feel a little clichéd. However, as the originator of many of these clichés, it holds up very well.
1958: In Milton Lumky Territory
In 1958 Dick and his then-wife Kleo moved to the North California town of Point Reyes. By the end of the year, Kleo and Dick would divorce, and on April 1 1959 Dick would marry Anne Rubinstein, a Point Reyes local. Anne was slightly older than Dick (though only by a year or so), didn’t have dark hair and had several daughters from a previous marriage; she also had personal ambitions of her own, establishing a homemade jewelry business that’s still going today. (Before The Man In the High Castle set his writing career back on track there was a real possibility of Dick packing in his writing ambitions to work in the jewelry business instead.) This set Anne apart from most of the other women Dick would be involved with over the years, who were generally younger and less experienced dark-haired women. (He’d acknowledge the dark-haired part as a thing of his several times.)
In Milton Lumky Territory arrived at the offices of the Scott Meredith Agency (greeted, I can only imagine, with groans from the agents) in October of 1958, making it an interesting artifact from the narrow window between the end of one marriage and the start of the next. The novel revolves around Bruce “Skip” Stevens, who when we meet him makes a living driving around the flyover states tracking down juicy bargains for his employers at a discount warehouse store in Reno, Nevada – precisely the sort of outfit which puts the pinch on the small businesses Dick tends to show more sympathy for. Swinging through his former home town in Idaho on his way from one appointment to the next, he stops by the home of an old friend hoping to get laid; as it turns out, she’s hosting a party, and at this party Skip meets Susan Faine, an older woman he immediately becomes fascinated with.
Skip soon remembers where he has met Susan before – she was, briefly, his teacher back in the fifth grade. Neither party lets that or the ten year age gap between them slow them down and soon they are sleeping together, and within a few days of them meeting they are married. Susan doesn’t just want a husband, though – she also wants Skip to be her business partner in the typewriter shop she owns in town. It’s in this context that Skip meets Milton Lumky, salesman for a paper company with responsibility for the Pacific Northwest. The older and wiser Lumky gives the impression of being well-informed, and when Skip learns about an exciting new model of Japanese electric typewriter that could be the perfect item to sell at the shop, he realises that if he is going to track down a consignment of the elusive product his best bet is to track down Milton Lumky and ask him about it. At this point there ensues a long road trip which essentially boils down to a cross-country detective story, albeit one with ludicrously low stakes. In this unlikely crucible, Skip’s moral character is tested and found wanting, and the typewriters soon provoke a crisis that threatens to tear apart the new marriage.
Anne Dick has said that when she reread Dick’s novels after his death she realised they were works of “surrealist autobiography”. One can only imagine her feelings on revisiting this one. Susan appears to be mostly based on her – an older woman (though the age gap between Anne and Dick was peanuts compared to the gap here) with offspring from a previous marriage and business ambitions of her own. To be fair, Susan also carries with her some aspects of Kleo – for instance, Susan was forced out of teaching because of her past involvement in left-wing politics, which recalls Kleo’s own activism and its later consequences (which, remember, included visits from the FBI). On the other hand, writing a story about a protagonist’s sexual entanglement with an Anne-Kleo amalgam is kind of alarming in itself, especially when the novel is actually incredibly hostile towards Susan.
On the subject of that hostility, it’s worth mentioning the regularly highlighted manipulative streak in Susan. Or at least, Skip seems to think she has a manipulative streak – he keeps being surprised and confounded by her expectations of exactly what sort of commitment he’s getting into and what risks and burdens and debts are involved, and by his reactions he appears to be blindsided by these as though Susan had never made matters clear or is pulling out information she had previously neglected to share with him. This could be intended as comedic misunderstanding, but despite Dick’s insistence that the novel is funny it really doesn’t come across that way – if anything, their inability to actually understand each other makes Susan and Skip’s relationship depressing to behold.
There is, indeed, an air of desperation hanging over the novel which permeates even Dick’s Author’s Foreword at the start. Check it out:
This is actually a very funny book, and a good one, too, in that the funny things that happen happen to real people who come alive. The ending is a happy one. What more can an author say? What more can he give?
Reading this does not reassure me that what follows is going to be a barrel of laughs – in general if you have to hype up how hilarious your own material is it probably isn’t as funny as you think it is. It’s especially odd since Dick is perfectly capable of being funny when he applies himself, and I do wonder whether he’s being entirely sincere here. If anything, the novel comes across to me as an enormous downer.
Part of this comes down to Skip not really being a fun guy to hang around with. It becomes apparent partway through the tedious and overlong quest for the Japanese typewriters that Skip is not someone we are necessarily meant to look up to. In contrast to Lumky, who finds the business world a dissatisfying place and isn’t at all comfortable with a lot of the things he’s called on to do in his job and finds meaning in his life outside of work, Skip finds the cutthroat world of business fulfilling in itself and scoffs at Lumky’s ethical qualms. There’s one part where Lumky directly asks Skip if he is an atheist, and Skip thinks this is a ludicrous question to ask but actually doesn’t seem to have a spiritual side to him at all. That Skip dismisses this so readily I think is meant to be understood as a bad thing – certainly, it would appear that way to a 1950s American audience, and whilst Dick’s personal spiritual development was decidedly heterodox he never seems to have been an atheist. (More of an agnostic gnostic, in that he believed he occasionally got secret direct knowledge of ultimate spiritual realities but wasn’t sure of their import and also entertained the possibility that he was just imagining it. Remember, whilst 2-3-74 is still some time away at this point, according to his claims in the Exegesis Dick had been receiving guidance from the AI Voice for over a decade at this point.)
Further trouble emerges when Skip gets back from the trip to find that the typewriters are unsellable in the US market. He hits on a plan to sell them to his former employers, semi-scamming them in order to recoup the investment he and Susan has made in the typewriters and maybe turning a profit after all. Susan finds this ethically objectionable, Skip literally cannot understand why she has a problem with pulling off a slightly shady deal in order to benefit themselves, and ultimately Susan calls ahead to warn Skip’s ex-boss so the scam falls through. Skip ends up leaving – broke, embittered, his marriage to Susan apparently in tatters along with his income.
Some aspects of this ending – Skip driving around with a car full of product, Skip pulling late nights at the workbench trying to fix the typewriters so that they are good for the US market – reminded me of the conclusion to Puttering About In a Small Land. Unlike that book, Dick tacks on a happy ending here – one which is so jarring and abrupt and so tonally inconsistent with what immediately precedes it that I am convinced it is a late addition to the book thrown in as a desperate bid to make it more sellable. Suddenly, Susan and Skip make up, try again, make a success of their business and settle down nicely. Even this apparently nice outcome has a discordant note to it. Skip insists that he is happy in the domestic circumstances he exists in at the end, but there’s a sense of lifelessness and stagnation pervading the scene that makes this sound insincere; Susan overtly worries whether Skip is really happy with her and Skip’s assurances on this score don’t convince.
(On top of that, this happy ending comes hot on the heels of a dream sequence in which Skip, having apparently lost everything, dreams that he is in fifth grade again and Susan as his teacher has tasked him to write an essay so he’s going to write about a future in which they make a killing with the Japanese typewriters and shift to premises in Montario; the happy ending scenario actually leads on from this shift to Montario and offers no waking-life explanation of how they actually make a killing from the typewriters to do this, so it’s entirely possible that Skip dreams the happy ending – or that he shifts into a parallel universe where the happy ending takes place – which strikes me as Dick trying to sneak a downer ending past editors who had previously said his mainstream books were too depressing.)
Essentially, in both Puttering About In a Small Land and this you have a dude who sets his sights on doing something unethical, is caught out by his wife, and as a result of that ends up trapped in a situation of her making – and we are asked to sympathise with the dude and see the wife as this tyrannical killjoy. (Again, there’s that theme of people being excessively punished for comparatively minor transgressions and for trying to live a little.) Dick’s own interpretation of the book – which, incidentally, follows the dream interpretation of the ending – is as follows:
Virtue fails. Ambition, without experience, falls to dust. The clever and neurotic win — a woman who is unable to trust anyone else, another person’s judgment, and a bitter salesman, Lumky, who begrudges a younger man his success in marrying a woman that he himself wanted. The heavenly city of the rational man, the optimistic man, falls down, leaving the real world exposed. No one can be trusted, because everyone is too fearful to behave honestly; no one is disinterested. Only in fantasy — in Bruce’s dreams — is there a little white cottage with roses twining up it. Once a boob, always a boob. Once burned, twice burned; if you make a mistake it is a sign that you are one of the doomed. Better give up; leave the gaming table. Gambling is for professionals; the sucker will be taken to the cleaners. And it is your wife and your best friend who will do the fleecing, not some con man you never saw before; the enemy is right at hand.
This is a depressing vision which is in keeping with the bleakness of the novel, but Dick’s recap of the action doesn’t quite hold water by my reckoning. If we’re meant to see the outcome of the book as Lumky and Susan betraying Skip, it just doesn’t work – Skip certainly believes he has been betrayed by both, since he thinks Lumky deliberately steered him towards the useless typewriters out of jealousy for Skip’s relationship with Susan, and he considers Susan warning his ex-employers about his attempted scam to be a betrayal too. On the other hand, the novel does little to make me want to trust Skip’s perspective on this. There really isn’t a shred of evidence that Lumky knew the typewriters were duds, and he gives Skip $500 of his own money to help buy them, which seems unusual for a revenge plot (arguably it helps convince Skip that the typewriters are good, but even so dropping $500 I get the impression Lumky can’t quite afford on a revenge plan which yields no material profit to Lumky doesn’t seem to be the act of a clever, cynical con artist). It’s also a huge stretch to say that Lumky is Skip’s “best friend” – even though Lumky declares that Skip is his best friend, at the same time this is also kind of a ludicrous statement since the two barely know each other. (Skip knows both Susan and Peg, the friend through whom he reconnects with Susan, much better than he knows Lumky, who he’s literally only known for days.) Equally, saying that Susan has objectively betrayed Skip in foiling his plan to scan his ex-employers with the typewriters is kind of a stretch because it could also be argued that Skip is betraying Susan by trying to strike a deal she doesn’t support with product she is joint owner of. As for Skip representing virtue, that doesn’t really seem to describe him when he’s such a shady character.
I suppose it is a strength of the novel that it supports readings that do not agree with Dick’s own take on it. On the other hand, most of those readings boil down to “Skip and Susan are impulsive and do stuff for no clearly defined reason and have weird obsessions and kind of deserve each other”. It doesn’t help that the locales of the story don’t feel real in the same way Dick had previously been able to make the California suburbs seem real – we never get a sense of what community Skip and Susan are a part of or any sense that the choice of Boise in Idaho as their home base was anything other than arbitrary. Equally, their behaviour in suddenly marrying and going into business with each other mere days after getting reacquainted seems compelled less by passion or rational self-interest and more by the demands of the plot – you get the impression that Dick is lurking in the wings urging them to hurry up and get on with it. The characters here seem markedly shallow compared to the by now established norm for Dick’s mainstream novels and feel even less real than your average replicant from his SF. There may be a compelling artistic reason for this, just as there may be a compelling artistic reason for writing a novel about a quest to buy and sell typewriters, but the novel fails to justify its existence or execution.
1959: Confessions of a Crap Artist
Uniquely for Dick’s mainstream novels (unless you believe there’s nothing supernatural going on in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer), this one was actually published during his lifetime, finally slipping out in 1975. Actually, it had come tantalisingly close to being published when it was first submitted, but Dick declined to do any of the revisions which would have endeared it to publishers, cryptically declaring that it wasn’t so much that he refused to revise it as it was that he was unable to revise it. Between this and the fact that in 1975 Dick was dealing with putting A Scanner Darkly in order, planning Radio Free Albemuth, and was consumed with the enormous distraction of the Exegesis, it seems fair to assume that the version published is more or less the same as the version produced in 1959.
Presented as a “Chronicle of Verified Scientific Fact” penned by one Jack Isidore, even though some sections are presented from the point of view of Jack’s sister Fay and others from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, Confessions of a Crap Artist more specifically chronicles the events leading up to and the traumatic aftermath of the destruction of Fay’s marriage to rough-about-the-edges self-made industrialist, drunk and wife-beater Charley Hume. Events are set in motion when Fay becomes suddenly fixated on meeting Nat and Gwen Anteil, a young couple who have recently moved to the rural small town of Drake’s Landing (a locale high in Dick’s mind at the time due to its proximity to Point Reyes and its prominence in Dr Futurity, which he had just finished expanding) where the Humes live. Those who have read The Broken Bubble will recall that when a woman in a Dick novel gets this sort of fixation an extramarital affair is sure to follow; in this case, it’s Fay carrying on with Nat.
Can they get away with it, though? Charley is in hospital with a heart attack, but small town love to gossip, and there’s the wildcard factor of Jack Isidore, who’s currently living in the Humes’ spare room. Fay’s brother is the titular crap artist, an obsessive man with a range of eccentric interests and a decided impairment in dealing with the practicalities of everyday life or the nuances of interpersonal interaction. Invited to stay with the Humes by Charley after a visit to Isidore’s apartment convinces him that Jack is in a bad way and could do with spending some time in the country whilst he gets his act together, Fay considers Jack to be a huge embarrassment – particularly when he gets involved with the local UFO cult. But Jack’s compulsion to document home life includes noting the details of how Nat and Fay are carrying on in his presence and his fanciful but broadly accurate assumptions about what they are doing behind closed doors. The question is, how best to present the information? As Jack turns to his pulp magazines for inspiration, Charley resorts to more violent means.
What we have here, then, is a standard Dick saga of cuckoldry fused at the hip with something not unlike The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time. Jack Isidore spends a lot of time misinterpreting people’s responses to him – for instance, he thinks Charley’s poor reaction to Jack raising the subject of Fay’s infidelity means he needs to find a better way to convey the information to those not blessed with a “scientific” mind like Jack’s, so he ends up writing up the affair in the style of a story from one of the smuttier pulps. Likewise, Jack really isn’t as rational (or “scientific”) as he thinks he is, and expends too much energy and pins too many hopes on mirages and pipe dreams, such as his UFO cultist pals who convince him that the world will end in a month or so. The trick is that this is also true of all the main characters in the book; Fay, Charley and Nat all have dysfunctional relationships driven by interpersonal misunderstandings and all invest a little too much in people or ideas or things which ultimately let them down. As Jack opines at the end, the only difference is that his obsessions and errors are socially unacceptable whereas the others have motivations which are understood (if not condoned) by society.
This isn’t some sort of exercise in declaring a maybe-autistic dude as being so much more innocent and happy than we nutty neurotypicals. We’re clearly meant to understand that Jack is in poor mental health and, in when Charley and Fay visit his apartment at the start of the book, clearly isn’t taking care of himself very well. The only real advantage Jack has over the others when you get down to it is that the events of the book make him recognise his own irrationality and social awkwardness and resolve to seek therapy, though he notes he isn’t the best person to judge which therapist to trust (and indeed his methodology for selecting one seems certain to deliver him into the hands of some quack therapy like Scientology). The downfall of the book is that when it’s taking a long hard look at the quirks and faults of the other characters it isn’t exactly even-handed.
Naturally, it is a woman who comes out of it the worst. Fay is perhaps the epitome of Dick’s “evil, treacherous, manipulative wife” figures from this period. The other characters reach a universal consensus that she is an actual psychopath who only cares about her own needs and sees other people as tools or obstacles to her ends, and no sympathetic features are offered to counterbalance this. When Charley gets back from hospital and shoots all of the family’s pet animals, is thwarted in his plan to kill Fay (and, it is implied, their daughters too), and then shoots himself rather than let the authorities catch him, he dies believing that this is all Fay’s fault for tricking him into doing this, despite it all unfolding in a way Fay couldn’t possibly have planned. Most gallingly, the other characters basically agree with that version of events, lending it considerable narrative support.
Likewise, several characters – including Nat himself, it seems – characterise Nat’s affair with Fay as being almost involuntary on his part, the naive young man ensnared by the sophisticated manipulator and destined to be stuck as her domestic servant and incapable of breaking it off with her. (Dick, like a curious number of other people – I have noted this in American culture especially – seems not to be acquainted with the idea that as a grown adult you can decline to marry someone that you don’t want to marry.) The idea that Nat is a weak little man who’s easily pushed around by others and is particularly latched onto by Fay is even reflected in his name – Nat Anteil sounds a bit like “Gnat Anthill”. His part of the story ends on a big downer where he accepts that he is going to be stuck getting married to Fay but decides that is OK because over time she will naturally mellow out and he will learn to cope with her, which I think we are supposed to read as Nat’s stoic victory over the all-consuming bitch wife (he’s even described as “Nathan” in this section, to suggest he’s outgrown the gnat|, but I can’t read it that way myself: by my book, if you go into marriage thinking “Well, this is clearly shit and I don’t want this but I guess it will come out alright” then you’ve gone and bought yourself a one-way ticket to disaster town, and if you weren’t coerced into it that’s kind of on you.
Then again, if Dick had thought like Nat then that may explain how he was able to rack up five disastrous marriages with the rapidity he managed. Confessions is a fascinating read for Dick biographers and scholars because, as usual, a lot of it seems to have an autobiographical basis. There are obvious parallels between Fay and Nat’s relationship and the real one between Phil and Anne; you have an older woman who meets a younger man who has just moved to the Point Reyes area with his wife, both the young man and his wife consider themselves intellectuals, the young man is enticed away from his wife and divorces her so he can marry the older woman and be a father to her daughters from her previous marriage. (Again, as with the previous book you wonder why Dick has married someone he clearly considers to be trouble.)
Interestingly, though, Dick seems to be going for the sort of bifurcated autobiography he would perfect with VALIS, with two characters standing in for different aspects of his personality. The character of Isidore also somewhat resembles Dick in his philosophical fixations, his questioning of his own sanity, and even his choice of reading material (Isidore reads all the same trashy SF magazines that Dick loved). And in Isidore, as with Carl in Gather Yourselves Together, we have a tantalising glimpse of a Dick character who, in the course of sharing Dick’s philosophical approach to life, writes little manifestos or crams notebooks full of his thought in a decidedly Exegesis-like manner, making me once again wonder whether the Exegesis was only the latest, post-2-3-74 incarnation of multiple personal philosophical dairies Dick kept over the years.
In the Exegesis, Dick notes that Isidore is a sort of holy fool recurring through his fiction, and believed that he showed an increasing proximity to enlightenment in subsequent appearances; here he’s entirely without divine help and is in bad trouble, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a certain very familiar JR Isidore appears and gets to meet the Messiah, and in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer the character of Bill is invaded by and taken over a sacred presence, saving his soul in the process. (Another weird link between this and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the ownership of farm animals as a status symbol – and the murder of said animals as an empty and frustrated gesture by a character who has gone badly over the edge.) Dick here seems to suggest that this increasing infusion of holiness represents his writing coming closer and closer to the sacred truths hidden powers wanted him to convey to the world, and between this and the alternatingly self-deprecating and self-aggrandising style of the Exegesis it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Dick saw himself as precisely this sort of holy fool (particularly since he himself believed that the divine had invaded and transformed him).
As with all of Dick’s better mainstream novels, the evocation of a particular community at a particular time feels real and genuine; I’d say it deserved to be the sole one of his mainstream novels to be published in his lifetime, since it shows a depth and a richness the others (with their sparse plots and sparser casts) lack. At the same time, it feels like a missed opportunity. Even as he is railing against Fay, Dick keeps hitting on the idea that a major part of the problem is 1950s ideals of masculinity and femininity – indeed, he constantly butts up against these in his mainstream fiction. The women in these books regularly refuse to be the compliant and obedient support personnel the then-contemporary ideals of marriage required that they be; many of the men, such as Nat here, are thoughtful and passive sorts who aren’t exactly macho – something which is really teased out here when polite, hesitant, well-meaning Nat is contrasted with violent, loud, brutish Charley. Dick seems to be fumbling towards an awareness that the problem isn’t with women, it’s with the culture and the roles it tries to force men and women into and the way it’s shaped his perceptions of gender, but here as in his other mainstream novels he gets too distracted with decrying the manipulative nature of the female sex to make any meaningful exploration of alternatives, let alone consider what it actually means for a couple to interact as people first and as men or women second.
An important document in Dick scholarship is a letter Dick wrote to Eleanor Dimoff at the Scott Meredith agency in 1960 concerning his mainstream output. It’s one of the only sources we have of Dick talking about his mainstream fiction – in the case of the lost manuscripts, it’s one of the only clues we have of what was in them at all – and in it he tries to give his own interpretation of what his books were about. (The depressing summary of In Milton Lumky Territory I quoted above comes from there.) One of the interesting things about is that Dick completely admits that he’s utterly shit at writing women and is probably letting his personal issues get the better of him:
I tend to take it for granted in a novel that a man’s wife is not going to help him; she’s going to give him a bad time, working against him. And the smarter she is, the more likely she’s up to something. A woman schemes.
This is absolutely fucking rich when you set it against Puttering About In a Small Land, where yes, Liz is scheming to cuckold Chic, but at the same time Roger is doing all that scheming with her and Virginia isn’t really plotting to do anything except “catch my husband in the act of betraying me”, and she doesn’t start scheming until she has good reason to believe something untoward is happening in their marriage. Dick’s misogyny did not just extend to the way he portrayed women in his novels; it also extended to the way he perceived the women in his novels. There’s several cases in the books I’ve covered in this article where I’ve personally found a particular woman in the novel to be a sympathetic and interesting character, only to discover that Dick had an interpretation of her which I can’t reconcile with the facts as presented in the novels. Again, the novels are strongest when they are left open to the readers’ interpretation and Dick presents them as a bunch of things that happen; whenever the narrative voice imposes a particular view of who’s nice and who’s nasty in the stories in question, inevitably Dick backs men I consider odious against women I have a lot of sympathy for.
Before any fans intent on riding to Dick’s defence rolls in with a “well, at least he was progressive enough to realise he was being a misogynist” argument, or the tired old “everyone was sexist in the 1950s” excuse, it’s worth pointing out that other people at the time were taking issue with Dick’s treatment of women in his writing. Urging from prospective publishers at the time fell on deaf ears; Anne Dick claims that at least one publisher said they’d take on Confessions of a Crap Artist if Dick could just make Fay a bit more sympathetic, and Dick refused because he literally couldn’t conceive of any way to accomplish that. Granted, Confessions would be a completely different novel if it turned out Fay had a nice side to her after all (it would probably be a better novel, for one thing), but when your sexism is making 1950s mainstream publishers say “hey, tone that shit down” you know you’ve gone way out on a limb.
Equally, when people are telling you that you have a serious problem with the way you portray women and you yourself realise that they’re actually correct there, there’s honestly no fucking excuse not to put the effort in to change and improve your portrayal of women, and to give Dick his due he did. Unfortunately, he waited until 1981 to do it, at which point Ursula le Guin asked him to kindly cease being a misogynistic shitbird (note: not le Guin’s phrasing) and, after grumping for a bit, he decided to go ahead. At least we got The Transmigration of Timothy Archer out of it – a far superior novel to anything here, and arguably his most successful mainstream novel depending on whether or not you believe anything supernatural happens during it.
It’s notable that in his considerations of Confessions of a Crap Artist in the Exegesis, Dick, considers Confessions to be the starting point of the humanisation of his fiction – he suggest that the material which preceded it, even Time Out of Joint, was cold, rational, and inhuman, whereas the material that followed it was progressively more human and feeling, with VALIS as the apex of this progression. We don’t need to agree with Dick’s assessment that divine forces were responsible for this artistic growth to recognise that he’s hit on something significant there: namely, the fact that whilst his 1950s mainstream novels sort of succeed as cold depictions of a grim suburban existence, they don’t have much heart to them, the characters’ emotional motives seem fake and unrealistic, and Dick is incapable of feeling any empathy for anyone aside from his self-insert characters.
Most of all, though, they’re incredibly depressing. Time Out of Joint has a spark of life to it, though this is mostly at the prospect of escaping a trite suburban existence by escaping to the Moon, which has more than a sniff of escapism to it. For the most part, these books have an utterly bleak worldview which when presented in conjunction with the misogyny is absolutely miserable. This seems to have been an even larger impediment to publication than the sexism. Arthur C. Fields, an editor at Crown Publishing, despaired of this when writing frustrated rejection letter for In Milton Lumky Territory to Dick’s agents:
I don’t know what to say about Philip Dick. He has extraordinary talent, tremendous facility, and acute penetration. He is able to lay bare the essential core of a situation in a few deft strokes. He has a flamboyance and an extraordinary eye for detail. The problem: His outlook on life, which is bleak and as chilling as any it has been my misfortune to come across…. What he does is to write in flat understatement a detailed analysis of the emptiness of everything so that the writing takes on an emptiness itself… We have seen three of these now, and they all have the same vacuum-like outlook.
“Fuck everything, life is utterly meaningless and happiness is a fragile illusion between vast bouts of unhappiness” is a worldview which is not novel to Dick, but equally doesn’t make for especially fulfilling fiction. After all, if everything is a meaningless waste of time on the road to the grave, what would be the point in reading a novel that told you that? Wouldn’t novels be literally useless except as distractions from the inevitable triumph of death, in which case you’d want them to be as light and escapist as possible? Dick’s writing seems to be motivated by an urgent desire to convey what he saw as the truth to his readers (this viewpoint was solidly formed by the mid-1950s, as expressed in his essay Pessimism In Science Fiction), but if the ultimate truth is that there is no truth an urgent crusade for the truth becomes pointless, as Jack Isidore discovers when his UFO apocalypse fails to kick off in Crap Artist. Ultimately, with the exception of Time Out of Joint these books offer nothing except an insight into Dick’s growth as an author; when he finally returned to SF full-time with The Man In the High Castle, he’d use the techniques he’d honed during this time to good effect, and he acknowledged this in an interview with Richard Lupoff:
[Confessions of a Crap Artist] came before Man in the High Castle. That’s really the bridge between my Ace Double science fiction type of writing and Man in the High Castle. Actually, if you read what I wrote for Ace prior to Putnam’s buying Man in the High Castle, you cannot account for Man in the High Castle. It doesn’t seem to come out of Ace Books. But if you read Confessions of a Crap Artist and date it as 1959 and 1961 for Man in the High Castle, you can bridge the gap between the two.
Next up, we have the final guttering out of Dick’s dreams of mainstream literary success. Then an alternate-universe Hitler shows up and saves us all from this tedious bullshit. Thanks again, alt-universe Hitler!