Philip K. Dick, “Confessions of a Crap Artist” (1959, published in 1974): Insanity of the Bourgeois Marriage

As everyone knows, Philip K. Dick wrote several non-science-ficition novels in his life.  He had hoped to make a career in “mainstream” writing but never quite escaped his branding as a science-fiction pulp writer.  Thankfully these novels that he wrote have been published.  The division between his science-fiction and “mainstream” work is dubious.  Many of his science fiction tales deal with mundane questions of marriage, work, and politics.  This is why his work always seems so familiar to us.  Eye in the Sky is set fully in this world.  Most of Time Out of Joint is set in a familiar world.  Even publishers fail to make the distinction, perhaps for marketing purposes.  In the Vintage publication of his work, Confessions of a Crap Artist, is labelled as Fiction/Science Fiction.


In Confessions of a Crap Artist: A Chronicle of Verified Scientific Fact, 1945-1959 we are confronted with the adaptability of the apparently insane and the real insanity of the apparently rational bourgeois relationship.  As I brought up in my musings on Counter-Clock World, Dick was personally and artistically ambivalent about monogamy.  Confessions of a Crap Artist is one of his several dissertations on this question, and perhaps the most fully developed.  His argument, a balanced, scientific examination of a middle-class, suburban, typical marriage reveals that such a marriage can only be sustained by psychopathy.

The story begins by introducing us to the crap artist, Jack Isidore.  Jack seems to have some mental illnesses, but if he is insane, many of us are.  He is a collector of odd ideas, unverified scientific theories, and bizarre eschatologies.  He is an admirable figure as an autodidact, but that led him to lack an objective teacher who can correct his heresies and delusions.  One does not need to spend much time on the Internet to realize that we are all in dangers of falling into the excesses of autodidactism.  Every bizarre theory now has its own wiki, internet community, and Facebook page. Is this an American perversion.  It seems that Europeans were mostly capable of becoming secular without filling the gap left with religion by bizarre theories.  In the United States, the religious are becoming nuttier and those who leave the religion of their birth often choose to become eclectic heretics grabbing a bit of New Age, deep ecology, Buddhism, and UFO cults.  In a significant sub-plot to the novel, Jack meets Claudia Hambro, one of these Californian cultivators of New Age cosmologies.  She and her group just borrow whatever craziness seems to work.  Someone like Jack is open to these claims, lacking the filters created by a rational education.  Here is part of Claudia’s message.  “Over the house there was a huge blue light hanging, like cracking electric fire.  I laid on the ground and that fire consumed me, from that spaceship. The whole house became a spaceship ready to go into space. . . . It’s the force that’s pulling us all together.  Throughout the world.  There’s groups forming everywhere.  The message is the same: suffer and die to save the world.  Christ was not suffering for our sings, he was suffering to show us the way.  We all have to suffer.  We all have to ascend the cross to gain eternal life, each in his own way.  Christ was from another planet.  From a more evolved race.”
It is not just Americans.  We find this craziness around the world.

And do not take it the wrong way.  “Loving Hut” is my favorite vegan restaurant in Taiwan (my new home), but these people are nuts.

Jack move into the home of his sister and brother-in-law, Charley and Fay Hume.  They have two kids, a nice home, and an ideal bourgeois marriage.  In other words, they are completely insane.  Virtually every interaction they have is framed in capitalist logic.  They compete with each other for money, for friends, for connections, and for leadership.  They are good friends with an academic couple Nat and Gwen Anteil.  Both Charley and Fay assume the other is out to get them (and neither would be wrong).  Their marriage exists only for the material benefit, image, and propriety.  Charley has a heart-attack, which he immediately blames on Fay’s machinations.  For what good is a bourgeois marriage without paranoia.  He is not wrong to be a bit paranoid, Fay does take her husband’s hospitalization to seduce Nat Anteil.  Why does she do it?  Does she just want to break up the Anteil’s marriage?  Does she want to revenge on Charley?  Does he truly love Nat?  Whatever her motives are, Dick is convinced that they are psychopathic.  At one point, Fay suggests to Nat that if her husband would die, she would remarry Nat.  Interestingly, Charley does not care about the affair when Jack brings it up (with a full scientific documentation).  He does want to ruin Fay, however.  This he finally achieves by killing himself and writing Fay out of half of the marriage property, giving it to Jack.

In all of this craziness, Nat seems to us to be the one character with authentic motives.  He seems to truly fall in love with Fay.  But when his internal monologue struggles with committing to the affair with Fay, we learn that he was attempting to express his autonomous will.  “Then he asked himself why he was doing it.  I have a really wonderful wife, he thought.  And I like Charley Hume.  And, he thought, Fay is married and has two children.  Why, then? Because I want to, he decided.”  While refreshing compared to the mind Jack, Charley, and Fay it is not much of an improvement.  Why does Jack believe that sunlight has weight?  Why does Claudia follow UFO cults?  Why does Fay choose to torture her husband? Why does Charley kill himself?  These are all expressions of the characters triumph over rationality.

In Confessions of a Crap Artist, Philip K. Dick is giving us a close look at the world of bourgeois liquid modernity.  Like the worlds of his science fiction novels, this one contains flexible realities, dubious loyalties, false facades, and psychopathy instead of humanity.

Vintage, trying to make it look all science-fictioney.

Vintage, trying to make it look all science-fictioney.

It seems to me that there is evidence that Dick is assaulting a particular form of marriage, that he saw in suburban America of the 1950s.  We are presented with a healthier, more natural, more rational, and more cooperative marriage with Nat and Gwen Anteil.  When learning of the affair, Gwen does not seek revenge but approached the situation with objective rationality.  They are not concerned with appearances to the level that the Humes are (their income could not allow it).  Standing on a real education, they are also apparently immune from the crazy sub-cultures and heresies that infect Jack’s mind.  Ultimately Dick is calling for relationships based on solidarity and love instead of social expectation, image, and wealth accumulation.


7 responses to “Philip K. Dick, “Confessions of a Crap Artist” (1959, published in 1974): Insanity of the Bourgeois Marriage

  1. Pingback: Philip K. Dick, “Introduction” | Neither Kings nor Americans

  2. I’m glad you mentioned “Time Out of Joint”,because it’s significant I think that it was written a year before and published the same year he wrote COACA,and the two are related.It isn’t crass to say,that both are ordinary,contemporary societies at first sight,and there’s no earthly reason to believe that there’s anything untoward behind the apparent truth of TOOJ,than it is to say COACA is really a very strange world that isn’t what it seems.

    In both books,the characters are assaulted by the weather of everyday life,with Ragel Gumm having an affair,that parallels the psychosis you discuss in COACA.As you would expect of Dick,Gumm’s flawed humanity,isn’t a gimmick used for plot contrivance to expose the larger world weirdness that he must later confront,and ordinary people are treated with as much sympathy and contempt I think,as in COACA.

    Gumm’s paranoia seems irrational and unjustified at first,just as much as Jack’s craziness does,yet he turns out to be right about the strangeness of his sundry existence.Is he then anymore sane or insane than Jack then,than Jack is more or less sane than Gumm?The answer seems to lie in penetrating the rational world that cloaks our “perceptions”.

    “TOOJ emerged from a two year stint at a failed,non-existent mainstream career.It combined,as I’ve said before,his concerns of sf and general literature,and was accepted by a hardcover house,who published it without the sf label.Unfortunately,it didn’t at the time bring him the critical and financial success he wanted,but had seemed his best chance of making a non-sf career outside of the hostile world of mainstream literature.

    It’s perhaps strange or not strange,that sf publisher,Ace,rejected it.Earlier though,they published the excellent “Eye in the Sky” that you mentioned.

    • Thanks for coming back. I have an article coming out in the next issue of PKD Otaku. It is on Malthus, Dr. Futurity, and Crack in Space.

      Anyway, I am surprised you did not get into my topic of the insanity of the bourgeois marriage. Actually, by pushing this novel into the world of ontological ambiguity (bringing up TOOJ), you are doing what I think many Dick scholars do. Embrace the ambiguity because it is easy. The brutal truth that our world is horrible and the institutions that we created the cause of all of our problems, from insanity, to poverty, to suicide, to general unhappiness, to violence, and to war is harder to face.

      Dick’s Exegesis reflects his own retreat into the easier ontological questions. I say, get over it. The world is bound to be a bit fuzzy. A battle we can win is destroying the marriages that make one part of our life (family-coupling) so crazy.

      As to your question, Jack is not insane. That is clear. Jack is consciously aware of the insanity around him, from new religious movements to his sister-in-law’s marriage. He enjoys it and navigates it. He is how more of us should be. It is Charley and Fay (and to a lesser degree Gwen and Nick) who are insane, because they conform (rather than understand and navigate) the late capitalist world.

  3. I haven’t read “Dr Futurity”,it was out of print for so many years and couldn’t find it in the library.At one time,I hunted for every thing by Dick,because he was so good,and didn’t want to miss anything he wrote…..he hardly ever disappointed me,there was nearly always something new…..he wrote so much,yet managed to produce excellent stuff routinely.Of course I’ve read most of his stuff now,and did read a preview of DF on Amazon,but because there’s so little left,and it’s not one of his best books,I’ve not been keen to go after it.Last year however,I did read “Humpty Dumpty in Oakland”,so I’ll see.

    Ragel Gumm is married in the book,is he not ? He seems discontented in a disinterested way,which leads him to having an affair .If he equals Jack here then because of his ontological and psychedelic experiences caused by political deception,I would say he forces his way through the ambiguous weirdness by confronting the sober truth and seeking the “real” world,which he later realizes however,is more like a flimsy facade than “old town”.

    Jack then is no more insane than him,and is aware of the awfulness and insanity of institutionalized life.Is there then a political arrangement behind the growing madness?Of course there is,where else would the “modern” institution of marriage and the other familiar problems you mention,of everyday existence originate from?Jack however can’t find the source of this that would prove his sanity.

    I can’t get over the similarities of themes and characters common to both books,nor the closeness of the the time they were composed.They reflect issues that he had on his mind at the time.That also included ontological ones too of course.As I said,TOOJ was the perfect model for the books that were best for him to write,and also it seems the most ruminative.

    I would like to have thought that TOOJ could have been transposed to COACA and vice versa.The results are exhilarating and hilarious to contemplate!

    I’d like to get over the misleading conception of paranoia in Dick’s stuff,which has caused him,especially in the press I think,to be called a paranoid author.Rather than something depressing and morbid in his strange dramas,it is as Dick said,an atavism of the fear instinct our species possessed in ancient times,to warn us of danger in the field.Of course I also know it means much more to you as of his political and social themes,but I’m trying to dispel the myth of what it might have come to mean in his books.

    Of course,it’s also something which he meant to be funny rather than grimly serious,and Dick’s bleak humour is too well known to mention.

    That cover that you rightly said was science fictional,was however better than the earlier American and British ones I think,and more evocative of the tension inside.

    • My articles on these two works foreshadow what I say on the article, as does my article on the other blog about “The Pre-Persons.”

      No Ragle Gumm is not married. He is divorced or a widower. He does attempt an affair with the neighbor’s wife–and he uses the greatest pickup line ever (“Im Anfang war die Tat”). That seems to speak more to the banality of suburban life, certainly a theme in Confessions as well. I do think that they complement each other well, now that I think about it. I just see them as thematically distinct–even if they both come at the question of bourgeois living. All the frontier stuff that makes TOOJ so powerful for me, is not in Confessions.

      I agree that Dick is not a paranoid writer (at least not all the time). As you know, I seem his critique as fundamentally moral, historical, economic, and political.

  4. Sorry,but I haven’t read TOOJ,nor COACA,for some years……some details will slip from memory,and I’m not making excuses.Thank you for reminding me.

    Yes the frontier theme is strong in TOOJ,and this is very much what makes it separable from COACA,despite the similarities.The characters in COACA seem too content with their everyday angst I think to escape from their banal suburban life,but you don’t know if Jack envisions escape from the boring environment ! If only,as I said,he could solve the political and social puzzle,that falls at the feet of Gumm.

    No,he’s not a paranoid writer,I was trying to explain away the tag that associates it with mental illness.It doesn’t have to be the fear and tension of foreign entities and places,and is essentially done with a sense of fun.The moral,historical,economic,and political themes you mention that he explored,should heighten it.

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