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.

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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.

 

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Philip K. Dick, “Time Out of Joint” (1959)

Time Out of Joint, published in 1959, extends many of the themes Philip K. Dick explored in Cosmic PuppetsThe settings are comparable.  In both, we find ourselves in a small town of the 1950s.  In both novels, the world that the characters see for themselves is an artificial facade, covering up the reality.  Time Out of Joint is certainty more mature. Here, the powers that a constructing the reality are human.  In a sense, it evolves out of Cold War anxieties of secrete government agencies, the continual threat of devastating war, and the uncertain loyalties of even close friends and neighbors.  In The Comic Puppets, there were supernatural forces that constructed the false reality as part of a cosmic battle.  This makes TOOJ a more politically relevant work and more of a window into the world that we live in.

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Plot
Like most of Dick’s early novels, TOOJ has a rather straight-forward plot.  Early in the novel we are introduced to Ragle Gumm, an unemployed man who makes his money as champion of a newspaper contest, “Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?”  The contest involves simply choosing from a matrix of squares.  There are clues provided, but these seem to have little impact on the answer.  Nevertheless, Gumm is able to guess correctly continually by observing patterns and maintaining careful records.  As the novel unfolds, Gumm notices strange changes to his world.  He misremember things, such as if the bathroom had a cord-activated light or the newer light swtich.  He also sees small pieces of papers with the name of the thing that should be there.  Eventually, be becomes convinced that the world around him is a sham and that he is the target of a deception.  This turns out to be true.  It is not 1959, it is 1998 and humans are involved in a Civil War between the Earthlings who have restricted expansion abroad and the “lunatics” (denizens of the Moon) committed to interstellar expansion.  Gumm sided with the people of the Moon, but can predict where they will attack next.  Before his defection he worked for the Earthlings making these predictions.  To sustain this role he was placed into this artificial world of his youth.  The newspaper contest is the means by which he will continue to predict where the nuclear attacks will strike.  He, like many of us today, is the unwilling supporter of institutions outside of our control.

The Suburbs and Reality
Dick often places the false, bizarre, liquid, and artificial in the suburbs, the world he knew most well in over-developed suburban California.  The novel begins with an interesting conversation, suggesting that even political loyalties are merely functional in the suburbs.  “Anyhow I don’t think there’s going to be any depression; that’s just Democratic talk.  I’m so tired of those old Democrats trying to make out like the economy’ going to burst down of something.”  When someone mentions that the woman making this claim was a Democrat she replied, “Not any more.  Not since I moved up here. This is a Republican state, so I’m a Republican.” Urban areas are no less man-made than suburbs, but there seems to be a more organic feel to the development of cities.  Suburbs are planned, zoned, and manicured in bizarre formations.  The grass is imported from Germany.  Even the animals becomes domesticated and adapt to the constructed human world.  It is an ideal place for paranoia to set in.  Gumm is the subject of a mass conspiracy, but most of the novel explores his growing sense of displacement.  The realization of the truth is simply an appendix to the story.  This is perhaps what makes The Matrix rather lazy; it jumps immediately to the “really real.”

Dick introduces the idea that the celebrities and heroes of our world are constructed.  I suspect this was a more profound realization in 1959 than it is now, but it is worth pointing out.  “In Consumer’s Digest they’re always telling you to watch out for frauds and misleading advertising; you know, short weight and that sort of thing. Maybe this magazine, this publicity about this Marilyn Monroe, is all just a big bunch of hot air.  They’re trying to build up some trivial starlet, pretend everybody has heard of her, so when people hear about her for the first time they’ll say.  Oh yes, that famous actress.  Personally I don’t think she’s much more than a glandular case.”

Philip K. Dick, looking all Suburban

Philip K. Dick, looking all Suburban

Exploration
This is not the first Dick novel to explore the conflict between the human spirit’s desire for exploration and new frontiers and the desire of the state to restrict expansion.  In The World Jones Made, the effort to restrain expansion to other systems is a major theme.  In The Crack in Space, the solution to the Malthusian crisis was human expansion but it was never seen as politically non-controversial.  In many of his works, the human settlement on other planets are tools of institutional oppression (Clans of the Alphane Moon) or consciously made crappy (Martian Time Slip).  A lot of energy was put into making expansion undesirable.

At this point, it is good to recall Frederick Jackson Turner.  As a Westerner for most of his life, Dick lived the end of the frontier.  I have no doubt that the transformation of the American frontier into suburban desolation influenced his view of extraterrestrial settlement.  I have a feeling that he is a follower of Turner in at least one area.  He seems to think human freedom requires the physical relocation outside of our comfort zone.  In the historian Turner’s view, the frontier was the crucible of American democracy.  For Dick, the decadence of Earth will lead to authoritarianism unless we can freely settle into new areas.  This tension plays its self out in many of his works but is rarely spoken of.  I will point it out in future posts.

“You’re a goon, Mister Loon,
One World you’ll never sunder.
A buffoon, Mister Loon,
Oh what a dreadful blunder.
The sky you find to cosy;
The future tinted rosy;
But Uncle’s gonna spank you-you wait!
So hands ina sky, hands ina sky,
Before it is too late.”