May 9, 2008

Philip K Dick: Confessions of a Crap Artist

Posted in Dick Philip K at 8:11 am by John Self

I’ve read a handful of books by Philip K Dick, the author with the name most likely to make schoolboys snigger*. He’s terrific, but I know he wrote so much that the quality must be variable; and any time I look out more, reliable sources always seem to recommend the ones I already know. The Man in the High Castle; The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch; Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said; Ubik. What I definitely thought I knew was that his non-science fiction wasn’t worth bothering with. Then that young turk Scott Pack came along and recommended this book, boldly suggesting that “anyone who has read and enjoyed the novels of Richard Yates would love Confessions Of A Crap Artist.” Challenge accepted.

Confessions of a Crap Artist

Confessions of a Crap Artist was written in 1959 but not published until 1975, when Dick had made his name: he wrote a number of non-SF novels, and this was the only one published in his lifetime. It nonetheless retains the recurring theme of his better known books, questioning the nature of reality. The whole book purports to be the work of its main character, so the title page in my 2005 Gollancz edition looks like this:

Philip K. Dick

CONFESSIONS OF A CRAP ARTIST

- Jack Isidore
(of Seville, Calif.)

A Chronicle of Verified Scientific Fact
1945-1959

This may be important, for reasons which will become clear. The story is narrated initially by Jack Isidore, the ‘crap artist’ whose grip on reality is tenuous: he believes in civilizations living inside the Earth, that sunlight has weight, that World War 2 began in 1941 when America joined, and seems unsure whether he lives in the 1950s or on the brink of the fourth millennium. Dick uses some lazy novelist’s shorthand to denote Isidore’s cookie-cutter dorkishness and distance from ‘decent’ society: porn; dandruff; BO; comics (I know, I know; don’t write in). His mundane job as a tyre regroover seems to exemplify his sociopathic values:

When I get done regrooving a tire, it doesn’t look hand-done by any means. It looks exactly the way it would look if a machine had done it, and, for a regroover, that’s the most satisfying feeling in the world.

Quickly the narrative gives way to the other characters, and what appears to be the story proper gets under way. This is why Scott Pack invokes Richard Yates: it’s unhappy families all the way. Jack, following a brush with the law, is forced to move in with his sister Fay and her husband Charley, who have problems of their own. Charley’s a violent thug – but who wouldn’t be, faced with Fay’s contrary selfishness? She makes perverse demands on Charley, nagging him to do housework and then accusing him of being unmanly when he agrees; money runs through her hands like water; and she adopts a unique brand of motherly love for her two children:

A child is a filthy amoral animal, without instincts of sense, that fouls its own nest if given a chance. Offhand I can’t think of any redeeming features in a child, except that as long as it is small it can be kicked around.

How much of this is characterisation, and how much Dick’s bitterness (the character of Fay is reportedly based on Dick’s first wife), is difficult to know, but it certainly makes for lively friction between Charley, Fay and Jack. The rift is deepened when Fay befriends a new couple in the town, Nat and Gwen Anteil, whom she finds irresistible because of their beauty: inevitable developments follow.

The book lacks Yates’s clear-eyed honesty – often it feels Dick is forcing the nastiness – and certainly his elegant prose, but I can see the similarities in subject matter. The family are forced together through social pressures which existed in the 1950s, which they are simultaneously trying to escape, and in the challenge to reality of Jack’s world view, and Charley’s misanthropy, I saw elements of Patricia Highsmith too.

The story kicks along at a fair pace, and Dick is brave enough to give a dramatic conclusion earlier than we expect (and it’s tense and gripping), leaving 50 pages for the consequences to play themselves out. It’s extraordinary and refreshing to see a writer so well known in one genre, take on another and give it such a good going over.

My main concern was with the integrity of the story: that title page I quoted above suggests that the whole book – Jack’s narrative, Fay’s narrative, even the third person viewpoint which tells Charley’s and Nat’s stories – is the creation of Jack, his “confessions”. This ties in with an element of the plotline, where Jack writes down an account of Fay’s secret indiscretions and presents it to Charley, but if it is really all Jack’s invention then doesn’t the whole story become fluid and meaningless? Perhaps I’m seeing what’s not really there, doubting the reality presented to me: must be reading too much Philip K Dick.

* after Fanny Burney

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7 Comments »

  1. Scott Pack said,

    Firstly I am delighted that you gave this a go, and also that you agreed with the Yates comparison. If you have come to Yates first then I suspect it will always be hard to prefer Dick’s non SF stuff but I do think that area of his work is good further reading for Yates fans.

    FYI, Crap Artist is the most weird of these books. His other non SF novels are more straightforward but still, at their heart, sad stories about sad people.

  2. John Self said,

    Thanks Scott. I thought this book would attract more comments – hasn’t everyone read some Dick, if only in their teens? – but it just goes to show (probably) that those genre lines stand fast.

  3. Hi John – nice to find your site; I look forward to digging into it when I have more time. I arrived because I was looking again at James Salter’s *Burning the Days,* which I admire (though I see you don’t), then I ran across this post, and now hope to be the first to suggest a couple more must-read Philip K. Dick novels: *Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep* (much more interesting than the movie made of it) and *Dr. Bloodmoney.* Unfortunately, it’s been a while since I read them, so I can’t convey much in the way of detail, but one thing I do remember about *Dr. Bloodmoney* is the astronaut, stranded in orbit because of a catastrophic event (was it a nuclear war?), who makes regular broadcasts to the survivors. People tune in to hear him, knowing he will die and (I believe) unable to communicate with him. If you haven’t read them, I recommend them highly.

  4. John Self said,

    Thanks Benjamin; you’ve twisted my arm on those Dicks. Of course Androids is the one biggie I know I should have read, but I would never have considered Dr Bloodmoney otherwise.

    Yes, I was disappointed by Burning the Days, but still consider Salter one of favourite writers on the strength of The Hunters and (especially) Light Years: you may have seen my thoughts on those elsewhere on this blog. I’m holding off reading his other books so as not to use them up too quickly, but I’m looking forward to November when (in the UK) Penguin reissue his most recent (or should I say least distant, as it was published almost 30 years ago) novel Solo Faces in their Modern Classics range.

  5. Yeah … I’ve not read everything by Salter, but Light Years and Burning the Days are my favorites. Light Yearswas my introduction as well, so that may be part of it; I enjoyed A Sport and a Pastime, but Solo Faces is simply tiresome in its masculine gotta-climb-the-mountain-why?-because-it’s-there quality. That’s a side of Salter I try to overlook, though I admit it fuels much of what he writes. Ditto his characters’ (or his-?) attitude toward women. I don’t mind their avidity for women’s beauty or company, but their tendency to see them as subordinate ornamentation seems part of an era best outgrown.

    What I prize in Salter is his ability to render life so sensually: he makes even the boring parts sound winning and dashing, a bold experiment in being. He writes devastatingly well about weather, landscapes, and flying; it’s a lyrical, untroubled life he describes, full of wonderful meals, interesting people, always-beautiful women, the pleasures of flesh and the table and then — outside the frame — there are the incidentals, the where the money came from, and where it went.

    When he takes the same approach in his memoirs, I didn’t mind it, as it’s like being drenched in honey, a honeyed life that anyone might envy. At the same time, though, I’m aware that although he suggests in highly condensed form very emotional moments, you get the sense that he’s incredibly remote from all those around him. It’s unclear how often he’s been married (at least twice, though you have to watch closely) — yet his first wife gets mentioned only once in spite of her presumed ubiquity during a good part of the years he’s describing, and then not by name. He has three children, and only his son is named, I think. (One of his daughters was electrocuted in her early 20s in the shower; he says only that he can’t speak of it, which I can understand, though his avoidance seems of-a-piece.) All in all, the book reminds me of Cheever’s Journals, which are similarly lyrical — you can turn a page and all of a sudden your breath is taken away — yet Cheever’s journals are closer to his daily life, and so one sees the repetitions, the fight with drinking, the fights with his wife, the fights with his own unruly lusts — it’s less artful, but more realistic.

    Incidentally, I’ve got an entirely different cover for Burning the Days: the focus is on half of Salter’s craggy face …

  6. John Self said,

    Terrific insights, Benjamin. And now the aspect of booktalk I love and hate: the ever-flowering connections to other writers and titles which keep coming up and urging me on to more new stuff when I haven’t got time to read all the stuff I already have… By which I mean to refer to your mention of Cheever. (I’m guessing you’re an admirer not just from your knowledge of his Journals but also from the inclusion of ‘wapshot’ in your website’s URL… ) A couple of years ago – pre-blog – I read what I believe are his last three novels: Falconer, Bullet Park and Oh What A Paradise It Seems, thought them brilliant, and picked up his collected stories, which of course I’ve barely dented (but have been impressed when I’ve dipped into the more famous stories, such as ‘Reunion’ and ‘The Swimmer’). I was keen to read the two Wapshot books also but had a vague impression they were less hard-edged than the later works, and have not yet read them as a result. I’d welcome any clarification you can offer.

  7. Heh. It’s funny, because I’ve read his stories (the later ones are the best, I think) and journals and the two Wapshot books, but not the later works, except for Paradise. So I’m afraid I can’t really offer much in the way of comparative advice. Paradise wasn’t his best book, but given that he wrote it at the end of his life, I didn’t expect it to be; the first Wapshot is really wonderful, and deserving of a place in the pantheon – in fact, I’d bet good money it’s better than any of his other novels. (I’d share quotes if I were on a different computer.) I found the second Wapshot shrill and tinny in comparison, sadder and meaner.

    Hope that helps.


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