May 9, 2008
Philip K Dick: Confessions of a Crap Artist
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 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
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