Saturday 14 January 2017

Philip K. Dick, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland

The front cover of my copy of Humpty Dumpty in Oakland has faded to shades of light- and mid-blue, the colours of a lost morning. The reds are the first to go in colour printing. The Pontiac, if it's not a Chevy, on the front cover should be red, the office and its sign should be cerise. No champagne hour chez Philip K Dick. Everyone is too sad and unsuccessful, the view too veiled, too confused.

The last few chapters are best read in the bath, where a general softening of outlook allows Humpty Dumpty and his acquaintance fall down and pick themselves up over and over again, till by the last page you know this does not stop, a used car lot closes and another opens up, some die and some relocate, a record company called Teach is always looking for a new motif.

This is like Dashiell Hammett without the latent heroism. His detectives are laconic but they are heroes. Chez Philip K Dick, our used car salesman, our garage mechanic, our record company, our wives (who are Greek if not educated), strain for some kind of buoyancy. No heroes. No resolution. Prose is discarded talk. Plot is obfusc and fickle. Death tidier than most other states.

The used car salesman and the garage mechanic have lost all certainty of understanding the world in which they try to make their way, butting into obstacles that look like opportunity. They acknowledge no code of behaviour, no code at all, except, without conviction, a vaguely self-serving behaviour. If you make the right decision you'll probably die before you know it.

I don't get on well with Philip K Dick's science fiction. I find it hard enough to consider the world as it is, without taking on the world as it might have been. I have no room for imagined horrors. The novels contemporaneous with his Bay Area, Marin County, Sonoma/Petaluma experience I enjoy. They are discomfiting as Platonov's Central Asia or Walser's Middle Europe, if less poignant, or poignant without poetry, or rejecting the comfort that poignancy might bring.

The puff on the back cover from the Times Literary Supplement of the 80s includes words like Nescience and Anomie, which look quaint in today's strictly easy-peasy strain of enthusiasm. When my fellow students were reading Durkheim, Marx and Weber, I was reading Rimbaud, Rilke and Virginia Woolf. Anomie is a likeable word, secretive, detached yet warm, redolent of plant life, light winds, secure alienation. Nescience sounds like something George Clooney could sell.

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