Review: Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick

Confessions of a Crap Artist-Jack Isidore : A Chronicle of Verified Scientific Fact, 1945-1959
By Philip K. Dick, Vintage, 256pp, $12.95

In recent years it has become increasingly politically incorrect in literary circles to simply dismiss Philip K. Dick as a pulp Science Fiction writer; at this point, there seems to be a general consensus that there is more to Dick than there is to other "classic" scifi writers like Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, or Isaac Asimov. A dismissal of Dick in this way is no more acceptable than it would be to dismiss Kafka a horror writer, or Ernest Hemingway an Adventure writer. At the same time, there is the lingering problem with Dick in that he is somehow not of the same caliber as a Kafka or a Hemingway, and the critical appraisal of his work becomes problematic as a result.

As proof that Philip K. Dick is the Ernest Hemingway of Science Fiction, I offer his non-science fiction novel: Confessions of a Crap Artist. An examination of dysfunction and insanity more than anything else, Confessions of a Crap Artist casts the blinding light of skepticism on the Mythology of the Leave it To Beaver era. At its best moments, the novel holds up against similar offerings from Dick's contemporaries John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Coover. Set in the 1950's, Confessions of a Crap Artist opens with first person narrative of Jack Isidore. Jack Isidore is a stereotypical crackpot, a man who has read too much science fiction, conspiracy theory, and fringe science writing and has taken all of it to heart. He believes that he is a rational man interested in science. He believes, among other things that the earth is hollow and the hollow center is the home if another ancient civilization. Such ideas are the standard material of the genre that Dick made his living in, although usually the books are more occupied with the implications on the world should the weird ideas prove true. Confessions takes a different tack however, and never really considers Jack's theories beyond stating that these are things he believes. As the novel unfolds, we instead follow Jack as his life disintegrates and he moves in with his sister and her husband. They live in an idyllic house in the countryside of Northern California, and have children and horses and champion dogs. Their home is a technological marvel with all the latest devices for simplifying housework and making for the most germane of pastoral lifestyles. Dick deconstructs their fairy tale existence and portrays the alienation of adultery and abuse with a frightening clarity. The book asks the question of what insanity truly is, and by casting it in the setting he does, provides the reader with a chilling yet strangely detached answer.

Dick's prose, and hence the true problem he presents to critical appraisal, is often slapdash, sloppy, and amateurish. This clumsiness in the face of the brilliant inventive narrative mind behind it has a way of detaching the reader, and with Confessions the themes of alienation and misunderstanding that so permeate his work function on that detachment in such a way as to leave the reader alienated himself, and yet completely engrossed. Here Dick's flaws as a stylist actually serve to heighten the reader's experience, and the obvious comparison is to much more well-regarded technicians like Thomas Pynchon or William Gaddis whose prose often reflects stylistically and structurally the themes and moods of the story. From this, it is apparent that Dick is postmodern in a very unselfconscious way. Dick's postmodernism is a product of neurosis and style, and does not rely on the skillful artifice of a Pynchon or a Barth to convey the images and feelings of a postmodern world adrift in it's own hypochondria. Dick himself is a product of that world, the author himself didn't seem to understand why it was that he wasn't accepted as a more mainstream author, and had an ironic and good-humored detachment from the insanity of many of his own beliefs. Philip K. Dick is often held forth as an example of the best that Science Fiction has to offer, and in a way that's true, but at the same time it reveals some of the failings of the Sci Fi ghetto. Confessions of a Crap Artist, relying for success so heavily not just on the readers understanding of Philip K. Dick the individual, but also on the accidental brilliance of Dick's mediocre prose, is (almost) accidentally brilliant. To offer Philip K. Dick as one of the great writers of the 20th Century, as many have done, is therefore not unproblematic. Like Frank Herbert, Dick has an almost cult-like following who seem to be almost completely unaware of the many technical flaws and rough edges to the works of the respective men. Of course, Dick isn't nearly as inept as Herbert, and in that way it's an unfair comparison, at the same time the comparison is revealing as one of the reasons that Science Fiction authors have remained so long in their ghetto, and that is the overly sympathetic reading that Sci Fi authors often receive from their fan base. This is, I think, a critical distinction between the work of Literary authors and authors working in the various genre ghettoes.

So what then does this say about Confessions of a Crap Artist? On the one hand, Confessions may be as good as Science Fiction gets. On the other hand, calling it a Science Fiction novel seems to stretch the definition of the term beyond the breaking point. And it is here, in the borders of the genre, that the truly unfortunate aspect of the way the Science Fiction community has embraced its ghettoization is revealed. While Confessions is undoubtedly Dick's best work, it is also one of his least well known. Far more widely read are lesser books of Dick's like A Scanner Darkly, Do Android's Dream of Electric Sheep, The Man in the High Castle, and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. While those novels are all among Dick's best, and certainly are among the best to come from the Sci Fi Genre in the 60's and 70's, they lack the subtlety, emotional clarity, and pathos of Confessions. In most of his work, Dick is concerned with larger issues and more pervasive philosophical concerns. His characters in other books can get lost against the scenery. Dick's fantastical worlds are designed to call various ideas into question, and he returns to the similar questions about the nature of humanity, paranoia, the divine, insanity, and the self repeatedly in his work. It is an under-remarked upon flaw in much of Dick's work prior to the mid-seventies that one of these primary obsessions of his oeuvre, the question of what it is to be human, often subordinates the humanity of the characters despite the high value that Dick places on them within the text. This disconnect is a pervasive error that Dick only begins to get right with the writing Flow My Tears The Policeman Said in 1974, and really only fully realizes in Confessions of A Crap Artist. Confessions was published in 1975 and was followed by the late Dick novels A Scanner Darkly, VALIS, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, each of which seems to lose some of the humanity over the previous effort as Dick again becomes enamored of the paranoiac and wild themes of his earlier work, albeit with a much more refined style that permits greater complexity and subtlety. The late novels are also more clearly science fiction than is Confessions of a Crap Artist, which also illustrates a problem in the genre, which is that humanity is often a casualty overlooked by the process of world building which seems to be the primary concern of so many authors. Interestingly, the attempt to fascinate with alien or novel pictures of the world was often the least important aspect of Dick's work, and it's possibly no surprise that the novel in which the least amount of effort is spent in speculating about the nature of worlds different from our own would also be his best effort.

Comments

Dick's strengths

I've always thought of Crap Artist as Dick's juvenilia. Even at his best, "subtlety, emotional clarity, and pathos" are not Dick's strengths, nor are character or plotting. (See Thomas Disch for generic examples of such without high-fallutin' stylistic content.) It's all in the metaphysics, and I think Stanislaw Lem best assessed these strengths in his essay on Dick in Microworlds, and I'm in agreement with him on Dick's most singular works: Ubik and Three Stigmata, with Martian Time-slip not so far behind them. All of the novels you mention, particularly Electric Sheep, pale in comparison.

I have no trouble lumping these three in with the best of Olaf Stapledon, Wells, and Lem himself as seminal works. Stapledon was a terrible prose stylist himself, but the mistake with Dick is thinking that the American s-f genre confines him beyond that. I don't think it does.

PKD

Confessions was published 1975, but was actually written in 1959, thus your review vis-a-vis Dick's " pervasive error " might need updating. Also his science fiction is vastly superior to either Kafka's or Hemingway's...