Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Dick in time

A year or so ago I read a book called American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett. A big book, and one that won a few awards, it had a fascinating setup. A Western town where a quantum experiment had been done was inhabited by multidimensional beings, most of whom inhabited town elders. In essence it was like Twin Peaks with Lovecraftian Elder Gods, not all of them evil. And for a while, each succeeding chapter seems to introduce a wild new element. Yet I read with a sinking feeling that I'd be disappointed by the end. That the energy generated in creating this anything-can-happen atmosphere would be spent in bringing it to a conventional close that doesn't serve the ideas present. And I think despite Bennett's best efforts, that's what happened. The rules of popular storytelling are so entrenched that no matter where you start from, odds are you'll end up in the same old place. (To some extent this happened with the Lost series finale too.)

Philip K. Dick predated the rulebook, or at least the current edition of it. Oh, God knows his endings could disappoint. That's one of the sources of tension: Can he get to the end without falling apart?

But when he fails he fails in his own way. He keeps an eye on what he is doing, rather than what he should be doing.

The Penultimate Truth, which I've just finished, is a case in point. The story begins with Nicholas St. James in an "ant tank", a cramped subterranean community for laborers supporting World War III. Except the war is over, and nobody told them. St. James is forced to go to the surface and becomes involved in a battle of wills between allegedly radiation charred (but really just Native American) David Lantano and proto-Jabba the Hutt Stanton Brose.

I won't give away much more, but the story takes a few turns and ends small. This is right. It's built as a small story, its tight frame keeping it from bloating. You don't have to look too close to see Dick's Gnostic interests at play. Brose and Lantano are obvious demiurge figures, the former almost pure evil, the latter not really pure good, but livable. But perhaps because these were concerns he lived with in his daily life, he can fit them into a simple - but not predictable - story. He doesn't feel the need to blow everything up to epic proportion.

And as a result, The Penultimate Truth remains only itself. Just as Dick could only ever be himself.


susan said...

Wow. I haven't read either book, but your review of both is astonishingly good. Your insight is remarkable and your concise descriptions of the essences of the two novels is very skillful. In the right forum you could be a very well respected critical reviewer.

High weirdness isn't really my forte but I did read Ubik a week or so ago. PKD was a strange and very interesting man. Jer, who has a collection of his work, hadn't even heard of this one. You do have a way of ferreting out the most unique works, don't you?

Ben said...

Thank you for saying so. When something engages me in a positive or negative way, I do enjoy talking about it.

I'm glad you got a chance to read Ubik. It's one of the more satisfying things that I've read by him. There are definitely exemplars of high weirdness that I enjoy.