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Monday, February 16, 2009

Slog Commenter Book Report 12: Elenchos Puts the Dick in No Dick Day with The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike

Posted by on Mon, Feb 16, 2009 at 3:45 PM

At Slogs Happy, I bring advance reader copies of books for our readers to enjoy. This time around, Elenchos reviews a reissue of an older, non-science fiction book by a master of science fiction. What better day than No Dick Day to review a book by Philip K. Dick? Any problems that you have with this review are by no means Elenchos's fault. They should instead be blamed on the editor; I am the editor.

feb9/1234827000-9780765323064.jpgIf you've read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, you know that, at first, the "blade runner" Deckard is an overthinking, ambitious, middle-class husband who bickers with his wife, and covets ever-costlier symbols of bourgeois success in his establishment-serving career as a mid-level fixer in an organization he doesn't question. If you haven't, and so only know Deckard as Harrison Ford's special brand of single, hard drinking and cynically noirish detective from Ridley Scott's adaptation, then you probably have a ways to go before you have gotten to know Philip K. Dick.

Dick's iconic status as a writer is perhaps most due to his arresting concepts: A guy who completes a job so secret the memory of it must be erased from his brain when he collects his... Paycheck (barf). A guy who saves a few bucks by having the memory of a vacation implanted rather than taking a real one. The marooned spaceship crew who must live in a virtual reality to keep from going insane. That big budget one with Tom Cruise: using precognition to prosecute you for what you're about to do. But then, the fictional Kilgore Trout, who Kurt Vonnegut makes the hackingest of hack sci-fi authors, could blow your mind all day with scenarios like this and still never write worth a damn. And by that Vonnegut meant "please don't call me a sci-fi author."

True, Dick did always have a special something when it came to these hooks he hung his stories on. Far better than millions of stoners wondering if reality was only an agreed-upon conceit that could be renegotiated under the right circumstances, Dick has a unique sense of how dependent reality is on what we tell ourselves it is.

But Dick always has more to recommend him than that. Like Kilgore Trout, it isn't the magic he works with words. Instead, maybe it is those spats Deckard kept getting into with his annoying wife. Or the way his characters run around double-crossing each other, or inadvertently making a hash of one another's lives through some inner malevolence that Dick thinks drives us all.

The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike chronicles exurban California life in the 60's much like Confessions of a Crap Artist delved into that setting in the 50's, and neither have any sci-fi weirdness to speak of.

The ostensible focus here is race, class, sex, small town narrowness, and power; in marriage, in the workplace and in the community. Which would be a lot of ground to cover in a short book if Dick were going to do more than lightly touch on these themes before returning to delve deeply into the things that have always interested him most: the constructed nature of reality, and whether that word, reality, should always be in scare quotes. His plot deals with a fossil skull that both is and isn't another Piltdown Man hoax. As in The Man in The HIgh Castle, we meditate on the way artifacts become invested with meaning and authenticity only because we agree that they do. The slippery nature of truth and fact is recapitulated in the fossil skull plot, disputes between would-be pillars of the community, the aforementioned bickering couples, and outside of all that, in newspapers and academia.

Dick's characters continually surprise themselves with the words that come out of their mouths and the acts they didn't think they would have done, but do, for half-guessed reasons that eat at their souls. Even without talking dinosaurs and time travel, the scenes are surreal; I'm not sure this is an author who could be anything but. You sense the characters are watching themselves act in the third person. In this book as with nearly all his others, the author interrogates the proposition that we have free will and finds it unsatisfying, at best.

I'm not sure I would tell you to run out and read The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike if you haven't first read, say, The Man in the High Castle, or Valis or one of Dick's collections of short stores. If you have, then yes try this out and see if you aren't as enthralled by Dick's weird paranoia without need of a fantastically altered reality. If you haven't, at least stop and notice when you are reading those other, more important Dick works, how much time he spends on marital strife, romantic couples bickering and sniping at one another, and unimportant, insecure men musing on their own ineptitude at getting ahead in a world that isn't out to do them any favors. And see if you can figure out what is making these people do these strange things.

Oh, and what happens in The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike, if you need to know concretely? Neighbors feuding, pretty much. You will learn people are nasty pieces of work; don't trust them. Watch out especially for the sociopaths.

Tor or Tom Doherty Associates or Macmillian (or perhaps they are all one in the same!) is/are re-publishing this book after a limited run in 1984, in between Confessions of a Crap Artist and The Man in the High Castle. They say it was Dick's favorite among the nearly dozen novels he had around that he hadn't been able to publish up to then.

Many thanks to Elenchos.

 

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