Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick is probably one of the most famous science fiction writers to ever live, but few people remember his name.  At least ten of his stories have been made into motion pictures, but few people who have seen those films took the time to read the stories the films were based on.  Philip K. Dick was the first science fiction author to be published by Library of America, which seeks to issue the best American writers in uniform, durable and authoritative editions.  But when I bring up the name Philip K. Dick among my bookworm friends, most ask, who?

Why isn’t PKD more famous?  The easy answer is writers seldom become famous, even though most writers hope for literary immortality.

Movie stars, music stars, sports stars become household names with the citizens of our pop culture, but few writers do, and especially not science fiction writers. Philip K. Dick knew this back in the 1950s when he began writing.  He wanted to be more than just a science fiction writer selling stories to pulp magazines for a half cent a word.

How do writers become famous?  Write an unforgettable novel!  What’s the formula for doing that?  Did Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott know that formula when they wrote Pride and Prejudice, A Christmas Carol and Little Women, stories so famous they get a new film adaptation every decade or two?  Philip K. Dick’s success with getting filmed should have made him more famous, but it hasn’t.

Fame is of little value itself, other than to draw attention to artistic work that might be worthy of our attention.  That’s what all artists really want, to create something worthy of fame.  Philip K. Dick didn’t figure his pulp writing was worthy of literary fame, so he wrote a series of mainstream novels in the 1950s hoping to prove his writing ability at observing real life in Marin County, California.  Only one of those novels was even published during his lifetime, Confessions of a Crap Artist.  Phil’s fame rest entirely on his science fiction, and among science fiction fans, PKD had the reputation for being weird even among the denizens of the geeky, nerdy world of science fiction fandom.  I think that’s a shame because Confessions of a Crap Artist is probably his best and most sane book.

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Here I am claiming that one of a minor writer’s least famous books is his best.  How can that be?  I’m claiming that Confessions of a Crap Artist is as least as good as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, another book about marital conflict I’ve recently read.  And although I admired Freedom a good bit, I think Dick reveals better writing techniques for getting inside his characters’ heads than Franzen.  Freedom is more contemporary, sophisticated, and larger in scope, and thus more suited to modern readers, but my life resonates with Confessions of a Crap Artist, so I loved it more.

To me, the goal of literary novels, as oppose to genre novels, is to observe a place and time, and get into the heads of people to chronicle their emotion conflicts and growth.  Most bookworms prefer made up fictional worlds that have complicated plots and exciting characters that offer a thrill ride for their readers.  Often genre fans find literary novels to be about nothing in particular, and fans of genre novels, even fans of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novels, may find Confessions of a Crap Artist boring.

Confessions of a Crap Artist is about Fay and Charley Hume’s marriage falling apart and how it’s observed by Fay’s brother. Jack Isidore, a rather oddball child man in his thirties who sees the world in a peculiar fashion.   Jack is a science fiction fan, flying saucer nut, believer in crackpot ideas, thinks the world is hollow,  that Mu and Atlantis existed, that people can receive telegraphic messages.  He think fiction offers just as much scientific evidence about reality as nonfiction.  Charley Hume calls Jack a crap artist for all his weird ideas.  Jack Isidore’s extremely literal view of reality, and his poor social skills, makes me wonder if Dick had known someone with Asperger’s.  That should appeal to modern readers.  There are end of the world cults and mad shooters in this story too, that might also appeal to modern readers.  There’s a lot to 1959 that’s very much like 2013, and that might be a selling point too.

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So why should you read this book?  If publishers didn’t want to publish Confessions of a Crap Artist when Dick wrote it back in 1959, why should you want to read it now?  Internet Science Fiction Database shows it’s had a dozen editions from 1975-2012.  Now that’s interesting.  And that’s not even counting the audiobook edition I just listened to or foreign editions with alternate titles.  What’s going on here?  I’ve heard that 99% of all books never have a second printing, much less a second edition.  Could Confessions of a Crap Artist be a minor underground classic?

I first read Confessions of a Crap Artist when it came out back in the mid-seventies, and was very impressed then.  I read a couple more of PKD’s mainstream novels and thought they captured the 1950s wonderfully, but then I forgot about them.  Recently many of PKD’s novels have been getting new uniform editions in book, ebook and audiobook formats and I bought several on sale from Audible.com.  I started listening to Confessions of a Crap Artist just before New Year and was mesmerized by the writing.  Peter Berkrot narration for the audiobook perfectly captured the first person inner thoughts of the four main characters, Jack Isidore, his sister Fay, her husband Charley, and Fay’s lover Nat Anteil.

The book also captured many wonderful details that I remember about the 1950s.

Why remember the year 1959?   You could read 1959: The Year Everything Changed by Fred Kaplan, a book I’ve read twice because it’s so fascinating.  You could read some of the books that came out in 1959 to try and capture the feel of that year, but if you look at the list I linked to at Wikipedia, many of the books that came out that year weren’t about 1959, they were science fiction books about the future, like Starship Troopers or The Sirens of Titan, or they were best sellers like Psycho and Goldfinger, which I hope aren’t the real 1959, or books like The Tin Drum or Hawaii, which are histories of earlier times.

I remember 1959, but just barely.  I was 7 until November 25th, when I turned 8.  I was living in New Jersey at the time.  But over in California, Philip K. Dick was living in Marin County, and he wrote a book about life in his place and time that captures 1959 better than anything I’ve ever read before.  So why would a science fiction writer back in 1959 want to write about suburban life?  Well, Philip K. Dick told his publisher that he was quitting science fiction to write mainstream novels.  He wrote several novels before giving up, and returned to writing science fiction.  When he did, he wrote is science fiction masterpiece, The Man in the High Castle, which won a Hugo Award.  I’m thinking 1959-1960 was a peak creative period for PKD.

So you might be wondering by now, why I would be trying to convince you to read a book that no publisher wanted when it was written, and was only published by a small press just seven years before the writer died in 1982, and is over 50 years old.  Shouldn’t it be lame and dated?  For some reason Confessions of a Crap Artist amazed me.  It has a 3.63 average rating over that GoodReads, so not everyone is impressed.

Why am I so impressed and others aren’t?  I hate to encourage you to go buy a book and that you read and think, “What is that Harris talking about?  This book stinks!”

I’ve been reading and rereading books by Philip K. Dick most of my life.  I’ve read biographies about him, read countless articles and interviews about and with him, listened to tapes of his conversations and I even visited his gravesite.   I now think Confessions of a Crap Artist is Philip K. Dick’s best book.  First published in 1975, but written in 1959, and in late 2012 appeared on audio from Brilliance Audio, running 8 hours and 13 minutes.

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This still doesn’t answer:  Why remember the year 1959?  I’m not talking about nostalgia.  When we read Pride and Prejudice, are we learning about 1813?  When we read The Great Gatsby are we exploring 1925?  When we read The New Testament, are we time traveling back to 70 AD?  Yes and no.  A photograph or film of 1925 or 1959 is more revealing of what reality was like than a novel or even a nonfiction book.  Books give us words and ideas from a writer long ago.  So Confessions of a Crap Artist is really a tour of the mind of Philip K. Dick in 1959.  PKD was a certain kind of reporter about a very specific place and time.

Now I’ve mentioned before Dick was a weird guy.  He has a reputation for being weird, but Confessions of a Crap Artist is vivid, exact and very sane.  It’s a sane book about how everyone is crazy to one degree or another.  At first you think Jack Isidore is the only Joker in the deck, but as you read on, and get into the heads of the characters, you realize there are no normal people in this story.  By the time you finish the book you might be thinking there are no normal people in this world.

This is the second time I’ve “read” Confessions of a Crap Artist, or more precisely, I listened to it this time, and the narrator Peter Berkrot made it come alive in a vivid dramatic reading that caught the four principal characters perfectly.  Confessions of a Crap Artist is told through four first person accounts in a round robin order, so the reader feels like they’re inside the heads of Jack Isidore, his sister Fay Hume, her husband Charley, and Fay’s lover Nat Anteil.  This works much better on audio I think, especially with Peter Berkrot’s reading, because you actually feel the different personalities.  PKD did a fantastic job of thinking in different POVs.

Philip K. Dick is famous for writing science fiction, but Confessions of a Crap Artist isn’t science fiction.  To the public outside of the science fiction community, Philip K. Dick is known for several movies based on his novels:  Blade Runner, Total Recall, Screamers, Minority Report, Impostor, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, Radio Free Albemuth and The Adjustment BureauConfessions of a Crap Artist was filmed in France in 1992 as Confessions d’un Barjo.  It’s not available on Netflix and is out of print at Amazon, but some used VHS copies are available.

Charlie Hume calls his brother-in-law a crap artist because Jack Isidore collects facts about the world that most people consider nutty, stupid or insane.  Jack looks to his science fiction magazines for scientific validation of reality.  He’s involved with flying saucer cults, and hangs out with people who channel past lives and believes higher beings are preparing the end of the world for Earth.

I remember my uncles talking about Bridey Murphy, George Adamski, Edgar Cayce, and other writers who used to pray on crap artists of the 1950s.  I thought my uncles were nuts.  Most people think the 1960s was when times got wild, but the real 1950s wasn’t Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best, it was much closer to The Twilight Zone.

Of course, I was a science fiction fan back then, and that was considered pretty nutty too.  Another thing I remember from the late 1950s and early 1960s, was how everyone wanted to go to a psychiatrist.  Fay Hume goes to her analyst three times a week and brags about it.  Fay does not work, takes care of two little girls, but uses her charm, good looks, and manipulative ways, to get ahead.  On the outside Fay is a model wife, community organizer, and charming.  Charley, her husband thinks she’s a psychopath.  Nat, her lover thinks of her as childish and willful, but totally alluring.  Jack, her brother sees Fay in a particular strange analytical way.

Charley Hume was like a lot of men I remember from back then, he was obsessed about getting ahead, owning a big car and house, and having a beautiful wife and kids to show off.   Think Don Draper from Mad Men.  Finally, Nat Anteil, is the young college kid who could have been a beatnik.  He worked part time, him and his wife rode bikes, wore jeans, and wanted to be intellectuals.  In a few years they would become hippies probably.  Confessions of a Crap Artist reveals itself as an embryo of the 1960s.  The 1960s wasn’t that radically different from the 1950s if you knew where to look for the seeds of the sixties.

On the Road, which came out in 1957 has a reputation for being the bible of the Beats, and people remember it as one of the defining books about the 1950s.  But it was really about the 1940s.  Ditto for A Catcher in the Rye, another 1950s classics.  I think Confessions of a Crap Artist is a detail painting of 1959.

Maybe given enough time Philip K. Dick will be remembered for his literary efforts in the 1950s, not because he wrote about the future, but because he wrote about the moment, his life in 1959.  I’d love to know more about his life then and who the models were for Jack, Fay, Charley and Nat.

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JWH – 1/7/13

Philip K. Dick–The Penultimate Truth

At the online book club Classic Science Fiction, we had a series of posts discussing whether or not a book should stand alone or if it helped readers to know about the writer and why they wrote their fiction to fully appreciate the story.  Most of the members wanted books to be completely self-contained and did not want to know about the author.  If fact, many readers worried if tales about the writer were slanderous or gossip it might unfairly color their appreciation of the story.  They were responding to my comments about Radio Free Albemuth and how I judge Philip K. Dick to be crazy.  My response was that certain writers like PKD, Proust, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Wolfe and other autobiographical novelists almost demand knowledge of the writers to fully appreciate their work.

Let me say upfront that if you are reading just for entertainment, books have to be standalone and self-contained.  No knowledge of the author or literary history should be required.  And I do read for entertainment, but for me it’s the foundation to the house, and the real architectural design to be admired is what fiction says about reality.  I’m just not interested in one dimensional fiction.  The novelists I love the most are natural philosophers and reporters.  Now that doesn’t mean I want pontification in fiction – no, fiction is about catharsis, not messages.  To me the best philosophical stories are those where the author is invisible behind the scenes, and their characters, setting and conflicts presents the reader with a deeply emotional experience, whether tragic or comic.

I used to think that only Dick’s last novels were about his personal experiences, but after watching Philip K. Dick-The Penultimate Truth  I now think different, and realize he was always autobiographical to some degree.  Philip K. Dick is very close to Jack Kerouac in that their novels are spiritual journeys that try to make sense of their troubled souls.  Although this documentary about PKD is framed with a cheesy X-Files setup of two FBI like agents brainstorming from boxes of evidence about who Philip K. Dick was, it’s actually a perfect metaphor for Dick’s life.  FBI agents were watching PKD, and he was obsessed with being watched.  You can view this documentary online at YouTube, or get it from Netflix, or follow the link to Amazon above and buy it.  I highly recommend this film.

Here’s the first of nine parts on YouTube:

The documentary gathers three of Dick’s five wives (Kleo Mini, Anne Dick, Tessa Dick), many of his girlfriends, and several of his closest friends (Ray Nelson, Tim Powers and K. W. Jeter) to talk about him while the agents pin photos on a wall as if they were trying to solve a crime.  Some people like to think that PKD actually experienced mystical events and they are unexplained revelations of truth, but I don’t.

All through the documentary they show clips from a speech Dick gave in Metz, France in 1977, that to me is conclusive evidence that Dick was crazy.  He essentially confesses his madness in front of the audience.  His girlfriend that was with him at the conference, Joan Simpson, said the speech was quite horrible and she wished she could have been anywhere else.  She said the French audience was kind to him, but she felt they had been greatly disappointed too, because they expected his wild stories to be creative rather personal visions that Dick confessed to believe.

Now I’m not saying we should write off PKD as a man lost in madness.  As K. W. Jeter says about The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, that Phil provides a critical self-portrait and realizes before he dies that he had been crazy, and as Jeter would like to think, he didn’t die insane, and had finally accepted this reality.

This is an excellent documentary that expertly summarizes the life and work of Philip K. Dick in 89 minutes.  Philip K. Dick was a major explorer of reality and he ventured to some very dangerous places, but ultimately he comes back to report that we shouldn’t go where he’s been.  PKD is a teacher about what it means to explore madly divine concepts.  He is a professor of paranoia and Gnosticism.  We like to think that penultimate realities don’t exist, but Philip K. Dick traveled into them and wrote mission reports back to us.

Here’s the thing.  If you are sane and have a firm grasp of reality, those penultimate gnostic worlds don’t exist, but if you have a weak understanding of this reality they do exist, and they are very real.  It’s not that Dick’s mad ideas explain the ultimate reality because they don’t, but they do explain penultimate realities that we really don’t want to visit.  What’s sad, tragic and troublesome is the people who ask if what PKD experienced was real in our ultimate reality – those people are too close to a penultimate reality, and to them Dick’s visions explains a reality they see but we don’t.  Anyone familiar with mentally ill people will recognize many of the belief systems Dick explored.

Reading Philip K. Dick’s books are a study in madness, and not philosophy, religion or even science fiction.  They are meta-fiction, autobiographical, epistemological,  and a form of exegesis.  PKD even kept a journal he called The Exegesis.  I believe that at times Dick fully believed his visions, but at other times he questioned his sanity.  Many people read his books as science fiction and find them entertaining.  Dick was good a writing fiction.  At the entertainment level many of his books are self-contained stories that work without knowing anything about his life, but the more you know about PKD, the more you see something different about his work, and you see that he was an explorer of penultimate realities.

And when I say “penultimate reality” I’m not riffing on PKD’s titles.  I’m talking about people with gnostic mindsets.  To them, they seek the ultimate truth, or hidden knowledge.  They think they are living in a penultimate reality and are being told lies, and this reality is a sham, and the real reality is a secret being kept from them.  Such thinking has always been a part of various religious sects in world history.  PKD is a modern Gnostic.  Conservative religions don’t like to discuss this, but madmen are often the driving force of the early stages of their religions.  People with mystical instincts are attracted to seers like Philip K. Dick as a form of validation, and Dick knew this.  He was seduced by his own visions too.

Christianity rejected Gnosticism in the early centuries of the common era, but the modern faithful also believe this reality is a penultimate reality.  And this is why we should read Philip K. Dick, he’s a modern day example of a prophet, mystic, seer, writer of revelations, like those in the Bible and other holy books.  If you believe in science, this is the ultimate reality, and mystic people are crazy, now and then.  If you believe this is a penultimate reality, then Dick was a visionary, and from my perspective, you are a tortured soul like he was.  Because any believer in hidden knowledge finds this reality confusing and upsetting.

This is why I say books by Philip K. Dick aren’t just for entertainment and escapism.  You need to know as much about PKD as possible to decipher them.  Sure you can read them as far out science fiction and just consider them weird ass stories to be amusing.  But my fear is some PKD fans live in a penultimate reality, and see Dick as a mystic and that’s really scary.

For me, the real reason to read Philip K. Dick is to study the madness of metaphysical worlds and to avoid them.

JWH – 6/4/11

Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick

I’ve always asked two questions when reading science fiction books.  First, why did the author write it?  Second, why do I want to read it?  The easy answers are usually the author wanted to tell an entertaining story and make some money, and I want to be blown away by an exciting new science fictional idea.  Now that might be true for Neuromancer and Dune, but not for books like Stranger in a Stranger Land or, in this case Radio Free Albemuth.  When science fiction writers write about about religion I can’t help but wonder if they believe their own fiction, or want us to.

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I actually prefer science fiction with an agenda.  Fun fictional adventures are great for being entertaining, but I love science fiction novels with vision.  During the 1950s I think Heinlein had an agenda for his juvenile books – he wanted to jump start manned space exploration.  Heinlein’s books after 1960 have another intent which I never cared for.  I think Philip K. Dick spent his entire career exploring the same ideas – he wanted to understand what is man and why are we here.

Throughout Radio Free Albemuth, Philip K. Dick defends himself against his reputation as a drug writer, which he blames Harlan Ellison for starting in Dangerous Visions.  But he doesn’t defend himself from his reputation for paranoia and imagining endless crazed explanations for the reality around him.  PKD couldn’t let epistemology and ontology alone – it was two bones he would gnaw at his whole life.  So when I read something like Radio Free Albemuth I must ask:  Did PKD believe in the Gnostic ideas discussed in the book?  If Gnosticism had been the theme of only one book I would have said no, because it does lend itself well to a weird entertaining science fiction plot.  But Dick spent too many books exploring the idea.

If you haven’t read anything biographical about Philip K. Dick and read Radio Free Albemuth it would be easy to dismiss it as a wild idea for a science fiction novel, but Dick had experienced many visions in February and March of 1974 which he could never stop trying to explain, so he wrote several novels about them, and a journal called The Exegesis.  Now people with mental problems will fixate on such ideas, and explore them endlessly trying to make some kind of sense of the confusion they live in.  I can’t help but feel that PKD was mentally ill, but he had the outlet of writing to explore his obsessions, so do we just ignore his ideas as wild science fictional stories, or explore them along with Phil?  Or do we consider his books meta fiction and consider them a study in madness?

John C. Lilly, noted scientist who studied dolphins, went off the deep in when he began using sensory deprivation tanks and hallucinogenic drugs, and wrote a book, Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer, which led to experiences like those found in a Philip K. Dick novel.  If you push the mind, either through physical defect of the brain, stress, deprivation or with drugs, you get to some very far out places.  To me it’s easy enough to write those places off as hallucinations, but I think we should psychoanalyze these communiqués from the deepest part of our minds.  Philip K. Dick was exploring the same territory as saints, mystics, yogis and madmen.

Gnosticism tells us this universe is crazy, but there’s a hidden reality that does make sense.  In Christian Gnosticism Christ was the teacher of this hidden knowledge.  I think PKD really wanted to believe in the hidden knowledge.  I think this world tormented him, and he was desperate to find a rational truth.  This is no different from many religious teachings.  People have a hard time accepting this reality – in fact most are ready to reject it.

Radio Free Albemuth is about two men living in an alternative America ruled by a police state.  They are Nicholas Brady and Philip K. Dick.  Radio Free Albemuth was written before VALIS, but published after Dick’s death.  In VALIS, Phil is the narrator, but the other character is Horselover Fat, which is a weird translation of his own name.  Both books were inspired by the same real world experiences.  Both books deal with hidden knowledge, and Dick’s particular view of Gnosticism.  To me, Radio Free Albemuth has a more traditional story structure, and it’s the book that was made into a movie, which seems to confirm it had the better story structure.  But most people consider VALIS the masterpiece version, and it’s the version collected in the Library of America edition.

I can’t explore the ultimate details of the story without giving away the plot, but let’s just say it’s very hard to tell the science fiction from Christianity in this novel.  Imagine if God talked to you with technology, would you think it’s God or an alien?  Philip K. Dick felt his mystical experiences were real, and wanted to believe they were clues to hidden knowledge, or did he?  In the end, we have to ask, does Phil believe his own far out ideas?  But isn’t that like asking if Christians really believe in Heaven and salvation?  I’d like to think Phil was always just examining these ideas, like the blind figure of justice holding the scales, weighing the issues, but what I like and what really happened is probably unknowable.

Up to now I’ve been exploring how and why PKD wrote Radio Free Albemuth, but I haven’t asked we we should read it.  Should we just be amused by the wild craziness?  I worry that crazy people will find satisfying proof in this book for their own mad ideas, but we can do nothing about that.  How is Radio Free Albemuth any different than Harold Camping predicting the arrival of the rapture on May 21, 2011?  If you call the book just entertainment, it’s not the same thing at all.  But if we accept the idea that Philip K. Dick considered it a legitimate philosophical exploration, we have to wonder if Phil was a crazy prophet too.

I’m afraid that any exploration on metaphysics has to be analyzed as a kind of madness.  And I think most people will just chuckle and say ideas like those PKD explores is just crazy stuff.  Something to be laughed at.  Sadly though, a large percentage of our population will say no, metaphysics is real.  But I say, hey, we need to study people who believe in hidden knowledge and see how such beliefs affect our world and history.  Maybe PKD was saying, I’m mad, and here’s how my madness works, you better study me, but I tend to doubt that.  I tend to think poor Phil worried some of his hallucinations were real.  I say that because I know too many people people who believe their hallucinations are real too.

I’m not sure PKD is a sci-fi writer, but a psy-fi writer.

JWH – 6/22/11