Shades of Philip K. Dick
If you’re a Philip K. Dick fan, and even if you’re not, the best way to start reading Christopher Miller’s second novel, “The Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank” (Harper Perennial: 522 pp., $14.99 paper), might be to open the thing at random and plunge right in. (Arranged alphabetically, generously and whimsically cross-referenced, it invites leapfrogging and courts the infinite.) At first blush, the frontmatter feels too cute, a little fussy, as if Miller is trying too hard to make his Dank -- a shlubby science fiction writer who shares a biographical outline (shifted a few decades forward) and aesthetic with Dick -- into a one-note joke about Dick’s life and art.
Lurking behind my unease is the memory of Steve Aylett’s “Lint” (2005), a charmless, sloppy attempt to create a life based loosely on the complex, at times crazed existence of the author of “Ubik,” “A Scanner Darkly” and at least a dozen other classics of the genre. Miller’s novel, by happy contrast, is intricately constructed and genuinely funny (and fun) -- a fact that becomes obvious upon reading any of the actual entries. Miller’s affection for (and deep knowledge of) Dickiana never gets in the way of his own imagination. Rather, Dick’s obsessions and idiosyncrasies spur Miller to delirious heights of comic abandon. The happy result is a massive labyrinth of a book, a maze of mirrors that tweaks, celebrates and satirizes Dick’s topsy-turvy realities while maintaining its own integrity.
For example: In “Valis” (1978), Dick transformed his perception-shifting extraterrestrial vision (or psychotic episode?) of Feb. 3, 1974 into a science-fiction book, creating a singularly strange hybrid memoir-novel that slips between third and first person. Though he drew on autobiographical elements, Dick dubbed his stand-in “Horselover Fat,” the name derived thusly: Philip (horse) Kindred (lover) Dick (fat, in German).
Here’s Owen Hirt, the more skeptical of Miller’s two narrators (about which, more later), on Dank’s name:
“All his life he attached a portentous importance to the fact that ‘Dank’ means ‘thank’ in German. He gave the author-figures in his fiction idiotic names like Sol Grateful, Solar Thanx, and Sunny Thanker (since of course -- and this too was supposed to be Significant -- Phoebus is the sun god). He liked to say that his entire oeuvre was just a way to thank his lucky star -- the one he happened to find himself in orbit around -- for enabling intelligent life. In our Oakland days . . . Dank affected to pronounce his name the German way, so that it rhymed with ‘wonk’ and not with ‘crank,’ but he failed to persuade the rest of us to follow suit.”
About those two narrators: the bulk of this guide is written by William Boswell, a Dank scholar-turned-live-in biographer. Boswell’s claims for his hero’s genius mirror -- with only slight exaggeration -- those of die-hard Dickians, for whom every prophetic word cranked out of PKD’s typewriter is ripe for exegesis. Indeed, Boswell is such an insider, someone so intimately familiar with all things Dank, that he insists that it’s Dank’s unpublished literary fiction (not his dozens of SF titles) that represent the pinnacle of his achievement -- books that no one has had the chance to read save Boswell himself. (In these pages I’ve reviewed “Voices in the Street,” the first title in Tor’s newish line of Dick’s heretofore scarce non-genre works.)
Through a hilariously convoluted arrangement, the book also contains entries by the aforementioned Hirt, a poet and childhood friend of Dank’s, who nevertheless can’t abide his more popular contemporary’s work. (Hirt and Boswell occasionally comment on each other’s entries; the effect is as rug-pulling as the fact that Dank wrote a book about a fictitious science-fiction writer named Philip K. Dick.)
It goes without saying that there is no love lost between Hirt and Boswell; the latter says of the former, “I’ve tried to read his poems, but they’re unreadable, in the strictest sense of the word: Hirt must add a special anti-caking agent to his lines to prevent them from clumping together to form something larger.” Hirt is now living the high life in Europe -- possibly to escape for the murder of Dank, as Boswell insists.
These refractions of reality and annotations upon annotations, of course, recall Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel “Pale Fire,” in which the late John Shade’s long poem of the same name sprouts the even longer commentary by Charles Kinbote, his neighbor and best friend. That Miller can cross-pollinate the ideas and narrative strategies of these two very different literary titans testifies to his skill.
It’s an impressive feat, but any review of “The Cardboard Universe” should end by emphasizing how gaspingly, even spittle-coaxingly funny it is. Whether it’s the sympathetic Boswell or grumpy Hirt writing, the descriptions of Dank’s works -- short stories, novels, even a strange cyber pen-pal project -- are pure pleasure. Miller hits just the right note, somewhere between so-bad-it’s-good and I-could-see-this-as-a-movie, often seemingly generated by a knee-jerk play on words.
Thus “The Sadiators” “envisions a society where mortal enemies settle their disputes with verbal ‘suicide duels’ ” (it’s pronounced “sad-iators,” as in making another person sad); in “The Life Penalty,” “felons are punished not by truncation but extension of their lifespans,” since things are so bleak that “no one would [want to live] without Big Brother to coerce them.” In “Double Jeopardy,” a man sues his twin -- his Siamese twin -- whose activities (smoking, overeating, etc.) make their joint life unbearable.” “At one point, Floyd even makes a citizen’s arrest of Lloyd” -- ludicrous, but any more ludicrous than the user who is also a narc in “A Scanner Darkly”?
You keep thinking Miller-as-Dank is going to run out of ideas, but each one is satisfying. As you pinball around “The Cardboard Universe,” you might find yourself trying to slow down, the better to make this original -- and very funny -- book last.
Ed Park is a founding editor of the Believer and the author of the novel “Personal Days.” Astral Weeks appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.
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