Philip K. Dick : Humpty Dumpty in Oakland

Dick wrote this book in about 1960 but it didn’t finally appear in print until 1986, four years after his death, having apparently been rejected by various publishers. Quite frankly, if I’d been one of those publishers I’d have done the same thing, and if I’d come across this book without having read anything else by PKD it certainly wouldn’t have inspired me to want to read more by the same author.

(details below)

For a start, although it’s not nearly as badly written as some of his science fiction (it doesn’t read like he started writing it the night before the deadline!), this isn’t a book anyone would read for its literary qualities. His dialogues are unrealistic, his sentences don’t flow and are often ugly to the point of being difficult to read, and the rambling narrative is frequently held up by irrelevant diversions which add nothing to the book as a whole. While the main character Al – who’s obviously autobiographical to some extent – is quite well drawn, most of the others aren’t really believable, and tend to do and say things which just don’t seem logical or consistent.

— SPOILER WARNING !!! —
Important plot details might be revealed beyond this point…

The story of Al’s descent into a spiral of paranoia, helped along by various legal drugs, is handled well enough, and for most of the book we’re left in doubt as to whether there’s any truth behind Al’s suspicions. Unfortunately the end is a bit of an anticlimax, where we reach the unavoidable conclusion that Al is in fact mad, and that all his suspicions about Harman are just paranoid fantasies. When that happens it just feels like an easy way out, the most boring and obvious explanation and justification for all the craziness that has gone before. And what on earth was the point of the final scene, where Al and Mrs. Lane start an affair? Perhaps a desperate attempt to end the book on a positive note – if not a happy ending then at least some glimmer of hope for its unfortunate protagonist? Or maybe Dick was just desperate to finish with some interesting and unexpected twist? Fortunately he was more imaginative in most of his other books!

That said, the book does paint an interesting picture of the world in which Dick was living at the time, a world in which small, old-fashioned, informal, human scale businesses like Jim’s garage were being replaced by big, modern, impersonal, high-investment enterprises. It also has some interesting things to say about race relations in California at the time, where, although there was no question of the actual apartheid found in the southern states, blacks were consistently treated worse than whites, excluded from well-paying jobs and positions of authority, and subject to segregation as regards where they were allowed to live. Every character in this book except Al seems to treat blacks as almost a different species, and to be at least deeply suspicious of them, if not openly racist. Jim makes no attempt to hide his contempt for ‘negroes’, while Harman, presented as a well-educated and successful entrepreneur, is convinced that a ‘Negro conspiracy’ is trying to infiltrate his business. It’s also interesting to note the subservient position of women in the book. When Al and his wife Julie leave town to escape Al’s real or imagined persecutors, it goes without saying that he decides where they’re going. Not only does he not consult her, but he feels no obligation to even tell her where they might be heading, and his wife fully accepts all this and is quite happy to leave the decisions to him and just follow. When she eventually decides to leave him it’s not because she’s fed up with him being the boss and taking all the decisions, but rather because she’s decided he’s mentally unbalanced and has lost her confidence in his decision-making ability. The wives of Jim and Tootie, although they tend to talk and even to shout a lot, are eventually just as subservient and accept that a man has to be the boss in his own home. Times have changed since the 50s!

All the reviews I’ve read of this book emphasise the fact that its main themes are reminiscent of much of Dick’s later work, and this is certainly true. What I most enjoyed about it was the way in which so many themes, situations and characters which are familiar from his SF books turn up in this late 50s Californian ‘realistic’ setting. Personally I found it better than ‘Confessions of a Crap Artist’, and in spite of all the above criticisms I’m glad I came across it. I would still say that while it’s likely to be an enjoyable read for PKD fans – perhaps even essential reading for serious PKD fans – I wouldn’t really recommend it to anyone else.

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Details:

author Philip K. Dick
title Humpty Dumpty in Oakland
written 1960
first published 1986
language English
publisher / version read Tom Doherty Associates
ISBN 978-0-7653-1691-2
read 10/10/2014 – 22/10/2014

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