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Puttering About In A Small Land (by Philip K. Dick): (A Book Review)

Updated on December 14, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


For those of you who may have dipped a toe into the work of Philip K. Dick, you will know that he was a prolific author of his unique brand of science fiction: a kind of science fiction, about which I never tire of saying is science fiction for people who think that they do not like science fiction. The reason I say that need not detain us here.

What is important for our purposes, today, is the kind of novel, Puttering About In A Small Land is; that is to say, I bet you didn't know that Mr. Dick also wrote "literary" novels, in addition to the science fiction genre novels and stories he is so well known for.

Before we get started, I feel as though I should explain myself about my use of the terms, 'literary' and 'genre.' I may understand and use those terms differently than you (whoever 'you' may be) do. For me, these terms hold no power of class bias. That is to say, I do not hold my nose in the air, as it were, and pompously declare something to be of LITERARY significance, as it were; and, conversely, I do not look down my nose at something and dismissively suggest that it is a merely notable for "genre literature."

Does that make sense?

For me, the terms 'literary' and 'genre' are strictly technical. For me, a story or novel fits into the genre category if the action is concerned with the fulfillment of a specific mission or series of tasks (I.e., "Save the planet from Martians," "Find the killer before he kills again," "Defeat the wicked Lava King," and so forth).

For me, a story or novel fits into the literary category if the action of the tale indicates no specific mission.

That's it!

Philip K. Dick wrote genre novels and stories of specific-missioned science fiction; as well as literary novels of non-missioned, well... literature.

So, we're considering a literary novel by Philip K. Dick called Puttering About In A Small Land. The edition I'm holding is hardcover, put out by Tor Books ("A Tom Doherty Associates Book), which, as far as I can tell, was first published posthumously by Mr. Dick's estate in 1985. The book is three-hundred-seventeen pages, which is about as long as a Philip K. Dick novel ever runs to. Indeed, his actual genre science fiction often runs less than two-hundred-fifty pages.

Mr. Dick was a very concise writer by today's standards; however such relative brevity seems to have run more to convention in the 1950s and 1960s.

At any rate, let us get on with the "review."

For those of you who have never read one of my book "reviews" on the Internet, I should warn you that I go about the process somewhat differently from what you may be used to.

A few things...

1. I always begin from a place of profound respect for the professionally published author, which, in my opinion, is especially due from the likes of myself, who is an amateur Internet writer.

2. With point #1 in mind, I very rarely undertake to "critique," as it were the esthetic, artistic choices of the author. I almost never presume to talk about such things as the author's plot construction and character development; and only extremely rare occasions of obvious and egregious creative malpractice would ever cause me to comment on such things.

3. I do not give plot summaries, per se, because you can get that anywhere on the Internet. Also, I don't think it is fair to the author to give the plot away.

4. What you could say that I do, is "curate" the material for those who have not yet encountered it. That is to say, I simply try to tell you what kind of book you are in for should you decide to read it. In this way, hopefully, through my "curating," you will develop some idea, in advance, about whether or not 'X' book is you cup of tea or not.

Does that make sense?


The Sixties.

The first thing to understand is that this story takes place in the America (California) of the early-1960s. That is very important to fix the story within the context of the cultural history of the United States.

The early-1960s---(mind you, well before the various movements of youth radical activism on both the political and cultural level; and well before various social movements for ethnic and gender equality of the late-1960s)---were, still, a lot like the 1950s. In the early-1960s certain assumptions about relations between men and women still prevailed, though they were coming under stress.

In the early-1960s, then, women and children were basically still regarded as the property of husbands and fathers. The man was "King of the Castle," and female deference to the masculine was still, more or less, taken for granted.

The basic story

The basic story concerns a married couple, Roger and Virginia Lindhal. Roger owns and operates an appliance and television repair shop. Virginia is the classic stay-at-home wife and mother of one child, a little boy named Greg.

I should mention, here, that television is a big deal in this story, set in the early-1960s, especially color television. Television is the new, exciting, coming thing during the time period in which this story is set.

Television is, for Roger, in a sense, a focal point of his ambition---the path he can take to liberate himself from the grind of working for others and be his own boss, as an independent entrepreneur.

You see, Roger Lindhal is a bit of a "free spirit." Perhaps he's too much of a free spirit to really be a responsible husband and father. If you read the book, you'll see why I say that. Roger has the wanderlust, which is especially triggered when the "going gets tough" in his life. His preferred way of coping seems to be flight.

By the way, I think I should emphasis here, for context, that television and a new form of political campaigning made a big splash with the Kennedy-Nixon Presidential contest of 1960. I just thought I'd mention that.

Anyway, Roger and Virginia install their son, Greg, into a highly regarded boarding school, up in the mountains. It is at that school where Roger meets another parent, a mother of a couple of boys already attending the school. She and Roger quickly begin an affair.

I don't want to give the story away; so just keep in mind, as you read this novel, that it is set in the early sixties. Its still like the fifties in many ways, but traditional values are increasingly coming under critical scrutiny. If you hold that idea firmly in your mind, the ending will not surprise you.

Think: the emergence of the "liberated woman." This blossoming idea is a key to the resolution of the story.

You know what? I think that'll do it.

Thank you so much for reading!


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