Two 'Literary' Novels by Philip K. Dick: "In Milton Lumky Territory" and "Humpty Dumpty In Oakland": A Book Review
Today we're going to do two "reviews" in one hub. I am not going to go on too long with this, but there are one or two things I should point out.
As you may know, Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was a relatively prolific science fiction writer. Incidentally, several of his novels and short stories have been turned into popular, big budget films ("Blade Runner," "Minority Report," "A Scanner Darkly," and I hear of a cable television series coming out based on PKD's novel, "The Man in the High Castle").
The science fiction novels are what I call "genre" fiction, stories that have specific missions to fulfill---protagonists who must carry out specific tasks for one reason or another.
To me, a "literary" story is one in which no specific mission can be made out. We are looking at a "slice of life," if you will, of certain characters.
At any rate, Philip K. Dick wrote eight literary novels in his time; and today we doing quick reviews of two of them: In Milton Lumky Territory and Humpty Dumpty In Oakland.
There are two very important things to keep in mind when reading PKD's literary novels:
1. They are temporally based in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
2. They are geographically based in the western United States.
1. Temporally, we are talking about a time in American history in which, on the one hand, old fashioned, patriarchal, white, Christian, male, heterosexually preferential values prevail, but are coming under increasing stress and critical scrutiny from several quarters during the late fifties and early sixties.
This tension manifests itself in both novels.
a. Another thing we can say about the times is that the late fifties and early sixties were a time of fast-paced change: in terms of geographical infrastructure (the interstate highway system, suburbanization, etc.); the corporation as the primary private economic structure hits its stride at this point, and changes the way and under what circumstances millions of Americans work and play.
In order to make sense out of this, one must recall that after the end of World War II, America entered its golden age of capitalism (1945-1975). This is because America was the last industrialized nation left standing after the war; and Europe and Japan could only rebuild by buying American stuff by borrowing American money.
These are the circumstances under which America became the world's largest creditor, and so forth. These are the circumstances under which the American corporation became so powerful. These are the circumstances under which America grew so wealthy, so quickly, whereby the country embarked on so many kind of changes so quickly, and for many people, so disorientingly.
2. Philip K. Dick's literary novels are set in the western United States, as I said. This may not be insignificant. We know that the regions of the United States which benefitted the most from FDR's New Deal reform program, were the southeast and the west, which had been underdeveloped compared to the Northeast and Upper Midwest.
My point is that, from the perspective of these regionals (the southern and western United States), who were being raised up from a lower starting point, so to speak, relative to the rest of the country, life might have been experienced as changing more wrenchingly during the 1950s and 1960s.
In Milton Lumky Territory
The edition we're working with is hardcover. At a concise two-hundred-twenty pages, it is easily readable in one sitting. It was published by Tor Books, posthumously by the Philip K. Dick estate, in 1985.
There is something else I need to mention for purposes of contextualization. As I said, the late 1950s and early 1960s were a time of rapid change, particularly for our purposes, in the world of the workplace, the increasing corporatization of the workplace, you might say.
This environment was rapidly changing and growing increasingly complex. This situation formed a zeitgeist that would have been hard for most people to understand. But I think men, as a general rule, pretended to understand the zeitgeist.
Consider this: I previously wrote an essay in which I theorized about the reason why American women got so much vicious backlash from men, as they agitated for their rights in the late 1960s, and began to get penetration into fields of work traditionally dominated by men in the 1970s. The essay is called: "If We Cannot Be Angels, Then We Shall Be Demons."
Here's what I mean by that title and how it relates to men of the fast-changing 1950s/1960s "pretending to understand the zeitgeist."
In the 1950s, according to Leave It To Beaver and other sources of cultural history, when the man of the house came home from work, the wife would go to him, greet him, get him his slippers, a drink before dinner or whatever, and above all, ask him how his day at work was.
He would moan and grunt something unintelligible; but over dinner he would make remarks about how long-suffering he was on a ship of otherwise fools, intimating that if it wasn't for him, his place of employment would have surely gone to hell in a hand basket.
I contend that this general rhetoric was the American male generally "pretending to understand the zeitgeist." I believe that the reason they feared having women join them in the workforce was because they did not want the women to find out their secret, that they were indeed pretending to understand the zeitgeist, which mean that we, American men, would be showed up as not nearly as smart, brave, full of integrity, or competent as we had been suggesting to our wives that we were, for decades.
Does that make sense?
A simple example of this phenomena is perfectly encapsulated in a wonderful short story called, "The Man Who Was the God of Love," which I read many years ago in either the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine or the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I don't remember the author's name and I don't seem to be able to call it up with Google.
But this story is set in the America of the early 1960s; and the man pretends to his younger, unquestioningly adoring wife that he "understands the zeitgeist" by, seemingly, completing the New York Times crossword puzzle. Get it? Its the New York Times; and consequently the puzzle is supposed to be very hard, only manageable by super, big-brained types.
His young wife is caught in the spell of what she thinks is his dazzling brilliance of mind. She believes everything he asserts or opines is golden. There comes a point in the story when he loses some important job he had; and his wife accepts his explanation that he had been dismissed from the job because his employers and bosses are jealous of his superior intellect.
One day she catches her husband cheating at the New York Times crossword puzzle. He simply copies the answers given in the next day's edition. When she sees this, the spell is broken; and yet, while she has lost all respect for him, she thinks she still loves him.
However, now that the spell is broken, the woman comes into her own. She becomes independent-minded and assertive. She doesn't hesitate to contradict and challenge anything her husband says. Furthermore, when he says something she thinks is outrageous, she will even tell him that he knows nothing about the subject. And, of course, it almost goes without saying that she realizes that her blowhard husband lost her job, not because others envied his big brain, but because he hadn't the intellect to keep up with his duties.
Basically, this goes on for a while until the man reaches his breaking point. That breaking point arrives murderously one day while the couple are splashing around in their backyard pool together.
I forget whether he bashes her over the head or strangles her. But her murders her in the pool. Then he gets out of the pool to go work on the New York Times crossword puzzle, honestly this time, and as much as he could ever do.
My point is simply this: In the Philip K. Dick literary novels, which are set in the western United States of the late 1950s and early 1960s, there is a good deal of male characters "pretending to understand the zeitgeist."
I should also say, again, that this is a period in which, although traditional patriarchal values prevail, they were coming under increasing stress and critical scrutiny within the culture. This has a bearing upon how Mr. Dick's literary novels are structured.
That is to say, the men "pretend to understand the zeitgeist," at first with the sufferance and acquiescence of the women in their lives; but then, when the men have made fools of themselves, the women become more assertive. That is the tension I'm talking about: how, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, although traditional patriarchal values prevail, they came under increasing stress and critical scrutiny during the period we're talking about.
The basic story of "In Milton Lumky Territory"
We find a young man, our hero, called Bruce "Skip" Stevens (twenty-four) working as a traveling buyers for a large "discount house" (think: forerunner of the various 'Dollar Store' and its incarnations, etc.). He is located in Nevada, having moved there from his hometown in Iowa.
He moves back to Iowa, when he falls for an older woman, a Ms. Susan Faine, who, as it happened, had been young Mr. Stevens' fifth grade teacher. The thing to fasten onto is the fact that Ms. Faine retired from teaching and now runs a typing and "mimeographing" service.
Bruce Stevens is a young man who thinks he has it all figured out. He is working in a newly emerging industry, which he believes to be the future; and in a way, it is. His work for a newly emerging discount house puts him at odds with more traditionally-minded retailers. We see this in the opening scene of the novel.
That is one way the "old" values and way of doing things clashes with the "zeitgeist" of the newly emerging values and way of doing things.
In this novel you are going to see that Susan Faine throws herself at Bruce---ten years her junior, remember---both romantically and professionally. You see, here is another place where the old patriarchal values intersect with newly emerging values, which, as I said before, subject the traditional values to increasing stress and critical scrutiny.
Susan literally begs Bruce to quit his job in Nevada, move back to Iowa, and take over the management of her business. She admits to being over her head, that she has no head for business, and so on. She never actually says that she, as a little old woman, cannot run a business alone, but she might as well have.
Bruce Stevens has no direct experience in that line. However, as someone who thinks he's got "it" all figured out---the "zeitgeist," that is---he is more than confident that he can do it. He is confident that he can take over the management of the operation, and for the first time run it in such a way that it turns out healthy profits on a regular basis---which it is not doing when Bruce meets Susan.
I don't want to give too much of the plot away; but just keep your eye on that tension: traditional patriarchal values rubbing up against newly emerging values, which subject the former to increasing stress and critical scrutiny.
Let's just say that Bruce Stevens will prove NOT to be the master of the zeitgeist. It is at this point where Susan Faine will assert herself.
Still, unlike many Philip K. Dick stories of any genre, "In Milton Lumky Territory" actually has a warm and fuzzy happy ending, which I found quite satisfying under the circumstances.
Humpty Dumpty In Oakland
This novel is set in Oakland, California in the early 1960s. Everything I mentioned previously applies here, but there is the additional wrinkle of race. The reader is not beat over the head with it, but the racial sensitivities, or lack thereof, of the early 1960s are present in this novel, as background noise.
This is also a story about social class, in its way; and how folks on the lower rungs of the ladder often seek the approval of those on the higher rungs.
Jim Fergeeson has owned and operated a one-man auto repair shop for many years. On the advice of his doctor, Fergeeson decides to retire and sell his garage. This decision to retire and sell out puts Al Miller at a disadvantage. Miller runs a used car lot on part of the property he has leased from Jim Fergeeson, so it is likely that when Fergeeson goes, Al will have to relocate, if he can, as well.
Here's where the "zeitgeist" comes in again
Enter Chris Harman: wealthy, well-connected businessman, record company owner, entrepreneur, and investor.
He has known Jim Fergeeson for many years, through having brought his car in for service. There is a real estate development he advises Fergeeson to get involved in; Harman even clues him into a modern, state-of-the-art garage he might buy; he wouldn't have to do any more of the heavy lifting he has been doing, and which his doctor tells him he is told old to keep doing.
Fergeeson has dreams of running a real, multi-employee enterprise, of being "in on the ground floor" of the future and all that.
Here's the thing: Chris Harman may or may not be a crook. The story never lets us make up our mind about that, one way or the other. It is this ambiguity which helps make this a 'literary' novel, as opposed to a, potentially, 'genre' crime novel.
Also, if you have at least somewhat immersed yourself in the work of Philip K. Dick, in general, then you will be familiar with the element of the paranoid his work often exhibits. Let me just tell you that you will find it appropriate to bring this element to bear when you read "Humpty Dumpty In Oakland."
By the way, I forgot to mention, Al Miller, at one point sets himself up as someone who means to save Jim Fergeeson from himself.
You'll just have to read this quirky, fun novel to see how it all plays out.
Thank you for reading!