Wednesday, August 18, 2010

SF Masterworks #55: Philip K. Dick, Time Out of Joint

Another day, another Dick... no wait, that sentence ended in a scary visual place... So anyway, Time Out of Joint is another one in the long list of PKD books in the SFM series, and another one considered to be among his best. The novel definitely promises a lot, but whether it delivers, or not, is a question of perspective.

The year is 1959. Ragle Gumm is a bachelor "between jobs", who lives with his sister's family in an idyllic neighborhood in small-town America. He contributes to his household by repeatedly winning the "Where will the little green man be next?" daily competition in the morning paper. In fact, he wins that competition every day. And that is not the strangest thing that happens to him. As the novel progresses, his reality continuously shifts. Objects disappear, to be replaced by pieces of paper with the object's name written on them. While playing in an abandoned building, his nephew finds a magazine that talks about a movie star that he has never heard of, and a phone book listing telephone numbers that do not exist. Ragle's '59 seems to differ from what we remember by a lot of other little ways as well, but it is the way everything seems to be centered around him that in the end makes him question his own reality. And that leads to a devastating effect.

Time Out of Joint is the first PKD book to portray characters whose world unravels around them. It is also unique in its '59 setting, as Dick usually preferred an imagined future (even if at times that future was the late 90s). That makes for a strange read, especially if you've read his works before. Dick's description of the time is perfect (not a big surprise, as the book was written in that same year), and I've always had a soft spot for the 50s. They are such a wonderful setting for all sorts of supernatural and horrific events with their happy sunny neighborhoods, happy housewives with happy smiles and happy kids playing with happy dogs while their happy fathers went to their happy work... Creepiness is bound to ensue, and ensue it does in Time Out of Joint.

The plot is energetic and to the point. The book reads very fast, even though for the most part it just shows us Ragle and his daily dawdling, and the mystery surrounding him doesn't allow you to not read the next page.

Ask me where Time Out of Joint fails. Come on, ask me. You know you want to.

Because the book does fail miserably, and for one simple reason - it explains. And the explanation isn't good enough. As much as I hate weirdness for the sake of weirdness, there has to be a level of mystery that remains untouched, some sort of uncertainty to make the reader doubt whether he has understood what it's all about. Time Out of Joint doesn't let you have that. Around its last third, it bluntly explains what the big deal is, why it's all happening and why it's happening to Ragle... And it doesn't make sense. Or rather, it mostly does, but the explanation is neither good, nor engaging enough. It actually has a Heinlein feel to it, and as much as I like Heinlein, a mixture between him and Dick is one hell of a no-no.

In the end, I guess Time Out of Joint was a necessary first step in the road that would lead to such glorious reality-bending works as Ubik, Martian Time-Slip and A Scanner Darkly, but what bugs me is that before Dick forgot to be very stoned and decided to uncharacteristically explain everything in a really failing way, the book is actually amazingly good! The atmosphere works, the mystery works, it all works! But then explanations happen, and with them - unsavory conclusion. Is Time Out of Joint a good novel? I'd still mostly say yes. It is worth reading, and is surely among Dick's better works. But - just like the overhyped The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch - it is not "masterwork" material. I am beginning to think that there is a very specific order in which Philip K Dick's works are to be read if one wants to enjoy the most of them...


  1. I will never understand the fascination and god-like status of PKD! I've only read one book of his that moved me and made me think I'd read it again, Flow My Tears the Policeman Said. A great book, indeed it is but it seems he is way overhyped! Probably because he,like Vonnegut, wrote more social fiction than science fiction.
    I'll read Time out of Joint whren I find a copy, see what I think.

  2. FMTPS is another one that I consider overhyped...

  3. I must admit, I disagree with you that the novel "fails". The point of this novel is following the protagonist as he penetrates through to each new level of understanding about reality. Each time it turns upon it's head his previous understanding.

    Perhaps the ending lacks an ambiguity which would have made it more interesting but other than that I don't see what was "unsavory" about it. I agree that this isn't one of his best, possibly it should not even be in the Masterworks series but I don't think it falls as far short as you suggest.

    And Larry, I think this is one of his novels that you are more likely to enjoy...

  4. To me the problem is that it all collapses when the Revelations come. Half of the things that happen to Raggle prior to that just stop making sense. And even the ones that do feel somehow cheapened by the explanation. At least that was the way I perceived the book.

  5. Thanks for the recommendation Simon, will look out for a copy. And ii didn't know you were on blogger-have you seen my SF blog?

  6. Can't say that I had, but I checked it out now, and it looks pretty cool :) I added it to my blogroll.