If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who use the words – Philip K. Dick, How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later
It's 1959. Vic and Margo Nielson live in an unnamed American town with their ten-year-old kid, Sammy, and Margo's forty-six year-old brother, Ragle Gumm. Their next door neighbours are the Blacks, Bob and Junie. Vic manages the local supermarket; Bob works for the city's water department; Ragle is…well let's just say he's self-employed at the moment. Add a catchy tune, perhaps with some whistling, a generic title like, 'Meet the Nielsons' and this could be the setup of an undiscovered gem of a sitcom. Only it’s not. These are the main protagonists in Philip K. Dick's novel, Time Out of Joint. And some funny things are happening. Funny strange.
It all begins with a cord pull.
Actually it all began with a cord pull.
Phil came up with the idea for Time when one day in his Francisco Street bathroom he reached for a light cord that wasn't there and never had been there – the light was operated by a light switch. The impulse could be explained as merely freakish, or as a subliminal awareness of alternative worlds. Phil the fiction writer chose the latter. – Lawrence Sutin, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, p95
So, that's where it all began. Now, let's jump to the beginning. The beginning of the book. Well, page 22 actually. Vic Nielson goes into his bathroom and reaches for the cord pull.
"Are you okay?" Margo called. "What happened?"
"I can't find the light cord," he said, furious now, wanting to get his pill and get back to play his hand. The innate propensity of objects to be evasive . . . and then suddenly it came to him that there was no light cord. There was a switch on the wall, at shoulder level, by the door. At once he found it, snapped it on, and got his bottle of pills from the cabinet. A second later he had filled a tumbler with water, taken the pill, and come hurrying out of the bathroom.
Why did I remember a light cord? he asked himself. A specific cord, hanging a specific distance down, at a specific place.
I wasn't groping around randomly. As I would in a strange bathroom. I was hunting for a light cord I had pulled many times. Pulled enough to set up a reflex response in my involuntary nervous system.
Vic's not really the hero of this piece though. Ragle is. But you might have guessed that. What you won't have guessed is how Ragle pays his way. He does the Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next? contest in the local newspaper. Well, actually he wins the Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next? contest. Every day. He's the Grand all-time winner. He's been winning the Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next? contest every day for three years. Well, almost every day. That can't be a coincidence.
It's not guesswork. In fact Ragle works harder than his bother-in-law and his next-door neighbour. He has been collecting material for years. Reference books, charts, graphs, and all the contest entries that he has mailed in before, month after month of them. He compares what he does to completing his annual tax return only every day. The first portrait the reader has of him is startling:
But his face showed such weariness that at once [Margo] forgot about leaving. His eyes, red-rimmed and swollen, fastened on her compellingly; he had taken off his tie, rolled up his shirt-sleeves, and as he drank his beer his arm trembled. Spread out everywhere in the living room the papers and notes for his work formed a circle of which he was the centre. He could not even get out; he was surrounded
Everybody knows Ragle. He's a national hero.
Vic's not the only one who's experiencing . . . what shall we call it? . . . spatial dysfunction. Vic tells Ragle and Ragle talks to Junie who he's having . . . an 'affair' is too strong a word . . . let's just call it a 'relationship' with. She tells him about running up the steps to her house and thinks there's going to be three but there was only two.
Weird, but easy enough to explain away. This conversation takes place in a park Junie and Ragle have slunk off to one afternoon. Ragle then asks if she wants a drink and goes to the soft drink stand to buy one whereupon it’s his turn to experience something odd:
The child ahead of him received its candy bar and raced off. Ragle laid down his fifty-cent piece on the counter.
"Got any beer?" he said. His voice sounded funny. Thin and remote. The counter man in white apron and cap stared at him, stared and did not move. Nothing happened. No sound, anywhere. Kids, cars, the wind; it all shut off.
The fifty-cent piece fell away, down through the wood, sinking. It vanished.
I'm dying, Ragle thought. Or something.
Fright seized him. He tried to speak, but his lips did not move for him caught up in the silence.
Not again, he thought.
It's happening to me again.
The soft-drink stand fell into bits. Molecules. He saw the molecules, colourless, without qualities, that made it up. Then he saw through, into the space beyond it; he saw the hill behind, the trees and sky. He saw the soft-drink stand go out of existence, along with the counter man, the cash register, the big dispenser of orange drink, the taps for Coke and root beer, the ice-chests of bottles, the hot dog broiler, the jars of mustard, the shelves of cones, the row of heavy round metal lids under which were the different ice creams.
In its place was a slip of paper. He reached out his hand and took hold of the slip of paper. On it was printing, block letters.
Turning away, he unsteadily walked back, past children playing, past the benches and the old people. As he walked he put his hand into his coat pocket and found the metal box he kept there.
He halted, opened the box, looked down at the slips of paper already in it. Then he added the new one.
Six in all. Six times.
Hallucinations are one thing but hallucinations that you can pick up afterwards! Maybe he only imagined the slip of paper. That's always a possibility. But how do you explain the slips his nephew discovers in the ruins? "Three city lots of cement foundations that had never been pried up by bulldozers. The houses themselves – or whatever buildings there had been – had long since been torn down. Years ago, from the weathered, cracked, yellowed blocks of concrete." And that's not all they find there; a phone book and two glossy magazines also make an appearance. Once dried out these raise a few interesting questions of their own, for example, who is this Marilyn Munro person and why have none of them seen any of her films?
Is Ragle mentally ill? Yes. And it's vitally important that he stays so.
When Time Out of Joint was first published in 1959, the J. B. Lippincott Company changed its title (it was originally called Biography in Time) and marketed it, not as a science fiction novel but as a "novel of menace". It did not sell well which is a shame because it is an absolute page turner only let down by a rushed ending. And to be fair, if you're new to Philip K. Dick, this might not be your first choice but it wouldn't be a bad choice.
Frederik Pohl, in the November 1959 issue of If, found it a “most uneven book” though possessing a “masterful opening.” But he complained that the novel “doesn’t exactly end. It disintegrates.” And I agree totally. Still, he found that “Time Out of Joint is science fiction, all right, and fine of its kind in the first hundred-odd pages.” What is interesting is that Don Wollheim at Ace, who was given first refusal on the book, only wanted to keep the last chapter and have Dick build back from that point.
Film adaptations have made Dick a household name but in his own time and country he was neither that well known nor, despite the occasional award, particularly appreciated until June 25, 1982 when Ridley Scott's adaptation of his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – with the much snappier title of Blade Runner – was released in the United States, although even that classic was not an immediate and unqualified success. Not that it would have mattered because on March 2nd Dick died as a result of a massive stroke he received five days earlier.
Dick sold his first story in 1952. From that point on he wrote full-time, selling his first novel in 1955. From 1952 to 1958 he wrote eight mainstream novels but the 1950s proved to be a difficult time for him. He once said, "We couldn't even pay the late fees on a library book." By the mid-seventies he was being paid a reasonable sum for his books but he was still a frustrated man in many ways. You see Dick never really wanted to be a science fiction writer. In 1957 he told two editors that he was giving up science fiction and in 1960 he wrote that he was willing to "take twenty to thirty years to succeed as a literary writer" but any dreams of mainstream success were scuppered when in January 1963 the Scott Meredith Literary Agency returned all of his unsold mainstream novels. Only one of these works, Confessions of a Crap Artist, was ever published during Dick’s lifetime.
We writers write about what we know, even if we argue that we don't:
The one who is preoccupied by little green men can be a metaphor for the science fiction writer. But it seems to me that this novel is not simply the expression of Dick's bitterness as he spends exhausting days producing what is socially perceived to be sub-literature for late-blooming adolescents. – Yves Potin, Four Levels of Reality in Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint
Time Out of Joint is an attempt at compromise because the science fiction side to the story only creeps in slowly and it's really not until the last forty pages that he (and we) get most of our questions answered although those pages raise a load of questions on their own that never get answered. Up until then this is a book about America in the 1950s and he passes comment on a lot of things while he's slipping his clues into the text. This is not a whodunit, though, but more of a what-the-Jesus-Mary-and-Joseph-is-going-on-here?
It is easy to dismiss this book and go for some of Dick's better known titles like A Scanner Darkly or the soon to be filmed Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Or if you prefer shorter works then how about 'The Minority Report' or the novelette We Can Remember It for you Wholesale (better known as Total Recall)? They all deal with the same theme (albeit in their own ways): what is real? This question is raised in a number of ways in Time Out of Joint. Take this brief example:
At the dinner table, as they all ate, Ragle Gumm sat deep in thought. Across from him, Sammy yammered on about his club and its powerful machinery of war. He did not listen.
Words, he thought.
Central problem in philosophy. Relation of word to object . . . what is a word? Arbitrary sign. But we live in words. Our reality, among words not things. No such thing as a thing anyhow; a gestalt in the mind. Thingness . . . sense of substance. An illusion. Word is more real than the object it represents.
Word doesn't represent reality. Word is reality. For us, anyhow. Maybe God gets to objects. Not us, though.
In his coat, hanging up in the hall closet, was the metal box with the six words in it.
BOWL OF FLOWERS
When I first read that I never thought much about the list and even when his nephew's three slips of paper are added – GAS STATION, COW and BRIDGE – I still never considered the consequences. What might happen if you tried to go through a DOOR that was really only represented by a bit of paper? Or, even worse, what if you tried to drive over that BRIDGE?
Early on in the book Ragle has this conversation with his brother-in-law:
Ragle said, "I've read some, in my time. I was thinking of Bishop Berkeley. The Idealists. For instance--" He waved his hand at the piano over in its corner of the living room. "How do we know that piano exists?"
"We don't," Vic said.
"Maybe it doesn't."
Vic said, "I'm sorry, but as far as I'm concerned, that's just a bunch of words." [italics mine]
And then toward the end of the book he shows his slips to him:
"What's this?" Vic said.
"Reality," Ragle said. "I give you the real."
Vic took one of the slips of paper out and read it. "This says 'drinking fountain,'" he said. "What's it mean?"
"Under everything else," Ragle said. "The word. Maybe it's the word of God. The logos. 'In the beginning was the Word.' I can't figure it out. All I know is what I see and what happens to me. I think we're living in some other world than what we see, and I think for a while I knew exactly what that other world is. But I've lost it since then. Since that night. The future, maybe."
And don't get me started on the Freudian and literary references throughout the book but do watch out for the references to childhood throughout the work. There's an essay online if you're interested on the book's connections with T. S. Eliot's, 'The Hollow Men', for instance (see the links below).
In an interview Dick had this to say about how his interest in philosophy started:
In college I was given Plato to read and thereupon became aware of the possible existence of a metaphysical realm beyond or above the sensory world. I came to understand that the human mind could conceive of a realm of which the empirical world was epiphenomenal. Finally, I came to believe that in a certain sense the empirical world was not truly real, at least not as real as the archetypal realm beyond it. At this point I despaired of the veracity of sense-data. Hence in novel after novel that I write I question the reality of the world that the characters' percept-systems report. – Philip K. Dick on Philosophy: A Brief Interview with Frank C. Bertrand
The simple fact is that the man was well read and had things to say and, like all us writers, he used his writing to work out what it was he was trying to say. I'm not sure he ever got it straight in his head or on paper but then he was interested in complicated things. I mean, hands up any of you who could even take a stab at guessing what 'epiphenomenal' means in this context? You can see a comprehensive list of his influences here. His science fiction, mainstream novels, philosophical essays and Gnostic diaries form such a significant body of work that prompted Ursula LeGuin to call its author “our own home-grown Borges.”
I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in Philip K. Dick. His writing has its faults, the main one being that he wrote so damn fast, a truism among Dick-heads, but he didn't have the luxury of being able to spend five years on a novel. He had to put food on the table. He was paid $750 for Time Out of Joint. Not a great sum even back in 1959 – his more commercial science fiction novels usually paid upwards of $1000 at that time.
Looking back, especially after we've been exposed to the likes of The Matrix and The Truman Show, it might be hard to see what was so important about this novel. If I can end with a sweeping and unsubstantiated statement: I don't think we would have had either without it.
I usually end these articles with a brief bio but I've found it next to impossible to write a meaningful bio in only a few hundred words. It just winds up as a list. You can find a fairly brief biography here. Some highlights of his life are: he was a twin whose sister died in infancy due to his mother's neglect; he was married five times; he had three kids (Laura, Isa and Chris); he suffered from depression, agoraphobia, vertigo, introversion, hypertension and paranoia; during the months of February and March of 1974 he had a number of "visions and auditions" that changed the direction of his life; he wrote 36 novels, 121 short stories, and 14 short story collections (a complete list can be found here); the FBI were watching him and he believed they burgled his house; in the early days he regularly took amphetamines to help him write but he spoke out against drugs in later life; in a previous life he was a secret Christian called Thomas who was killed by being garrotted; he attempted suicide a number of times… You get the idea.
http://www.philipkdick.com/ - official site
http://www.philipkdickfans.com/ - unofficial site
The Secret Of The Soft-drink Stand Explained At Last! by Patrick Clark
Plot Summary of Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint by Brian Davies
Between the Idea and the Reality: the Hollow Men in Time Out of Joint by Frank C. Bertrand
Charles Van Doren and the Rip in the Fabric of Reality by Bhob Stewart
Afterward to Time Out of Joint by Lou Stathis
Philip K. Dick on Philosophy: A Brief Interview with Frank C. Bertrand
This is an expanded version of the review that originally appeared on the Canongate site.