Some have said that we are living in a “short story golden age,” which just goes to show you how little sense of history most people have. If I had to guess, I’d bet this label is the result of our industrialized higher ed system churning out MFAs who, lost in the desert of their own unemployment, seek succor in the founding and editing of online literary “journals.” So sure, there are lots and lots of short stories being published (online). Very few of those places pay anything at all for those stories, of course, and those that do almost never end up paying anything like a fair wage for the work of writing.
Maybe I’m naïve, but part of any “golden age” should include a living wage. The last time that was possible was the pulp era, late 1910s-30s, before paper shortages in WWII and the invention of the paperback killed ‘em dead. Those were the glory days when an industrious writer cranking out 10,000 words a month could make a living as an honest-to-God writer. Sure, a lot of it was crap, but you can’t tell me our current Genius-to-Shit ratio is any better today. Have you read modern short stories?
Philip K. Dick would’ve killed in the early 20th century, where quantity was its own quality and his punishing pace could have translated to real money. However, he came of age as a writer in the fifties, which meant two things: 1) he was writing after the pulps had been strangled, and 2) the post-WWII GI Bill was funding a second wave of Serious Literary Intellectualism, sharpening the boundary between hack work and Literature.
Dick dreamt of literary fame, the kind English departments are built on. His sci-fi was a way to pay the bills (poorly, it turned out) but what he wanted was to be an Author. To this end, he wrote at least eleven novels in the 50s and early 60s, all but one of which remained unpublished until after his death.1
Confessions of a Crap Artist, PKD’s only “literary” novel published in his lifetime, is pretty good so long as you don’t go in expecting the sort of cosmic weirdness he’s since become famous for. It’s a bit A Confederacy of Dunces (only not so atmospheric) and a bit Infinite Jest (only good), so it’s not surprising that it was translated into a French movie, Confessions d’un Barjo (Barjo in its English language release) in 1992. Fair warning: Barjo was only ever released on VHS. Luckily I live in Austin TX, a place deeply in love with obsolete formats of all stripes, and so I was able to find both movie and player.
PKD’s novel is narrated by different characters in different chapters, as well as occasional dips into omniscient third-person narration, letting you explore a variety of interior lives caught in decaying orbits around the collapse of a family. The main character is Jack Isidore.2. Jack is an archetypal Fortean with interests in UFOs, fringe science, conspiracy theories, and meticulous note-taking. In keeping with his usual heavy-handed symbolism, Dick drops Jack Isidore into the Central Valley farm town of Seville, California. If you’re up on your Catholic saints, the name evokes St. Isidore of Seville, a famously scholarly archbishop considered to be the last of the ancient Christians.
Saint Isidore wrote the famous Etymologiae, the first attempt by a Christian thinker to assemble a book of universal knowledge, which is the sort of work Jack Isidore sees himself doing. As an aside, because of his interest in cataloguing all human knowledge, St. Isidore of Seville has been suggested as a good candidate for being made the official Patron Saint of the Internet. Personally, I think it’s nice to put a face and name to whoever we’ve all been silently praying to when someone wants to type a URL into our browser.
Anyway, In between his more mundane tasks, Jack keeps a detailed field book relating his observations on other people in the wild. He is fundamentally a natural historian, someone whose world view assumes that there is some basic hidden order to what appears to be a chaotic universe. Jack’s rationality is so absolute, it’s insane.
After a fire at his apartment at the beginning of the book, Jack goes off to live on a farm owned by his sister Fay and her husband, Charlie Hume. The family Hume is at war with itself; Charlie is a deeply misogynistic asshole who cannot understand his wife’s desire for independence and is infuriated by his inability to relate to her. He’s abusive, self-deluded, and petty.
Fay Hume née Isidore is one of Dick’s “difficult” woman/wife characters. At face-value, she’s a harridan with no respect for her husband’s masculinity or his role in society, the kind of ball-busting straw-feminist you see a lot of sadsack fedora-dudes whinging on about on these days. If you were really committed to the work, you could reinterpret Fay Hume as a feminist anti-heroine, a femme fatale from an old noir who, after the credits had rolled and the lights gone up, got caught in a trap of domesticity and was working to get herself free, but you’d be reading against Dick rather than with him in that interpretation.
I’ll spare you my half-baked Saint Isidore of Seville vs. David Hume Compatibilist theory of the Jack Isidore/Charlie Hume interactions (yer welcome), but I will say that Dick uses the spaciousness of a novel to really do some serious character studies here. These characters have conversations, both with each other and with themselves, and Dick’s usually spare prose was deployed with careful consideration of rhythm and effect. It’s evident that what some people interpret as Dick’s pedestrian writing in his short fiction is a product of him just wanting to get that fucker in the can and move on; given the freedom of time and the opportunity to focus, Dick’s prose is pretty good, even in an earlier work like this one.
Plot-wise too, it’s a solid piece or work: darkly humorous, a bit gloomy, but immediate. The differing viewpoint narrators in alternating chapters are handled well, each having a distinct voice and defined relationships, which is no small feat. It’s at least as good as the last half-dozen modern “literary” novels I’ve read (faint praise, I know). I don’t want to get to spoiler-y since I reckon most folks haven’t read it. It’s worth digging up, especially as it wrestles with a lot of Dickian themes in a very low-key way – ideas about identity and one’s place in the world, think-y shit like that. I’ll also say that the ultimate fate of Charlie Hume is pretty satisfying.
Barjo, like all film adaptations, carves the book down to its bare essentials in order to fit into its running time. Ably played by some pretty good French character actors, the script does a good job navigating around the central question of Dick’s original work: how do individuals cope with their assigned roles in society? There’s a cute nod to Dick’s sci-fi career in which the main character tries to understand Charles and Fanfan’s (the movie versions of Charlie and Fay) relationship through a Star Trek-type show he’s watching on TV. They go in a weirdly sappy direction for the ending, and change Charles/Charlie Hume’s character trajectory pretty substantially, but it’s a solid PKD adaptation. Good luck finding it, though.
Confessions of a Crap Artist is a sad book though, not only in itself but also for what it represents in Dick’s life. It’s probably at least partly autobiographical, since it coincides with one of Dick’s unhappy marriages and his time on a farm, but it also signifies a body of work that he essentially gave up on. He couldn’t get his literary novels published to save his life, and when he won a Hugo for The Man in the High Castle, his trajectory as a sci-fi guy was set.
Obviously, we’re all glad that he would go on to explore his particular damage in new and interesting speculative-fiction-y ways, for sure, but there’s an interesting counterfactual history where Dick got his more down-to-earth stuff out there, and went on to a “Literary” career. As part of his oeuvre, though, Confessions of a Crap Artist is an important piece of the puzzle, a deeply personal book that, for a while, was the secret bedrock in which Dick would sink the foundations of his more speculative work.
As a service, here’s a list of Dick’s non-genre writing, gleaned from a handful of sources: The Earthshaker 1948? (Lost Manuscript); Voices from the Street 1952? (2007); Mary and the Giant 1953 (1988); A Time for George Stavros 1955 (Lost Manuscript); Pilgrim on the Hill 1956 (Lost Manuscript); The Broken Bubble of Thisbe Holt 1956 (1988); Puttering About in a Small Land 1957 (1985); In Milton Lumky Territory 1958 (1985); Confessions of a Crap Artist 1959 (1975); The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike 1960 (1986); Humpty Dumpty in Oakland 1960 (1986). ↩
A character with the same name and pretty similar characteristics shows up in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep ↩