“The time is out of joint; O cursed spite!/That ever I was born to set it right!”–Shakespeare, Hamlet
“The soft-drink stand fell into bits. Molecules. He saw the molecules, colorless, 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.”
Time Out of Joint was Philip K. Dick’s (1928-1982) first hardcover novel published in the United States. I mention this only because Dick was mainly a filler for paperback racks for most of his career and he didn’t really come to take his place as *perhaps* the most respected and most read American sf author until after his death. He didn’t even live to see the first film adaptation of one his books, Blade Runner (based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), finished. And I think we could easily guess that this often reclusive, mostly paranoid writer–who strived to be accepted by the mainstream–would have never guessed that in 2008 he would be one of the most heavily sampled, adapted, lifted from, and cited authors in America. All hail the mighty PKD.
TOJ isn’t Dick’s most clever or thoroughly plotted novel, but it hits at most of his main themes: paranoia, war, inhumanity, and facades. To borrow a metaphor from a friend of mine, his characters are like water bugs that walk tensely above a vast world of truth hidden just beneath the surface. In the case of TOJ, the main character is a man named Ragle Gumm. Gumm lives with his sister, brother-in-law, and nephew in the suburban world of 1959. But Gumm makes a living in an odd way; he’s the grand champion of a newspaper puzzle game called “Where will the little green man be next?” The game itself appears to be completely random. There are 1208 squares to choose from and includes a number of cryptic clues like, “The bell told on tee-hee.” But Gumm is confident in his methodical deconstruction of the clues:
Gibberish, certainly. But it suggested homosexuality. ‘Bell.’ And the ‘tee-hee’ the effeminate laugh of the queer, the belle. And the John Donne sermon with the line, ‘For whom the bell tolls.’ Also a Hemingway book. Tee might be tea. Ring bell, get tea served. Tiny silver bell. Mission! The mission at Capistrano, where the swallows returned to! It fitted.
The first part of the novel then reads, more or less, like a pleasant, not overly critical examination of 50s mores and lifestyles. Until…until the bug breaks the surface tension.
While Gumm is at a soda stand one day, it disappears. All that’s left is a piece of paper with “SOFT-DRINK STAND” written on it. But this isn’t the first time this has happened to Gumm. He also has strips of paper reading: “DOOR,” “FACTORY BUILDING,” “HIGHWAY,” “DRINKING FOUNTAIN,” and “BOWL OF FLOWERS.” Gumm starts to drive himself mad with the idea that the world around him is there only for him–a notion that crosses the mind of most folks at one time or another. And then he finds the first real confirmation. While listening to his nephew’s crystal set he hears people talking about him (you thought The Truman Show thought that up?). Later, he finds a Time magazine from 1997 (remember, this is 1959) that lists Ragle Gumm as “The Man of the Year.” His world falls apart from there. But he’s not going crazy. In fact, for some folks in position of power, the truth of what’s happening is the most terrifying thing: Ragle Gumm is going sane.
**SPOILERS**In reality, it is 1998 and Ragle Gumm is the most important person on the planet. There’s a civil war going on, and Gumm’s brilliant military strategy (the puzzle game) has saved numerous lives…but continued the war. So as he awakens, he faces a moral dilemma about what side to take. He also feels stupid: why hadn’t he ever questioned why he didn’t even know simple things like the name of the city he lived in?**END SPOILERS**
Reading this novel in the context of the other pieces from the 50s on Pringle’s list, it really hit me why Dick has to be considered a genius within the genre. No one before had asked the questions he did or wrote the way he did. This novel, for instance, has no spaceships or overly sweet sexual relationships. Rather, Dick was getting at the core of what makes us human and what makes reality real. Something we’re going to see again–Dick appears six times on Pringle’s list.