Review of Puttering About in a Small Land by Philip K. Dick
Puttering About is minor PKD. One of his sidelined realist novels.
A quiet, marital struggle in a normal American suburb. It oozes nostalgia for a lost time and place, like an old sitcom, where ‘traffic jam’ refers to fifteen cars on the expressway and people still do things like get their television repaired, instead of just buying another one.
It deals with regular sorts of people in regular sorts of jobs. In a way, they have been puttering about most of their lives. I know from experience working in retail, even a generation or two removed from Dick’s time, you do feel like you are just puttering about in a small land much of the time. I ran a store for a year or so, and like the television salesman in this book, I just felt like I was the ruler of this Lilliputian island, trying to come up with busy work, waiting for customers to show up, letting my imagination run wild, trying to find some sense in it all. The character’s sad desperation feels very familiar, and it is the modus operandi of the seemingly impulsive actions contained within the novel. The excitement in life does not come from work, it comes from the trouble and the people outside of work, we are led to believe. Work is a quiet place, Dick seems to say, where almost nothing happens, where paper is shuffled around, products dusted off, customers given the sales pitch.
I believe Dick himself, at some point, worked at a record store, (detailed in Mary and the Giant) and probably other retail places. He was not a wealthy writer or even a full-time writer right off the bat. He never has that detached air of someone commenting on a society they were barely a part of. He was clearly mixed in with these people he writes about. The wild science fiction adventures he indulged in, and the mysticism later on, are reactions to the realism he faced. They are his way of processing the powerlessness he felt in the American way of life, perhaps, and to stake his claim on greatness. Therefore, his realist novels should not be undervalued. Luckily, they are a blast to read, but probably don’t have the same re-readability as his genre works.
I revere this author’s great novels, and I still enjoy his minor novels and very impressive short stories. What he does well in his realist novels is get in his characters’ heads. He taps into an addictive stream of thought, which serves as a delicious vehicle of storytelling. No matter which character is front and center, you get to know them intimately. This intimacy runs through the bulk of his writing, and despite this book’s uneven structure, sustains the tension throughout it.
The main flaw of the novel, I think, is the focus on Greg, the couple’s child in the beginning. Dick fools you into thinking he is going to tell the story from multiple perspectives, and it even mentions that fact on the product description, but really, for most of the book, the focus is on the two main characters, and occasionally, the third woman in the triangle. You can expect there to be an adulterous relationship, can also see it coming, but that is a common theme throughout the author’s work.
I believe that Dick’s work grows finer with age. He encapsulates his time so well that when I tire of the gloss and sheen of contemporary science fiction, with the glib characters set aboil on a froth of the accumulated s-f gestalt, flailing in space stations and time leaps and intergalactic civilizations, I often wish to go back to the simpler time, the simpler themes, and the powerful characters Dick does so well. The same goes for realist novels. What realist novel DOESN’T have an adulterous relationship in it? But instead of making use of literary whirligigs, Dick confronts you plainly, but brilliantly, with his characters’ hearts and minds.
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