Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick is probably one of the most famous science fiction writers to ever live, but few people remember his name.  At least ten of his stories have been made into motion pictures, but few people who have seen those films took the time to read the stories the films were based on.  Philip K. Dick was the first science fiction author to be published by Library of America, which seeks to issue the best American writers in uniform, durable and authoritative editions.  But when I bring up the name Philip K. Dick among my bookworm friends, most ask, who? 

Why isn’t PKD more famous?  The easy answer is writers seldom become famous, even though most writers hope for literary immortality.

Movie stars, music stars, sports stars become household names with the citizens of our pop culture, but few writers do, and especially not science fiction writers. Philip K. Dick knew this back in the 1950s when he began writing.  He wanted to be more than just a science fiction writer selling stories to pulp magazines for a half cent a word.

How do writers become famous?  Write an unforgettable novel!  What’s the formula for doing that?  Did Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott know that formula when they wrote Pride and Prejudice, A Christmas Carol and Little Women, stories so famous they get a new film adaptation every decade or two?  Philip K. Dick’s success with getting filmed should have made him more famous, but it hasn’t.

Fame is of little value itself, other than to draw attention to artistic work that might be worthy of our attention.  That’s what all artists really want, to create something worthy of fame.  Philip K. Dick didn’t figure his pulp writing was worthy of literary fame, so he wrote a series of mainstream novels in the 1950s hoping to prove his writing ability at observing real life in Marin County, California.  Only one of those novels was even published during his lifetime, Confessions of a Crap Artist.  Phil’s fame rest entirely on his science fiction, and among science fiction fans, PKD had the reputation for being weird even among the denizens of the geeky, nerdy world of science fiction fandom.  I think that’s a shame because Confessions of a Crap Artist is probably his best and most sane book.

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Here I am claiming that one of a minor writer’s least famous books is his best.  How can that be?  I’m claiming that Confessions of a Crap Artist is as least as good as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, another book about marital conflict I’ve recently read.  And although I admired Freedom a good bit, I think Dick reveals better writing techniques for getting inside his characters’ heads than Franzen.  Freedom is more contemporary, sophisticated, and larger in scope, and thus more suited to modern readers, but my life resonates with Confessions of a Crap Artist, so I loved it more.

To me, the goal of literary novels, as oppose to genre novels, is to observe a place and time, and get into the heads of people to chronicle their emotion conflicts and growth.  Most bookworms prefer made up fictional worlds that have complicated plots and exciting characters that offer a thrill ride for their readers.  Often genre fans find literary novels to be about nothing in particular, and fans of genre novels, even fans of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novels, may find Confessions of a Crap Artist boring. 

Confessions of a Crap Artist is about Fay and Charley Hume’s marriage falling about and how it’s observed by Fay’s brother. Jack Isidore, a rather oddball child man in his thirties who sees the world in a peculiar fashion.   Jack is a science fiction fan, flying saucer nut, believer in crackpot ideas, thinks the world is hollow,  that Mu and Atlantis existed, that people can receive telegraphic messages.  He think fiction offers just as much scientific evidence about reality as nonfiction.  Charley Hume calls Jack a crap artist for all his weird ideas.  Jack Isidore’s extremely literal view of reality, and his poor social skills makes me wonder if Dick had known someone with Asperger’s.  That should appeal to modern readers.  There are end of the world cults and mad shooters in this story too, that might also appeal to modern readers.  There’s a lot to 1959 that’s very much like 2013, and that might be a selling point too.

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So why should you read this book?  If publishers didn’t want to publish Confessions of a Crap Artist when Dick wrote it back in 1959, why should you want to read it now?  Internet Science Fiction Database shows it’s had a dozen editions from 1975-2012.  Now that’s interesting.  And that’s not even counting the audiobook edition I just listened to or foreign editions with alternate titles.  What’s going on here?  I’ve heard that 99% of all books never have a second printing, much less a second edition.  Could Confessions of a Crap Artist be a minor underground classic?

I first read Confessions of a Crap Artist when it came out back in the mid-seventies, and was very impressed then.  I read a couple more of PKD’s mainstream novels and thought they captured the 1950s wonderfully, but then I forgot about them.  Recently many of PKD’s novels have been getting new uniform editions in book, ebook and audiobook formats and I bought several on sale from Audible.com.  I started listening to Confessions of a Crap Artist just before New Year and was mesmerized by the writing.  Peter Berkrot narration for the audiobook perfectly captured the first person inner thoughts of the four main characters, Jack Isidore, his sister Fay, her husband Charley, and Fay’s lover Nat Anteil.

The book also captured many wonderful details that I remember about the 1950s.

Why remember the year 1959?   You could read 1959: The Year Everything Changed by Fred Kaplan, a book I’ve read twice because it’s so fascinating.  You could read some of the books that came out in 1959 to try and capture the feel of that year, but if you look at the list I linked to at Wikipedia, many of the books that came out that year weren’t about 1959, they were science fiction books about the future, like Starship Troopers or The Sirens of Titan, or they were best sellers like Psycho and Goldfinger, which I hope aren’t the real 1959, or books like The Tin Drum or Hawaii, which are histories of earlier times.

I remember 1959, but just barely.  I was 7 until November 25th, when I turned 8.  I was living in New Jersey at the time.  But over in California, Philip K. Dick was living in Marin County, and he wrote a book about life in his place and time that captures 1959 better than anything I’ve ever read before.  So why would a science fiction writer back in 1959 want to write about suburban life?  Well, Philip K. Dick told his publisher that he was quitting science fiction to write mainstream novels.  He wrote several novels before giving up, and returned to writing science fiction.  When he did, he wrote is science fiction masterpiece, The Man in the High Castle, which won a Hugo Award.  I’m thinking 1959-1960 was a peak creative period for PKD.

So you might be wondering by now, why I would be trying to convince you to read a book that no publisher wanted when it was written, and was only published by a small press just seven years before the writer died in 1982, and is over 50 years old.  Shouldn’t it be lame and dated?  For some reason Confessions of a Crap Artist amazed me.  It has a 3.63 average rating over that GoodReads, so not everyone is impressed.

Why am I so impressed and others aren’t?  I hate to encourage you to go buy a book and that you read and think, “What is that Harris talking about?  This book stinks!”

I’ve been reading and rereading books by Philip K. Dick most of my life.  I’ve read biographies about him, read countless articles and interviews about and with him, listened to tapes of his conversations and I even visited his gravesite.   I now think Confessions of a Crap Artist is Philip K. Dick’s best book.  First published in 1975, but written in 1959, and in late 2012 appeared on audio from Brilliance Audio, running 8 hours and 13 minutes.

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This still doesn’t answer:  Why remember the year 1959?  I’m not talking about nostalgia.  When we read Pride and Prejudice, are we learning about 1813?  When we read The Great Gatsby are we exploring 1925?  When we read The New Testament, are we time traveling back to 70 AD?  Yes and no.  A photograph or film of 1925 or 1959 is more revealing of what reality was like than a novel or even a nonfiction book.  Books give us words and ideas from a writer long ago.  So Confessions of a Crap Artist is really a tour of the mind of Philip K. Dick in 1959.  PKD was a certain kind of reporter about a very specific place and time.

Now I’ve mentioned before Dick was a weird guy.  He has a reputation for being weird, but Confessions of a Crap Artist is vivid, exact and very sane.  It’s a sane book about how everyone is crazy to one degree or another.  At first you think Jack Isidore is the only Joker in the deck, but as you read on, and get into the heads of the characters, you realize there are no normal people in this story.  By the time you finish the book you might be thinking there are no normal people in this world.

This is the second time I’ve “read” Confessions of a Crap Artist, or more precisely, I listened to it this time, and the narrator Peter Berkrot made it come alive in a vivid dramatic reading that caught the four principal characters perfectly.  Confessions of a Crap Artist is told through four first person accounts in a round robin order, so the reader feels like they’re inside the heads of Jack Isidore, his sister Fay Hume, her husband Charley, and Fay’s lover Nat Anteil.  This works much better on audio I think, especially with Peter Berkrot’s reading, because you actually feel the different personalities.  PKD did a fantastic job of thinking in different POVs.

Philip K. Dick is famous for writing science fiction, but Confessions of a Crap Artist isn’t science fiction.  To the public outside of the science fiction community, Philip K. Dick is known for several movies based on his novels:  Blade Runner, Total Recall, Screamers, Minority Report, Impostor, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, Radio Free Albemuth and The Adjustment BureauConfessions of a Crap Artist was filmed in France in 1992 as Confessions d’un Barjo.  It’s not available on Netflix and is out of print at Amazon, but some used VHS copies are available.

Charlie Hume calls his brother-in-law a crap artist because Jack Isidore collects facts about the world that most people consider nutty, stupid or insane.  Jack looks to his science fiction magazines for scientific validation of reality.  He’s involved with flying saucer cults, and hangs out with people who channel past lives and believes higher beings are preparing the end of the world for Earth.

I remember my uncles talking about Bridey Murphy, George Adamski, Edgar Cayce, and other writers who used to pray on crap artists of the 1950s.  I thought my uncles were nuts.  Most people think the 1960s was when times got wild, but the real 1950s wasn’t Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best, it was much closer to The Twilight Zone.

Of course, I was a science fiction fan back then, and that was considered pretty nutty too.  Another thing I remember from the late 1950s and early 1960s, was how everyone wanted to go to a psychiatrist.  Fay Hume goes to her analyst three times a week and brags about it.  Fay does not work, takes care of two little girls, but uses her charm, good looks, and manipulative ways, to get ahead.  On the outside Fay is a model wife, community organizer, and charming.  Charley, her husband thinks she’s a psychopath.  Nat, her lover thinks of her as childish and willful, but totally alluring.  Jack, her brother sees Fay in a particular strange analytical way.

Charley Hume was like a lot of men I remember from back then, he was obsessed about getting ahead, owning a big car and house, and having a beautiful wife and kids to show off.   Think Don Draper from Mad Men.  Finally, Nat Anteil, is the young college kid who could have been a beatnik.  He worked part time, him and his wife rode bikes, wore jeans, and wanted to be intellectuals.  In a few years they would become hippies probably.  Confessions of a Crap Artist reveals itself as an embryo of the 1960s.  The 1960s wasn’t that radically different from the 1950s if you knew where to look for the seeds of the sixties.

On the Road, which came out in 1957 has a reputation for being the bible of the Beats, and people remember it as one of the defining books about the 1950s.  But it was really about the 1940s.  Ditto for A Catcher in the Rye, another 1950s classics.  I think Confessions of a Crap Artist is a detail painting of 1959.

Maybe given enough time Philip K. Dick will be remembered for his literary efforts in the 1950s, not because he wrote about the future, but because he wrote about the moment, his life in 1959.  I’d love to know more about his life then and who the models were for Jack, Fay, Charley and Nat.

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JWH – 1/7/13

12 Responses

  1. I’m not sure that I buy the argument that “few people remember his name.” I’m often in contact with English student circles and he’s ALWAYS read in one class or another. In terms of a sci-fi author known to a wider public I suspect he’s in the top three or four…. Yes, often people read only a few of his works…. But, more than most.

  2. That’s interesting. I’ve never met anyone who’s had to read PKD for an English class. Oh, I think Dick is among the most famous of science fiction writers, but I wouldn’t think 1 in a 100 of Americans would know who he was. I just did a Google search on “Philip K. Dick” using the quotes and got 4,860,000. I did “Jack White” and got 14,400,000. He has minor fame in the music world. I did “Lady Gaga” and got 287,000,000. I did “Roy Orbinson” who had a couple hits back in the 1960s. He got 8,290,000.

    If you’re part of a certain subculture, PKD might be well known. But I think in the world at large he’s pretty much an unknown. That’s partly due to the lack of fame that writers get.

    • Strange, he is read in virtually all genre fiction classes in college. My fiance, an English major a handful of years ago, read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik for class — at the University of Texas. And, due to the movies, people read his novels…

  3. We just watched the latest Director’s Cut of Blade Runner. I think it’s called “The Final Cut Edition” and I was so upset that PKD’s name doesn’t appear in the pre-movie credits. The screenwriters that adapted the book got credit before the movie, but PKD is only in the after movie credits. Kind of ridiculous!

    • That’s a shame. PKD’s name should be on the main screen and box cover. I bought a special edition of Blade Runner that I think has 7 different editions. My favorite is still the theatrical release.

  4. [...] Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick (jameswharris.wordpress.com) [...]

  5. I’m actually reading one of his books at the moment, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and I’m enjoying it so far. I was surprised to see a very similar name – you mention Jack Isidore and there’s a John Isidore in this story. Clearly he liked that name!
    Lynn :D

    • I noticed the two Isidores too. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has always been one of Philip K. Dick’s most popular and admired books, but I’m now thinking Confessions of a Crap Artist, which is practically not known by his fans, is really his best book.

  6. [...] Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick (jameswharris.wordpress.com) [...]

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