Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Great Fall

While I was grabbing Vulcan's Hammer from the library, I also picked up another Philip K. Dick book that grabbed my eye: "Humpty Dumpty in Oakland." With that title, how could I not grab it? I knew nothing about it, and it turned out to be a fascinating counterpart to Vulcan's Hammer. Evidently, Humpty belongs to a set of books that Dick wrote but didn't publish during his lifetime. Unlike his much-better-known sci-fi books, these stories are set in modern times, and feature more realistic plots.

I can't say that I loved it, but it was an interesting and fairly engaging read. The characters in the book are all fairly ordinary people, and while they encounter problems that represent huge stakes for them, they're the sort of huge stakes that you or I might encounter during our lives. Parts of the book were a bit painful to read, when people act self-destructively or come into bitter emotional conflict with others. With Vulcan's Hammer so fresh in my mind, it was easy to pick out the differences between the books: Humpty had a larger cast of characters, who were more realistic and fleshed-out, and we get more insight into people's relationships and thinking (or lack thereof). In trade, we lose the nifty fast-paced plotting of Vulcan's Hammer.

Both books do feature some ambiguities, but in very different ways. Vulcan's Hammer unravels like a mystery: we're presented with a situation, then throughout the course of the novel more facts and alignments are revealed to us, until at the very end we have a clear picture of what has happened. Humpty presents a situation, and throughout the course of the novel we're never entirely sure whether this situation is what it seems or not; as the characters talk with one another and learn more information, they start believing one thing, and then another, leaving a large cloud of doubt hovering over everything like the smog over San Pablo Avenue.

While Humpty isn't a sci-fi book, it does have an interesting perspective on the future that seems very much a part of its time. Dick wrote it in the late 50's and finished in 1960, and the characters within the book share a sense of wonderment and bewilderment at the changes happening in the world around them. The Bay Area is expanding, with brand-new suburbs being created from green fields; older low-tech professions are confronted with modern methods of management and the introduction of post-war technology; even culture is rapidly changing, with people chasing newer forms of recreation. One of the funniest parts of the book comes when one character presents another with the music of the future: electronic barber-shop music. That's right, it's the barber-shop that you know and love, but produced electronically! All the kids will love it, and it will be the soundtrack of the future!

It's also interesting to see race relations depicted in this book. It was written before Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement gained national traction, and doesn't have the political correctness that seems to hover over a lot of later fiction, but also avoids the cringe-inducing invocations of race that we get from authors like Twain. Dick lays out the racial situation in Oakland fairly straight-forwardly: as I imagine was common at the time (and, frankly, often still is today), the city was red-lined into white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods. One of the main (white) characters lives in a mixed neighborhood where both races live; he can live here more cheaply, and he enjoys socializing with African-American people, which the other white characters do not. While the legacy of slavery probably isn't as strong in California as in the south, there's a definite hierarchy in place: a female black character needs to speak very carefully when she's describing her low opinion of a white man, since it goes against the mores of the time. Black characters speak in a dialog with some dialect, but more in the sentence structure than pronunciation; I found myself getting a feel for the cadences and emphases of "black" speech, while not feeling like they were being presented as unintelligent (which, again, is how African-Americans tend to come off when writers like Twain write dialect). While this stuff isn't crucial to the book, it ended up being one of my favorite aspects, because it opened a window on what it might have felt like to live here sixty years ago. (On a more-exotic level, Dick similarly plays with the speech for a major character who hails from Greece.)


Fundamentally, the book revolves around the question of whether Chris Harmon was trying to dupe Jim Fergusson into parting with his money, or if he was genuinely trying to be helpful; in the first case, Al is a tragic hero who is destroyed for doing the write thing; if the latter, Al is an inadvertent villain. From peeking at some online reviews after finishing the book, it seems like the consensus is that Chris was legitimate. That's certainly the note that the book ends on, but I'm still not convinced that we're meant to 100% agree with it. The key bit at the end that planted doubt in my mind was the lawyer mentioning that he was part of Chris's organization. That means he could easily have covered for Chris and convinced Lydia of the venture's legitimacy. It also makes Chris's earlier behavior seem less honorable; early on he had encouraged Jim to consult with his own lawyer before investing, which seemed at the time to be looking out for Jim's interests, but actually would serve to further Chris's goals while reassuring Jim.

I don't necessarily think that Chris was bad; I just think that Dick meant to keep us wondering at the end. It isn't as though Al is anywhere near a reliable character; we never learn why he has all those pills, but I presume that he has some sort of mental imbalance to start with. In the end, Al is just a tiny, limited guy who's fumbling around in the universe, and whether he's right or he's wrong, it feels kind of inevitable that he would come to an ignoble end.


I doubt I'll pick up any other of Dick's books that have this sort of setting, but I'm glad I read this one - it shows another side of the author's prolific output, and also functions as a fascinating time capsule that gives a ground-level look at life in the East Bay of the 1950's.

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