Saturday, March 13, 2010

What A Philip

I didn't like "In Milton Lumky Territory."  I suppose it's partly my own fault.  These days, I virtually never read the back cover or inside jacket for books that I'm about to read; they inevitably give away things that I'd rather keep as surprises, and for many of my favorite authors, they actually get important things wrong.  So, when I saw this book at the library, I focused on the fact that it was written by Philip K. Dick and figured that was enough for me.

I think this might be the first Dick story that I've actually read.  Like everyone else in America, I'm familiar with his stories because of their ubiquitous translation into movies.  (My favorite is probably still Blade Runner, with A Scanner Darkly close behind.)  From what I understand, most of the adaptations have come from short stories of his.  This is the perfect source for a really talented director like Ridley Scott or Richard Linklater, since it gives them a cool plot to play around with, and also enough freedom to make appropriate additions to grow out the story to make it fit the scope of a major movie.  That's a much better approach than the typical novel adaptation in Hollywood, which is all about simplifying and cutting down the more complex source material.

What I'm saying (in a very round-about way) is that In Milton Lumky Territory isn't sci-fi - it's a realist novel.  That isn't necessarily bad, even though it wasn't what I expected.  However, on the whole it was a thoroughly disappointing book. 

I should have taken as a warning the Author's Note at the very beginning.  It's quite brief, and says something like, "This is actually a very funny novel, and a good one, too."  That "actually" ought to have tipped me off... if the author is responding defensively before you've read the first sentence, he knows something's up.  Even with that note in my mind, I didn't think the story was at all funny.  It didn't seem to be trying to be funny, either... maybe it was just being too subtle, but I rarely have trouble detecting subtle humor.  And I didn't think it was all that good.  Oh, from a technical perspective it's just fine - no writing errors, the dialog was fine, and there aren't major unexplained holes in the plot.  But it's pretty boring, and often pointless, and features characters who aren't very remarkable, and on the whole it was a waste of time to read.


Some of this might have been deliberate, perhaps?  Is it ever valid to write a bad book if you want to make a realistic portrayal of a dull subject?  The story is set in the 1950's, and features a commercial buyer who falls in love and decides to work in a typewriter shop.  The book is utterly focused on the feel and pace of 1950's America: small towns that are being encroached upon by national marketers; the federal highway system opening up new freedom of movement for everyone; the relatively insular lives of rural folk, and so on.  So if the point was to communicate how boring the 1950's were by writing a boring book... well, mission accomplished.

I found myself often thinking of The Man Who Wasn't There, and then wishing I was watching that movie instead of reading this book.  There are a lot of similarities between the two.  Billy Bob Thornton is a barber who dreams of opening a drycleaning business; Bruce is a wholesaler who dreams of managing a typewriter shop.  Both are set in the 1950's.  Both look at the attitudes of people in small towns.  However, TMWWT is an interesting movie, where things actually happen, with a character who you genuinely like (or at least are interested in)... it sets the stage with dullness, but the dullness isn't an end within itself, but rather a springboard for some really thoughtful and shocking developments.

The only time that there's any real energy in this book is when Milton Lumky is on the stage.  He shows up for the first time around page 90, and has a total of maybe 25 pages throughout the whole book.  Unlike the other characters, he's at least interesting - he's got a world-weariness about him that he displays acerbically, a weird blend of camaraderie and depression.  He's always a minor supporting character, not someone who you can root for, but at least he livens things up a little.

I get the awful suspicion that Dick started writing this book based on the name alone.  I can just imagine him going, "Milton Lumky.  That's a great name.  I wonder what a character named Milton Lumky would be like?  Hmmm... I bet I could write a story about him!"  His Milton Lumky is as Milton Lumky as you can get; I can't think of a better representation of that character name than what Dick comes up with.  That's nowhere near enough to carry this story.


I'm definitely not going to give up on Dick, but I'll be much more careful before the next time I pick up one of his books, and will definitely go for his science fiction next time.  After I wrapped up the book (it's just over 200 pages, but feels much longer), I finally read the supporting promotional material.  It would have saved me some grief - the best praise they come up with is something like, "Arguably Dick's best realist novel, apart from [some other title]."  Just how many realist novels did he write?  It would be pretty funny if it was just two.

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