Book Review – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K Dick
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is often touted as Philip K Dick’s best novel, which is some recommendation given that he wrote around forty of them in his lifetime. First published in 1965, it is a fast-paced ‘alien invasion’ narrative with a few significant twists. PKD imports a whole heap of his stock material from other novels (precogs, the Printers, ‘Pre Fash’ consultants, drug-induced time travel, to name a few) and ends up blending the material into one of the most impressive creations he put his name to.
Three Stigmata opens on an Earth rapidly heating up for some unspecified reason. Consequently, spending time outdoors in the daytime is impossible and Antarctica has become a resort community. Our main character’s name is Barney Mayerson, a typical PKD everyman who works for one of the most powerful men on Earth-Leo Bulero, owner of P. P. Layouts and trafficker of the illegal drug Can-D. At novel’s opening he is waking up beside Roni Fugate, his new offsider who will end up displacing him in Bulero’s regime. This relationship mirrors a similar one in the slightly-later Ubik, except that here Roni turns out to be a reasonable person after all. We are also introduced to Richard Hnatt and his wife (who is also Barney’s ex-wife) Emily. Finally, we have Leo Bulero himself, a man who seems to echo Arnie Kott from The Man in the High Castle. What I’m trying to say here is that the characters are ‘PKD types’, and while each is crafted carefully, none is particularly unique in the author’s ouevre.
It’s worth noting that while a number of PKD novels, even some of the best ones, take a while to really get going, there is no such time-wasting in Palmer Eldritch. It’s probably as close to a flawless book as he produced in the sixties, which is really saying something as this novel was written during a two year period in which PKD produced eleven novels. That’s one every sixty days. No wonder they don’t always make sense.
What we get in the early part of the novel is PKD’s standard intermingling of narratives, all the while bombarding the reader with information about what life is like in this unspecified future time. We are given to understand that most of the Solar System has been colonised, and that Leo Bulero’s empire is founded on two things: Perky Pat and her boyfriend Walt (they are dolls, like Barbies) and the drug Can-D, which allows users to enter the lives of Pat and Walt. (PKD is imagining The Sims, basically.) Meanwhile, on a hovel on Mars, wretched colonists unlucky enough to have been drafted to the service by the United Nations cling desperately to their empty lives. Their only salvation? Perky Pat and Can-D.
All of this is subject to change when the mysterious Palmer Eldritch, who departed for the Prox system a decade ago, returns to Sol. It seems Eldritch wants to go into competition against Bulero using his own drug, Chew Z, which promises to deliver eternal life. To my mind, Leo Bulero is the real protagonist in this story, not Barney. (As a small aside, it seems to me that the relationship between the two men is fundamentally the same as that described in PKD’s mainstream novels Voices from the Street and Humpty Dumpty in Oakland). Leo gets himself entangled in Eldritch’s web of illusion, from which there can be no real escape. This is where Palmer Eldritch shines the brightest, as these chapters are pure magic. The illusion world allows PKD to dispense with any responsibility to depict events in a realistic way. At heart, this is a strange kind of fantasy writing, not science fiction that someone like Robert Heinlein would have recognised.
As the novel progresses, Palmer Eldritch comes to dominate proceedings to a greater and greater extent. By the end, he appears to have taken over most of the Solar System. The reader is left on an extremely uncertain footing, never knowing what is real. Barney Mayerson, in trying to navigate the illusory world before him, is desperately trying to get back together with his wife Emily, but behind every face lurks the metal eyes of Palmer Eldritch. It’s the stuff of nightmares. There are a number of parallels drawn between situations in the story and Christianity and the Holy Sacrament. There’s talk of sin and atonement in a way that is absent in PKD’s other novels. But for me the real highlights of Palmer Eldritch are the drug worlds themselves, especially the one Barney gets lost in toward the end of the book. And then PKD throws us yet another curveball in the revelation that Barney and Palmer have traded places, and that Barney will the one to be killed by Leo.
This book is hard, perhaps impossible, to fault. From start to finish, this is a well constructed and disorientating novel. While it’s true that the characters are simply PKD’s stocks, there is something unique to this book in the author’s canon. That thing is the presence of pure evil in the form of Palmer Eldritch. I can’t go quite so far as to declare this to be PKD’s best novel though. It’s certainly a prime candidate, but for me, on this reading at least (it’s either my third or fourth reading in ten years), there was something that failed to inspire me. Ultimately, there’s something about Ubik that will continue to fascinate me, and I don’t think Martian Time-Slip will ever be displaced in my mind as being at the top tier of PKD’s novels. But The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch would be in everyone’s top ten, and thus on weight of numbers it’s probably destined to be remembered as the master’s greatest work.