Book Review – Time Out of Joint by Philip K Dick
Time Out of Joint, first published in 1959, was the first of PKD’s novels to successfully pose the ‘What is Reality?’ question in a form that was both complex and entertaining. It also represents an attempt on the author’s behalf to fuse his mainstream and speculative outputs together, and in this case that fusion is only partially successful. But more on that later. PKD had tried to pose the question of what constituted reality in several of his previous novels, most notably Eye in the Sky, but here he hit upon a method that made for a more or less successful novel, even it wasn’t a publishing success at the time.
Time Out of Joint is a classic tale of paranoia, set in suburban fifties America. The book features a strong (and small) cast of main characters. Vic Nielson works in a grocery store, while his wife Margo stays at home and looks after their son Sammy. Disrupting this nuclear family is Margo’s brother Ragle Gumm, a strange older man with a bizarre occupation. Living next door is Bill and Junie Black, the former of whom might be more than a city worker, the latter a potential adulterer. There are other characters, but these are the most important ones. Here is a strength of Time Out of Joint: in focusing on these two households, PKD not only sketches a picture of fifties America that has stood the test of time, but also exposes the dark side of suburbia decades before such a line of thinking became a cliche in its own right.
Ragle Gumm is our protagonist, and its hard not to read him as a cipher for the author himself. Forty-six years old (15 years older than the PKD who wrote him into existence), Ragle’s occupation is a bizarre one. He earns his pay by completing a “Where Will the Little Green Aliens Be Next?” quiz in the daily paper, a task which occupies most of his waking hours. We learn that Ragle is under increasing strain to keep up his unbeaten run in the competition, and that he considers this line of work to be juvenile, even somehow shameful. Ragle’s quiz and PKD’s own occupation-writing science fiction stories and novels-share a lot of similarities. If Ragle is PKD’s self portrait, then it is a self-portrait of a (then) future PKD, and a curiously prescient one, as Lou Stahis points out in his (otherwise inflammatory) afterword to this SF Masterworks edition.
Ragle is a man on the cusp of a nervous breakdown, not only due to the strain of his job, but also because of the puzzling phenomena he keeps encountering. Early in the story, when attempting to seduce Junie Black at the local swimming pool, Ragle witnesses a soft-drink stand fading out of existence to be replaced by a piece of paper with the words ‘Soft-Drink Stand’ on it. Turns out that this has happened before; Ragle has a collection of similar slips of paper. Here PKD is thinking of the troubling relationship between words and objects. To make matters worse, it seems that young Sammy has found a few of his own at an empty lot (the Ruins) where he plays with his little friends. Ragle soons pays a visit to the Ruins himself, where he finds part of a phone book and a few old magazines. But none of the numbers in the phone book seem to be connected and the magazines feature a young starlet (Marilyn Monroe) who no one, except for Bill Black, has heard of. Here Time Out of Joint comes to resemble the film that is loosely based on it, The Truman Show, and if this starts to read like a familiar story, we need to remember(as Terry Gilliam says in a quote on the cover of several of these SF Masterworks editions) that PKD got there first.
After the phone book incident, we learn from the point of view of Bill Black that in fact there is something going on, and that Bill himself is an agent of those who would keep Ragle and his family in the dark. Sammy builds his own crystal radio, which he uses to tune into the frequencies nearby. There’s a classic scene where the whole family is in Sammy’s treehouse huddled around the radio. Bill and Junie Black start snooping around down below, and Vic pretends to shoot Bill with a toy gun. Terrified, Bill raises his hands only to discover that the gun is not real. Here PKD frames his ‘What is Reality?’ question perfectly, in a form that is embedded in narrative (unlike, for example, the way it is posed in VALIS), and in a way that makes the paranoia and hostility inherent in suburban life palpable.
If Time Out of Joint begins to lose its momentum henceforth, as it unquestionably does, it is because PKD has to try to find an answer for the almost cosmic paranoia he has brought to life here. The further it goes, and the more the plot is revealed, the less convincing the book gets. This is a shame, as the first half and perhaps two-thirds is first rate. When Ragle and Vic escape their ersatz existence aboard a goods truck, they discover that the US of 1997 (the real year) is in the midst of a war against the Lunatics, or human moon dwellers. Turns out that Ragle’s daily predictions are in fact tied to the daily Lunatic bombings, and that the whole 50s suburban setup has been constructed for his benefit, due to a mental breakdown. Ragle and Vic fall in with a group of teenagers with strange hair and (a laughably poor attempt at) a strange way of speaking. Finally a minor character, Mrs Keitelbein, makes a re-appearance, and it is said that Ragle had intended to side with the Lunatics before he had his nervous breakdown. As the novel draws to a close, he begins to remember his true intentions. Not only is this entire setup completely and utterly unconvincing and unbelievable (we are being asked to believe that 1600 people have voluntarily been brainwashed to form part of Ragle Gumm’s private world, for example), but the ending descends into a talkfest. Worse, there’s absolutely no attempt at explaining how and why a soft-drink stand dissolved and was replaced by a piece of paper. None. Modern readers would assume that Ragle was in a computer simulation, but here we are being asked to believe that in some crucial manner the soft-drink stand actually disappeared. PKD drops the ball big-time here, and it costs him the first real success of his career.
One of the mind-bending aspects of reading Time Out of Joint in 2010 is that we are placed in an even more complex time-bind than PKD intended. We are reading a novel written in 1958, set for the most part in 1958, only to discover that the real year in the novel is 1998. We are separated in time from PKD’s 50s America, but at least we can perceive it to be ‘real.’ PKD’s 1998 is just ridiculous, however, and wafer thin. And thus, in the end, we are left with two-thirds of a truly outstanding ‘novel of menace’ (as the original Lipincott hardcover said on the cover), and one-third pulpy sci-fi. PKD couldn’t quite reconcile the contradictions between the two genres he was trying to straddle in Time Out of Joint, much to the novel’s detriment. It would be another four years, with the publication of The Man in the High Castle, before PKD could achieve this fusion.