Book Review – The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike
Philip K. Dick’s mainstream novels, all but one of which remained unpublished until after his death in 1982, are normally regarded as the poor cousins of his science fiction works. To an extent this attitude is justified, but some of his mainstream novels are better than he is normally given credit for. At the time they were written, in the 50s and the early 60s, these novels were seen as too strange and too bleak to be publishable (and too poorly titled: The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike; really, Phil?) But I for one find a lot to like in some of these novels, especially the later ones. Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is a fine work, even if it is very despairing, and so is The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike (henceforth Teeth).
This must be the second time I’ve read Teeth and the first was a decade ago, so I didn’t remember a lot about it except that it was really depressing. Well, it’s still depressing but not poorly written despite PKD’s sometimes clunky sentence structure. What I noticed this time around was that the book is primarily about the treacherous landscape of gender politics long after WWII but long before second wave feminism. It’s a book about the anxieties of masculinity and the manifold ways that men try to subjugate women: through keeping them jobless in the home; through defining success almost exclusively in career terms; through violence and, if worst comes to worst, through rape. There are some harrowing scenes, but PKD handles this dark material far more adroitly than he had done in the earlier Voices from the Street. In short, I think Teeth is due for some rehabilitation as a serious work not entirely dissimilar to Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road.
PKD almost always used a shifting third person point of view in his novels, and Teeth is no exception. Written when the young (31) PKD had had some minor publishing success in the ghetto of science fiction but none at all in the wider marketplace, the novel mirrors many aspects of PKD’s life at the time in Marin County, California, alongside third wife Anne (who would write of these years in her excellent memoir Search for Philip K. Dick 1928-1982). Here our main characters are two married (but, crucially, childless) couples by the names of Leo and Janet Runcible and Walt and Sherry Dombrosio. According to Anne, these characters are based on real people who lived in Marin County at the time of the novel’s composition. Anne and Phil’s scholarly disagreement over whether Neanderthals were meat-eaters or vegetarians (Phil contended, wrongly, that they were vegetarians) even managed to worm its way into Teeth.
PKD had this way, even in his supposedly straight-laced mainstream novels, of marrying seemingly unrelated elements into a bizarre but cohesive whole. Only PKD could produce a novel that is on one hand about the angst experienced in childless families, and on the other about a hare-brained scheme to fabricate a Neanderthal finding on US soil as a way of getting back at a hated neighbour, and have it make some kind of sense. Teeth weaves together disparate plot strands into a strange but oddly beautiful fabric, including: what it was like for a man to happily work for an advertising company until his wife gets it into her head that she wants a job there too; what it was like to be a Jew, and a relatively successful businessman, in mildly anti-Semitic America; semi-scholarly debate about the origins of the species; the problems of the water supply in Marin County and what fate might have befallen the area’s earliest White inhabitants. And it makes sense. Teeth is not a nice novel by any means, and it paints a gloomy picture of human relations on a number of levels, but it’s a fine novel all the same.