After reading a couple “young adult” novels and a couple of mysteries, I hopped back into vintage science fiction with Philip K. Dick’s The Man Who Japed. It was first published in 1956. It is the ninth PKD novel that I have read. Straightaway, let me share that I give this novel three stars. This is not unusual – this seems to be my standard rating for a PKD novel. However, I do think that although this novel contains all of the “standard” PKD elements, it is not one of his finest works. Still, it is worth reading and I do recommend it to most readers.
All of the elements that make PKD novels “PKD Novels” are included in this one. Because this is one of his earlier works, I think that maybe some of the elements are a bit messier and choppy than in some of his truly excellent novels. Frankly, though the reader of PKD should be comfortable with his in media res action thrillers, this one did seem even more challenging for the reader to get a foothold. I think I was well into chapter six or seven before I was feeling much of the story.
The thing is, it is difficult to read PKD without knowing something about the novels. I knew something of what this novel was about because this is 2016 and there is an Internet and I read a lot. By this I mean: yeah, I knew the basic broad strokes here. However, I did try to imagine a reader approaching this novel without that knowledge and I do think they would not get very far with it or it would frustrate them a little too much. Needless to say, I think this, early work or not, should not be one of the first novels a reader reads of this author.
The novel is set in 2114 and the main character is Allen Purcell, a late-20s administrator in a corporation designed to produce propaganda for the Committee. Society, after a terrible worldwide war, has fallen to a totalitarian state as directed by a South African military general named Streiter. Streiter assumed control of society by enacting “Moral Reclamation” policies. These policies are basically forms of Puritanical reduction. The totalitarian government operates mass surveillance and, through propaganda and coercion, enforces an oppressive moral code. In 2114, the government is led by a descendant of Streiter, Ida Pease Hoyt.
Elements of PKD that readers should recognize: Purcell’s life is nearly totally demolished and deconstructed. He is backed into situations in which there is no escape or option. PKD was merciful because in this novel, Purcell manages to keep his wife. Purcell fights against the current government by subversive actions and mild disobedience. But he is no saintly hero. It seems his rôle is almost coincidence.
Another element is that of the oppressive and ever-intrusive government. PKD is forever afraid and suspicious of who the government really is and what their actions are. It is really very strong in this novel and it does parallel the Orwell novel 1984. Still, the novel ends with hope for the citizens regarding this totalitarian government. Not jaded and bitter PKD – yet.
The other major element is that of psychology/psychoanalysis. PKD’s obsession with this field is apparent here in the form of spoofs and satire. In fact, he is extremely obnoxious with his handling of this sphere in this novel. As I alluded to earlier, I feel like the key elements are in this novel, as in his later works, but the writing itself is smoothed and refined in those later ones.
Now, some websites (including the publisher’s) consider this a “light-hearted” or amusing read. Well, there are satirical elements, I suppose. But this is not a comedy. And if the reader is laughing it is a rueful sarcastic sort of laugh, I think. Dark humor, I guess. It is lightweight because it is a fast read and there is not a lot of heavy pontificating. But in PKD there never is. Purcell’s actions are subversive and taken as mockery – japing – but it is not necessarily amusing. Extremely absurd sometimes, but I do not think “humorous.”
My favorite part of the novel – and one that I wish was expanded or developed a wee bit more – was when Purcell visits Hokkaido in chapter nine. It is really interesting and I was rather curious about the relics from the pre-war time that were bandied about. Ulysses by James Joyce is one of them, for anyone interested in knowing.
It is a silly thing to say that some of this novel was a little difficult to follow along. I mean, its a PKD novel. However, I guess, I mean that the writing is not as polished and snazzy as I am used to from the author. This is a good novel for all those loving dystopian societies, for those who love Orwell, for those who like satire and characters who are crushed by the unseen Establishment. But it is not the best of that subgenre and it is not the best of PKD. Nevertheless, readers and writers could get quite metafictional about all of this – and I am surprised it has not yet been attempted (to my knowledge.) I mean, it could be japed. And circle back.