Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip Dick – Review

I was ready to give up on this thing 80 pages in. It was slow, it wasn’t going anywhere, the characters weren’t overly interesting…For a relatively short novel, it just wasn’t taking off. It kept switching viewpoints from chapter to chapter, from one character to another, and none of them were overly interesting. A few pages into whatever character’s chapter and you would have a pretty good idea of what that character was about and the characters never really surprised you.

And then one of the characters has a heart attack.

And then things speed up.

And then things get interesting.

And none of the characters really grab any depth. One of the more interesting characters is a side character, a Mrs. Hambro, who is the leader of  a UFO group that would give Heaven’s Gate a run for its money.  She seems dedicated to the group, to its bizarre ideas but, at the same time, you wonder if she isn’t in it for other, more selfish reasons as well.  There are moments in the novel where it is hinted that Mrs. Hambro is really a mirror of Fay Hume, the sister of the central character, Jack Isidore. But while Fay has the single mindedness and blatant manipulation of a child, Mrs. Hambro seems much more complex, subtle and, generally, adult.

Jack, for his part, sees through both characters equally well. This isn’t to say he doesn’t do what they want him to do, but he does it for his own reasons. He knows his sister is manipulative and states it frankly. He follows Hambro for the simple reason that he believes in what the group believes in,not necessarily in Hambro herself. And, at the end of the novel, when his decisions are clearly shown to be mistakes, he admits it and figures he should get the psychiatric help his former brother-in-law suggested. Despite, or because of, his mental baggage, though, Jack seems to have an ability of making decisions free of coercion in a way many other characters in the novel lack. Nor does Jack try to manipulate people for his own ends, as still other characters in the novel seem addicted to doing.

Still, the novel seems deeply flawed.  the male characters are either mentally challanged (Jack) or easily manipulatable (Charley, Nat, Charley’s employee/friend who picks Charley up from the hospital) and the woman (Fay, Hambro) are manipulative and cruel. Gwen, Nat’s wife, breaks from the archetype Dick uses, but even she is caught by Nat in the beginning stages of an affair and the impression is that Gwen might just not be as good as the other women at her manipulations – though good enough to lure another married man out of his marriage for a fling.

the dumb male stereotype is finally broken at the end of the book when Nat goes to court to get a decree for a divorce. His lawyer is openly manipulative in instructing Nat and his “witness” in what to say in court to get what they want. The judge, for his part, is clearly aware of this manipulation and does what he can to prevent it but only succeeds in baptizing Nat into a world of lying and manipulation so that his divorce could be obtained and only for Nat to realize, too late, that he has essentially destroyed himself.

Is this just a look at 1950s California? I don’t think Dick intended it that way. I think there are elements of class to it that are tied almost directly with education. Charley never has a formal education beyond high school and falls into a destructive life with Fay most easily. While Nat has the beginnings of a formal education and continually notes how he’s doing the wrong thing while still falling into the same trap. Jack lacks the education but has a “scientific mind” and sees the traps and manipulations for what they are. But then, at the end, the most educated male characters in the novel (the judge/lawyer) are also the most aware of how and when manipulation occurs. While the women just seem naturally inclined to it.

In the end, I think it is much like other work by Dick that I’ve read. Good idea, some good stuff crowded within it, but ultimately falling just a bit short of where it could have been.

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