Reviews and riffs of August, 2015 (and an unrelated octopus)

I don’t like August and I’m glad it’s over.

I only wrote a few riffs and reviews in August, failing to write at length about Gordon Lish’s Cess and Victor Hussenot’s The Spectators and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Also: Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age, which I audited the audiobook of—great stuff, a novel that posits the book as a primary and insuperable technology. And some films too—Michael Mann’s Thief (amazing); Quest for Fire (why were the Baby Boomers so obsessed with cave people?); Ex Machina (a well-acted design-porn riff on Bluebeard that has no real ideas about its central theme, human consciousness).

I also watched and loved and didn’t write about the second season finale of True Detective—loved it—a tragic hyperbole, a big exclamation point, a sympathetic punchline to the season’s paternal anxieties. I found the final shot unexpectedly moving—the season’s female leads moving through the traffic of humanity, strapped with a child, knives, the future.

In August—

I riffed on season 2 of True Detective, arguing for its merits as a neon noir satire.

Ryan Chang and I talked about New American Stories, an anthology edited by Ben Marcus. We riffed on the selections, scope, and the first story, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “Paranoia.”

I wrote a barely-coherent, probably incoherent review of Philip K. Dick’s novel Martian Time-SlipThe sub(or is it super?)text of the review is that I am a Permanently Paranoid American.

I also wound up writing a bit on Paul Kirchner’s trip strip The Bus yesterday. For years now, I’ve run some kind of regular Sunday post to anchor the site—it was death masks for a while, book shelves after…maybe something else I’m forgetting now (?)—but running The Bus was the most fun I had.

I’m not sure what I’ll run this Sunday for a new series, but something serialish so…

Promised octopus, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi—


Riff on Philip K. Dick’s novel Martian Time-Slip

Untitled, Zdislav Beksinski
  1. A colleague dropped by today, burst in my office really, if you’ll forgive the cliché, animated, ecstatic almost—Read this!—he commanded, thrusting a big fat hardbacked Gore Vidal volume in front of me. Read this, his finger pointing to the last paragraph of the 1981 essay “Pink Triangle and Gold Star” (ostensibly a review of Renaud Camus’ novel Tricks).  So I read it. See? It’s just like today! my colleague declared. Vidal’s essay ends with a call for the unity of marginalized people to resist “our ruling class” — the banks, The Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon — and “their kindly voice,” Ronald Reagan. We then had a brief discussion about Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, something I have until now refused to talk about at all because it’s all just too weird.
  2. I sometimes feel like I’m living in a Thomas Pynchon novel.
  3. I sometimes feel like I’m living in a J.G. Ballard short story.
  4. I sometimes feel like I’m living in some distorted, slipped timeline.
  5. Reading Philip K. Dick’s novel  Martian Time-Slip, I kept wanting to burst into someone’s office, animated, pointing to a paragraph, crying, Read this! See? It’s just like today!
  6. Not that we’ve colonized Mars but—
  7. —colonial metaphors, yes? Cowboys and Indians…
  8. But also, that we’d want the final frontier to be just like home: Desert Mars with green lawns, irrigated flower gardens. Swimming pools. Dick’s Mars is California 1964 and California 2015. And: a water-scarce environment to come.
  9. Did I mention that the novel is set in 1994?
  10. I sometimes feel like I’m living in a Don DeLillo novel.
  11. But where was I? I launched into this riff with a long anecdote, so—What my colleague and I worked into was, ultimately, a discussion of the sheer irreality of modern life—the paranoia that permeates American culture, the sense that the last two decades seem like a bad repetition of Bad Times that outdated textbooks told us had been conquered.
  12. (Or maybe I’m just getting old).
  13. (Sorry for the scatterbrainededness of this ordeal. I finished the novel this afternoon and if I don’t get this down now it seems I won’t get anything down).
  14. So obviously you can find alienation, instability, and repetition right there in the title Martian Time-Slip.
  15. And Dick loads the novel with images and props and ideas to evoke those themes of alienation, instability, and repetition: autism, primitivism, schizophrenia.
  16. Colonies, camps, U.N. as World Police.
  17. Health food.
  18. And land speculation.
  19. And abjection.
  20. And abjection erupts in paranoia and irreality, pointing to a People Who Aren’t People:
  21. He saw, through the man’s skin, his skeleton. It had been wired together, the bones connected with fine copper wire. The organs, which had withered away, were replaced by artificial components, kidney, heart, lungs­—­everything was made of plastic and stainless steel, all working in unison but entirely without authentic life. The man’s voice issued from a tape, through an amplifier and speaker system.

    Possibly at some time in the past the man had been real and alive, but that was over, and the stealthy replacement had taken place, inch by inch, progressing insidiously from one organ to the next, and the entire structure was there to deceive others.

  22. —so the sense that the contemporary person is just a technological mediation, a deception, inauthentic. (Dear reader, attach this passage to what you will, but it seems to me surpassing prescient).
  23. I’ve done a poor job of outlining the plot, right? Sorry. But look, it’s a Philip K. Dick novel, and certainly one of his better ones—and if you’re a more-than-casual reader, you know it, I think, and if you’ve read his finest—VALISThe Man in the High CastleUbikA Scanner DarklyPalmer Eldritch—you might should could read Time-Slip.
  24. But so plot, well: Here’s Lawrence Sutin on the novel, from Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick:
  25. Life in the bleak Martian colonies bears a striking resemblance to business as usual on modern-day Earth…In the parched Martian colonies, grasping Arnie Kott is the chief of the powerful plumber’s union (based on the fifties Berkely Co-op Phil despised for its wrangling politics). The little guy, repairman Jack Bohlen, is a onetime schizophrenic who still lives with schizophrenia’s aftereffects. An autistic kid, Manfred Steiner, slipslides helplessly forward and backward in time, into realms of entropy and death.

  26. Arnie seeks to capitalize on Manfred’s timeslipping, and Dick—who, let’s just admit it, isn’t always the most writerly writer (whatever that means) handles the time slippage with rhetorical aplomb, making the reader slip-slide through time with Manfred, Arnie, and Jack. I shared an extended passage a few days ago as an example; it shows us (a version of) Manfred decaying in a future Martian slum. The imagery is abject and pitiful, evoking again the notion of a human’s decay into machination:
  27. He lay there for a hundred and twenty­three years and then his artificial liver gave out and he fainted and died. By that time they had removed both his arms and legs up to the pelvis because those parts of him had decayed.

    He didn’t use them anyhow. And without arms he didn’t try to pull the catheter out, and that pleased them.

  28. Time-Slip rockets into rhetorical reverberation, cycling its final chapters into a strange decay. The timeslips jar the reader’s narrative perception—Hey wait, didn’t I already read this?—unsettling expectations, and ultimately suggesting that this Martian Time-Slip is just one version of Martian Time-Slip. That there are other timelines, distorted, slipped.
  29. And there are threads—wires, if we want to borrow one of the novel’s motifs—that don’t fully connect. There are short circuits, misfires, gaps. Dick tears into the real stuff, the inner material, and pulls it up to the surface without putting it all back together too neatly.
  30. There’s even a slippiness to the Dick’s resolved wires (if you’ll excuse my torturing the metaphor). The novel concludes in a strange jolt of domestic restoration, a kind of farce of the traditional comedic and tragic conventions where all returns to normal—there is no normal, never—and so No normal never is, paradoxically, paranoically, normal.
  31. I sometimes feel like I’m living in a Philip K. Dick novel.

All We Marsmen (PKD)


Watch A Day in the Afterlife, a 1994 documentary about Philip K. Dick

Gubbish (Philip K. Dick)

They gubbled and gubbled. He put his hands to his ears, but the product crept up through his nose. Then he saw the place. It was where he wore out. They threw him away there, and gubbish lay in heaps up to his waist; gubbish filled the air.

“What is your name?”

“Steiner, Manfred.”



“Vaccinated against smallpox?”


“Any venereal diseases?”

“Well, a little clap, that’s all.”

“V.D. clinic for this man.”

“Sir, my teeth. They’re in the bag, along with my eyes.”

“Your eyes, oh yes. Give this man his teeth and eyes before you take him to the V.D. clinic. How about your ears, Steiner?”

“Got ’em on, sir. Thank you, sir.”

They tied his hands with gauze to the sides of the bed because he tried to pull out the catheter. He lay facing the window, seeing through the dusty, cracked glass.

Outside, a bug on tall legs picked through the heaps. It ate, and then something squashed it and went on, leaving it squashed with its dead teeth sunk into what it had wanted to eat. Finally its dead teeth got up and crawled out of its mouth in different directions.

He lay there for a hundred and twenty­three years and then his artificial liver gave out and he fainted and died. By that time they had removed both his arms and legs up to the pelvis because those parts of him had decayed.

He didn’t use them anyhow. And without arms he didn’t try to pull the catheter out, and that pleased them.

I been at AM­WEB for a long time, he said. Maybe you can get me a transistor radio so I can tune in Friendly Fred’s Breakfast Club; I like to hear the tunes, they play a lot of the old­time favorites.

Something outside gives me hay fever. Must be those yellow flowering weeds, why do they let them get so tall?

I once saw a ballgame.

For two days he lay on the floor, in a big puddle, and then the landlady found him and called for the truck to bring him here. He snored all the way, it woke him up. When they tried to give him grapefruit juice he could only work one arm, the other never worked again ever. He wished he could still make those leather belts, they were fun and took lots of time. Sometimes he sold them to people who came by on the weekend.

“Do you know who I am, Manfred?”


“I’m Arnie Kott. Why don’t you laugh or smile sometimes, Manfred? Don’t you like to run around and play?”

As he spoke Mr. Kott gubbled from both his eyes.

“Obviously he doesn’t, Arnie, but that’s not what concerns us here anyhow.”

“What do you see, Manfred? Let us in on what you see. All those people, are they going to live there, is that it? Is that right, Manfred? Can you see lots of people living there?”

He put his hands over his face, and the gubble stopped.

“I don’t see why this kid never laughs.”

Gubble, gubble.

Another passage from Philip K. Dick’s novel Martian Time-Slip.

I find the passage’s rhetorical construction remarkable—the “he” whose consciousness we dip into here, briefly, is Manfred Steiner, an “autistic” child with precognitive abilities. The narrative here takes us into the (a?) future (maybe?) for a few sentences, before pivoting back into the novel’s “present” (1994!) with the verbal intrusion of Kott. This little episode ends a chapter, and the next begins with close attention to Kott’s perception of Manfred. I’ve provided some context here, but I think the little passage also stands on its own as a strange flight into breakdown.

And then the hallucination happened (Philip K. Dick)

And then the hallucination, if it was that, happened. He saw the personnel manager in a new light. The man was dead.

He saw, through the man’s skin, his skeleton. It had been wired together, the bones connected with fine copper wire. The organs, which had withered away, were replaced by artificial components, kidney, heart, lungs­—­everything was made of plastic and stainless steel, all working in unison but entirely without authentic life. The man’s voice issued from a tape, through an amplifier and speaker system.

Possibly at some time in the past the man had been real and alive, but that was over, and the stealthy replacement had taken place, inch by inch, progressing insidiously from one organ to the next, and the entire structure was there to deceive others. To deceive him, Jack Bohlen, in fact. He was alone in this office; there was no personnel manager. No one spoke to him, and when he himself talked, no one heard; it was entirely a lifeless, mechanical room in which he stood.

He was not sure what to do; he tried not to stare too hard at the manlike structure before him. He tried to talk calmly, naturally, about his job and even his personal problems. The structure was probing; it wanted to learn something from him. Naturally, he told it as little as possible. And all the time, as he gazed down at the carpet, he saw its pipes and valves and working parts functioning away; he could not keep from seeing.

All he wanted to do was get away as soon as possible. He began to sweat; he was dripping with sweat and trembling, and his heart pounded louder and louder.

“Bohlen,” the structure said, “are you sick?”

“Yes,” he said. “Can I go back down to my bench now?” He turned and started toward the door.

“Just a moment,” the structure said from behind him.

That was when panic overtook him, and he ran; he pulled the door open and ran out into the hall.

An hour or so later he found himself wandering along an unfamiliar street in Burlingame. He did not remember the intervening time and he did not know how he had gotten where he was. His legs ached. Evidently he had walked, mile after mile.

His head was much clearer. I’m schizophrenic, he said to himself. I know it. Everyone knows the Symptoms; it’s catatonic excitement with paranoid coloring: the mental health people drill it into us, even into the school kids. I’m another one of those. That was what the personnel manager was probing.

I need medical help.

From Philip K. Dick’s 1964 novel Martian Time-Slip, which I’m really digging.

Read “Mr. Spaceship,” an early Philip K. Dick story


“Mr. Spaceship”


Philip K. Dick

Kramer leaned back. “You can see the situation. How can we deal with a factor like this? The perfect variable.”

“Perfect? Prediction should still be possible. A living thing still acts from necessity, the same as inanimate material. But the cause-effect chain is more subtle; there are more factors to be considered. The difference is quantitative, I think. The reaction of the living organism parallels natural causation, but with greater complexity.”

Gross and Kramer looked up at the board plates, suspended on the wall, still dripping, the images hardening into place. Kramer traced a line with his pencil.

“See that? It’s a pseudopodium. They’re alive, and so far, a weapon we can’t beat. No mechanical system can compete with that, simple or intricate. We’ll have to scrap the Johnson Control and find something else.”

“Meanwhile the war continues as it is. Stalemate. Checkmate. They can’t get to us, and we can’t get through their living minefield.”

Kramer nodded. “It’s a perfect defense, for them. But there still might be one answer.”

“What’s that?”

“Wait a minute.” Kramer turned to his rocket expert, sitting with the charts and files. “The heavy cruiser that returned this week. It didn’t actually touch, did it? It came close but there was no contact.”

“Correct.” The expert nodded. “The mine was twenty miles off. The cruiser was in space-drive, moving directly toward Proxima, line-straight, using the Johnson Control, of course. It had deflected a quarter of an hour earlier for reasons unknown. Later it resumed its  course. That was when they got it.”

“It shifted,” Kramer said. “But not enough. The mine was coming along after it, trailing it. It’s the same old story, but I wonder about the contact.” Continue reading “Read “Mr. Spaceship,” an early Philip K. Dick story”

Gaha: Babes of the Abyss (Book acquired and read sometime in May 2015)


Jon Frankel’s Gaha: Babes of the Abyss is simultaneously familiar and estranging, a bizarre California crime-noir-dystopian shot through a druggy haze. It’s funny and weird, part caper, part adventure story, where everything’s just a little off (and more than a little sleazy). The easy comparison to Philip K. Dick is not unwarranted: Frankel’s satire is a dark mind-bender and a propulsive page-turner. Civil War, a genetically-altered ruling class, sex, violence, drugs, and real estate. The title is new from new indie imprint Whiskey Tit (Ms. Miette’s the honcho there, so you know it’s good stuff). Their blurb:

She was seventeen and all leg, banging the hell out of a pinball machine. I watched her play, my back to the bar. There was a cigarette going in her left hand with a cone of ash hanging off the end. The muscles in her bare thighs tensed up every time she bumped her pelvis into the coin box. As the ball shot toward her flippers she turned her feet in and banged with the right and then the left hand, knocking the ash to the floor. The red light on top of the machine started to turn and a police siren went off. It barked, “Pull off to the side of the road!” and she slapped the flipper, sending the ball up into a thousand-point hole. While the lights flashed and sirens sang she took a long drag off the cigarette.

I should have known better.

So begins Jon Frankel’s unflinching saga of Bob Martin, real estate pimp of Los Angeles in the year 2540, and his hapless, hopeless efforts to stay out of trouble in the company of 17-year-old Irmela von Dorderer and her big sister Elma.  He should have known better, indeed.

Read “Tony and the Beetles,” an early short story by Philip K. Dick


“Tony and the Beetles”


Philip K. Dick

Reddish-yellow sunlight filtered through the thick quartz windows into the sleep-compartment. Tony Rossi yawned, stirred a little, then opened his black eyes and sat up quickly. With one motion he tossed the covers back and slid to the warm metal floor. He clicked off his alarm clock and hurried to the closet.

It looked like a nice day. The landscape outside was motionless, undisturbed by winds or dust-shift. The boy’s heart pounded excitedly. He pulled his trousers on, zipped up the reinforced mesh, struggled into his heavy canvas shirt, and then sat down on the edge of the cot to tug on his boots. He closed the seams around their tops and then did the same with his gloves. Next he adjusted the pressure on his pump unit and strapped it between his shoulder blades. He grabbed his helmet from the dresser, and he was ready for the day.

In the dining-compartment his mother and father had finished breakfast. Their voices drifted to him as he clattered down the ramp. A disturbed murmur; he paused to listen. What were they talking about? Had he done something wrong, again?

And then he caught it. Behind their voices was another voice. Static and crackling pops. The all-system audio signal from Rigel IV. They had it turned up full blast; the dull thunder of the monitor’s voice boomed loudly. The war. Always the war. He sighed, and stepped out into the dining-compartment.

“Morning,” his father muttered.

“Good morning, dear,” his mother said absently. She sat with her head turned to one side, wrinkles of concentration webbing her forehead. Her thin lips were drawn together in a tight line of concern. His father had pushed his dirty dishes back and was smoking, elbows on the table, dark hairy arms bare and muscular. He was scowling, intent on the jumbled roar from the speaker above the sink.

“How’s it going?” Tony asked. He slid into his chair and reached automatically for the ersatz grapefruit. “Any news from Orion?”

Neither of them answered. They didn’t hear him. He began to eat his grapefruit. Outside, beyond the little metal and plastic housing unit, sounds of activity grew. Shouts and muffled crashes, as rural merchants and their trucks rumbled along the highway toward Karnet. The reddish daylight swelled; Betelgeuse was rising quietly and majestically. Continue reading “Read “Tony and the Beetles,” an early short story by Philip K. Dick”

Max Frisch/PK Dick biography (Books acquired, 2.19.2015)


I took my daughter to the bookstore last Thursday, where she traded in a bunch of Junie B. Jones books for more Junie B. Jones books. Anyway, I didn’t intend to pick up anything for myself, but, well…
IMG_5142 IMG_5141

Philip K. Dick — Kent Bellows