Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?

Time Out of Joint (1959) by Philip K. Dick: The geniuses at Vintage who packaged up the 2002 reprint of this Philip K. Dick novel put a major, mid-novel plot reveal in the back-cover synopsis. Way to go, guys! One can enjoy Time Out of Joint while already being aware of its major plot twist, but the thrill of that discovery, painstakingly built up to by Dick, should be part of the experience of reading the novel. In a perfect world, anyway.

Ragle Gumm (there's a name!) is a man living in a small, Western American town in 1959. He doesn't have a job, exactly. That's because he's the world champion solver of puzzles in the local newspaper. Specifically, a daily brain-teaser called "Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?". Ragle Gumm has an innate gift for recognizing and exploiting patterns. And that's what the newspaper contest offers, day after day, year after year.

He's also single, living with his sister and brother-in-law, and half-in-love with the flirtatious wife of his annoying, intrusive neighbour. Ragle is also getting tired of spending hours every day on the contest. But what's a guy to do?

Time Out of Joint is stellar, fairly early work from Dick. Its characters are nicely drawn, illuminated with a level of psychology Dick hadn't used before in his long-form works. The mystery is a satisfying one, satisfyingly handled. And as often happened in Dick's novels, there really aren't any "bad guys" per se, simply confused people orbiting around the central confusion of Life Itself.

The novel's also an interesting look at 1950's nuclear paranoia as reflected and refracted through Dick's uncommonly odd perceptions and interpretations. When Time Out of Joint first appeared in hardcover in 1959, it was billed as 'A Novel of Menace' on its front cover. That's a pretty good description -- but it's also a novel of recognizable, human characters caught up in the machinery of an absurd, cruel world, trying to make sense of things, trying to make the universe be just a little bit kinder. Highly recommended.

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