Total Dick-Head's David Gill gives us the following review of Christopher Miller's novel A Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank. Of course, Dank is a simulacra-of-sorts of pulp science fiction pioneer Philip K. Dick. Gill writes:
As a Philip K Dick scholar, I found it positively Dickian reading Christopher Miller's new genre-bender A Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K Dank. As the title suggests, the book is set up like a reader's guide to the fictional oeuvre of 300-pound eccentric science fiction writer Phoebus K Dank, with entries on Dank's most famous novels and short stories, along with anecdotes and biographical info provided by Dank's live-in literary specialist William Boswell and rival scholar and anti-Dankian critic Owen Hirt. I'd always wanted to write just such a guide to Philip K Dick's 55 novels. In fact, I'd been toying seriously with the idea for the last year or so. Looking down at this book in my hands was like that moment in every Philip K Dick novel when the Universe reveals itself as sentient by delivering some sort of demented synchronicity that points out a particularly painful personal failure. Miller's novel is the Spinal Tap of my life.
But Miller's Cardboard Universe is more than just a fictional guide to a non-existent eccentric's writings, it's a high-concept postmodern wang-dangler that puts dramatic irony in the box with Schrödinger’s cat, resulting in a kaleidoscopic fractal of mis-mashed identity, parallel dimensional weirdness, laugh-out-loud surrealism, and good old fashioned head-bashing violence.
The book may not be for the more thin-skinned of Dick's devotees as it clearly starts with a kind of cruel caricature of PKD: a socially awkward, eccentric, and agoraphobic writer. But the book does not rely on this fun-house reflection of Dick for laughs. Instead, Miller uses his formidable powers of imagination to create a wholly new character, a cross between Phil Dick, Inspector Clouseau, and Reverend Jim Ignatowski, the cab driver on Taxi.
This book could be bad, horrible, awful, a high-concept idea that falls flat. What redeems it, as I've hinted already, is Miller's enviable powers of imagination. He assails the reader with rapid-fire brilliance - half a dozen ideas I would love to have had, all condensed into short summaries of Dank's fictional output: 'Abrutophobia,' a short story about the debilitating fear of anything sudden and a man's subsequent usage of a drug to counteract the fear ('Gradual') which leads him to discover that his wife is really an avocado-shaped monster with eyes set on long dangling stalks. In the fictive novel Sadiators, future duelers attempt to convince each other to commit suicide during a timed match. In my personal favorite non-existent novel, The Salt Factory, salt made from human tears becomes a highly-prized commodity and as one firm struggles to keep their employees weeping constantly through a patchwork of sad movies, depressing music, and talking about their feelings, another firm moves to corner the market by using onions to produce (vastly inferior) tears.
Maybe The Cardboard Universe appeals to me because I know so much about Philip K Dick. I laughed out loud at the article titles in The Journal of Dank Studies: "Bonk!: The Head Injury as Epiphany in the Later Fiction of Dank" (think Bob Arctor's important head bonk in Dick's A Scanner Darkly), "No Vaccine: Dank's Subversive Fictions as Filter-Passing Viruses" (I've personally witnessed academic flame wars waged over Frederick Jameson's postmodern notion of the text as 'Rhizome' ), and my personal favorite: "Keeping It Up: A Feminist Reading of Dank" (written by a man, of course).
While some of the anecdotes about Dank are clearly based on Dick's life, the time is out of joint - so to speak. Dank was born in 1952 (Dick in 1928). In The Cardboard Universe, '2-3-74' does not refer to Dick's 'mystical experiences' with a pink light in 1974, but rather to Dank's transcendent joy upon the publishing of his first book. Dank has a long series of failed relationships with women, even starting a punk rock band to impress the nubile-and-uninterested Pandora Landor in 1998. The final and most marked difference is that Dick died in 1982 after a series of strokes, while Dank is brutally murdered in 2006.
Whether this book will appeal to non-Dick-heads remains to be seen. But, ultimately, I think Miller's work does stand on its own and my wife, who is pretty sick of hearing about Philip K Dick, laughed at many of the book's entries when I read them out loud to her. What's more, the book comes alive, confounds your expectations, and astounds you with Miller's high-octane imagination, rivaling brilliant genre-benders like Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night, A Traveler and Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire.
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