An event occurred last week that may have been unprecedented in the history of literary criticism. A group gathered to discuss a novel by Philip K. Dick, but only one of its members had ever read any of Dick’s science fiction. The book was Puttering about in a Small Land, which Dick completed in 1957 but which remained unpublished until 1985. (New copies are available from the publisher.) The group, unencumbered with any knowledge of Dick’s other work, approached the novel on its own terms. Reactions were mixed, ranging from annoyance and puzzlement to complete enthrallment. Discussion was lively but didn't lead to definitive conclusions about whether Dick deserves a place among important writers of literary fiction.
Puttering about in a Small Land by Philip K. Dick. Academy Chicago Publishers (1985), 291 pp.
Roger and Virginia come to Los Angeles to take advantage of the wartime employment boom. He’s never amounted to much; she’s determined to make their marriage a success. By the early fifties they have one son and a TV sales and service shop. To palliate the son’s asthma, they decide to place him in a school in rural Ojai. There they meet another L. A. couple. The husband, Chic, develops plans to buy into the TV store; the wife, Liz, signals that she’s willing to begin an affair with Roger. After flashbacks to show how Roger and Virginia got together, the story focuses on Roger’s relationship with Liz.
This book does exactly what realistic novels are supposed to do—portray the complexity of ordinary people and the frustrations of everyday life. All the characters are flawed, but their faults are normal and unrepulsive. They have aspirations too, small ones in the grand scheme of things, but they cannot sufficiently control events (or one another) to make their hopes come true. Dick adds intricacy to the story by alternating viewpoints–primarily between Roger and Virginia but also on one notable occasion Liz. The writing style is clear and simple, though some might find it rough and graceless. The occasional use of flashbacks is not distracting. Readers may not completely like what happens in this book, but they will understand it. The most perplexing issue is why this novel took nearly thirty years to be published.