Jaime Nelson's Reviews > Time Out of Joint

Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick
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it was amazing

Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick



It’s 1959. Ragle Gum lives with his sister and her family. He’s having an affair with the woman next door. He’s the champion of the newspaper contest, “Where Will the Little Green Man be Next?” Oh yeah, and he’s going sane.

It starts with what he thinks are hallucinations—a disappearing soft drink stand, leaving nothing in its place but a piece of paper labeled SOFT DRINK STAND. But then he hears pilots talking about him over the radio and he finds a phonebook from a place that doesn’t seem to exist. And now his brother-in-law starts to notice the signs as well. They decide to skip town, but the town doesn’t want them to leave. There’s always something in the way—a cop, a flat tire, a line at the bus depot that never ends.

When they finally do get out, they learn that it’s not 1959. It’s 1998. And all they want in the whole world is for Ragle to keep plugging away at the “Where Will the Little Green Man be Next?” puzzles.


Although I like the movies that are based on his novels (Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Paycheck), this is the first Philip K. Dick book that I have read. The first thing that caught my eye was the title. Ooo, a Shakespeare reference, and Hamlet at that. The next thing that appealed to me was the synopsis on the back cover.

I know I already compared The Hunger Games to The Truman Show, but that’s because of the reality TV element. Time Out of Joint is like The Truman Show because it’s a town revolving around one guy, an illusion to keep him where he is. But it’s not about celebrity like in The Truman Show. It’s about Ragle cracking codes and seeing patterns in what he thinks is a harmless newspaper puzzle. I actually think that the movie makers admitted that they were inspired by this book.

I can’t help but love this idea. I also, many years ago, wrote a story of two people who could not find a way out of their town. It’s a What is reality? thing. Kind of like The Matrix (There is no spoon) if you took out all the flipping…and the second half of the movie.

The foundation of this book is very sophistic. Philosophy comes up again and again, and it’s no wonder why. There’s a theory that everything is made of language. The only difference between the table and the chair is caused by us naming them as separate. If we named the left side of the hand one thing and the right side something else, they would be two different things rather than both be hand. So, when Ragle sees that his world exists as he sees it only because there are little pieces of paper that name things, he realizes that words are concrete and things are not. He even goes so far as to point out that In the beginning was the Word. This is what the world is made of.

Dick approaches the story very slowly, always with both feet in reality. Halfway through the book, there’s disappearing buses and freaky radio transmissions, but there’s also lasagna and bowling. It’s all so commonplace and not the over-the-top action movies that his stories eventually become. Despite that it moves at a leisurely pace, I am sucked in the whole time. It’s never boring.

Part of what keeps my attention is the characters. I really do like them, Ragle in particular. There’s nothing all that unique about any of them, but Dick makes you care about them. The book is written in omniscient third person, so we get into each and every one of their heads, sometimes head-hopping all over the place. It’s mildly jarring, but not too bad. It causes wonderful dramatic irony. He does something I really admire: he tells us misinformation depending on what character we are close to. He relies on us to know that the character is misunderstanding the situation. I find that too gutsy to attempt because I’m afraid that it will confuse the readers. But he pulls it off marvelously.

He’s also a great observer. He takes those little moments that happen to everyone but that people don’t consciously think about, and uses them as part of the plot. For example, Vic walks into his bathroom and gropes around for the hanging pull cord for a few seconds before remembering it’s a light switch in the bathroom. It’s always been a light switch. dick tunes into all those little paranoias that we get. It’s actually the opposite of what you read about nowadays. Usually, you read about someone who thinks everyone is following them, but it turns out they’re paranoid and the writer has taken you along for the ride and made you believe the character’s delusions. However, here, strange things really are happening to the protagonist, but he insists through most of the book that it’s his psychosis and that he really is just losing his mind. That’s refreshing. I did read in the afterward that Dick suffered from some kind of psychosis. He said at one point that a supremely sane consciousness entered his mind or somesuch. Do you have to be crazy to write crazy, I wonder?

I want to talk a little bit about Dick’s view of the future. It’s weird having the distant future be 1998, but I guess I’ve always liked the 50’s view of what the present would look like, more than what now’s view of what the future will look like. I guess it’s because they haven’t conceived of things like computers yet. The future to Dick involves an altered language and fashion statement, kerosene cars, and plastic chips for money. But mostly, it’s very similar, just as 1998 was similar to 1959. There were still sofas and paperback books and diners. It’s not completely foreign, so he’s realistic enough. It’s funny to see this estimated view of 1998 because it’s like an alternative reality. In 1998, we still had metal and paper coins, but we do have word processors and DVDs, things that Dick never considered putting in his future.

Having the futuristic part be so strange to the reader really puts us in the characters’ shoes. I can’t understand the dialogue of the teenagers of 1998. They speak in pigeon English. They operate on different laws and conventions. This is better than if Dick (writing in the 50’s) wrote about people who thought they were in 1900 and then found themselves in 1950. That would have a different feel because the readers would be able to both sympathize with the characters and correctly interpret what they experience. But Dick’s created a new world only understood by him (if that). There’s no dramatic irony here.

The ending gets very political. It felt very Dickian despite not having read his work before. Always with the irony, that man.

To me, it’s astonishing to see Dick’s insight. I know he’s writing this in the 50’s, but it feels like it was written by someone with knowledge of the last fifty years, someone who can look back at 1959 and see it objectively. It’s almost as if he is an author from a time out of joint.
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