Ubik: Style and Making Strange

‘Dick’s style never improved much. Sometimes he did lose an overcomplicated plot a bit. Yet we remain fascinated by his themes. We live in a world of true facts and fake news. So maybe the “insane” actually do live in different realities.’ Michael Moorcock .

I have fond memories of reading Philip K Dick. I made my way through an awful lot of his books during my early twenties, which is probably the best age to read them. I even read his biography, Divine Invasions, which is a rare thing for me, but Dick had an odd kind of life. Lost as I was in the Russian dolls of reality he created, I don’t remember thinking Dick’s writing was too bad at the time, although I read these books in a kind of addictive state, draining them one by one, and the idea of style was probably secondary to me to the compulsion.

I recently re-read Ubik by Dick, perhaps hungry to recapture some of my lost youth. Moorcock is right about the ideas. Ubik is a fascinating novel for its themes and conceit, although the plot unravels towards the middle when it becomes clear what is going on, and Dick tries to misdirect the reader. The character descriptions seem to depend entirely on the mixed bag of clothing, as though Dick went rummaging through a mental charity shop. I’ve taught writing for enough years now to recognise some of the hallmarks of bad writing. Long sentences which blend subjects. Overly complicated attributive sentences when it comes to dialogue. Excessively long monologues as a medium for plot. Ubik has them all.

“‘Think of a city or a town at random, one that none of us have anything to do with, one where none of us ever go or have ever gone.
‘Baltimore,’ Joe said.
‘Okay. I’m going to Baltimore. I’m going to see if a store picked at random will accept Runciter currency.’
‘Buy me some new cigarettes,’ Joe said.
‘Okay. I’ll do that too; I’ll see if cigarettes in a random store in Baltimore have been affected. I’ll check other products as well; I’ll make random samplings. Do you want to come with me, or do you want to go upstairs and tell them about Wendy?’
Joe said, ‘I’ll go with you.'”

Maybe I do remember Dick’s style. I remember finding myself continually unsettled by the way his characters spoke to one another, as in the excerpt above, the way the dialogue seemed overly exhaustive, trying to replace narrative on character and plot. If anything, this is bad writing as act of defamiliarisation, the idea from Russian formalism, which has always seemed to me to be one of the most persuasive ideas when it comes to the power of fiction. Bad writing as act of uncertainty, as a method of undercutting the reader’s power in navigating the z-axis of a fictional world: that’s the ultimate act of making strange.

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