Friday, September 9, 2016

Book Review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

© 1964 by Philip K. Dick

More than once have I cried out in these electronic pages the exclamation, “Hollywood, make a movie out of this book!”

I cry it now yet again on the occasion of completing The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

PKD is always a treat to read. Things are never what they seem, initially, when you travel the first few chapters of one of his works. That is the best thing about them, to me, and when the mystery unfolds and you see the implications geometrically exponentially warping outward in three dimensions from the few and simple set of criteria postulated, well, that to me’s the second best thing. Or maybe it’s better than the first best thing. Either way, the reader’s a winner.

It’s been a while since I opened one of Dick’s books. I went through a phase in the second half of 2005 where I read The Man in the High Castle, Ubik, The Collected Short Stories, and an unauthorized biography of the man. Later I read VALIS, The Broken Bubble, Time Out of Joint, and took a swing at The Exegesis (which deserves to be bought and studied with compass and protractor). When I spent a week in Paris I contemplated buying one of his paperbacks in French.

Anyway, all this is mentioned, I suppose, to establish my bona fides. Whether it does or doesn’t, I dunno. I claim no expertise; I am merely a town crier crying out when I’ve read a decent book. Or thundering commands at Hollywood. TTSOPE is such a good read, engendering the best compliment any book can suffer: I didn’t want it to end.

The action takes place in the far-flung future of the 21st century. Large swathes of Solar System real estate have been colonized (due in part to extreme global warming on the home world), often at the muzzle of a UN gun. To help overcome despair at being forced onto desolate worlds, a drug known as CAN-D spreads planet to planet, enabling disenfranchised earthlings to hallucinate that they are part of some bizarre Ken and Barbie perfect world (known in the book as “Perky Pat”).

Meanwhile, infamous Palmer Eldritch has just been rescued on Pluto, returning from the Proxima Centauri system after making a First Contact of sorts. It’s revealed that he has brought back with him CHEW-Z, a drug to rival CAN-D. Eldritch’s drug enters the market and both he and his product come to blows with Leo Bulero, the CAN-D kingpin.

It is at this point where things twist strange, and what you think is real may not, in truth (and what is truth?), be real (and what is real?)

Bulero somehow finds himself on CHEW-Z, finding himself in an entirely new universe, one constructed by Palmer Eldritch. The laws of physics or evolution do not hold. Nor do the laws of sanity, as Leo begins to doubt his own. He soon realizes that he can never quite tell where or when his drug trip ends, if end it ever does.

Now – do we have a dream within a dream? Or are things much weirder? Does the story end with Leo taking CHEW-Z, or is this anything/everything from an alien invasion, a forced march into group consciousness, or the birth of a new religion? Or bits and pieces, the best or worst, of each, combined with other scenarios and possibilities that may have escaped my distracted mind whilst reading the novel? And who – or what – exactly is Palmer Eldritch, and is he the same being who left Earth before experiencing the Proxima system?

With so much at stake, and so much up in the air, and with so much invested in the troubled characters, I felt the lean feel of the book (188 pages in the version I read) somewhat inadequate in its lean-and-mean-ness. But after reflecting upon it a few days, I think it’s the perfect length, and it answers and non-answers everything perfectly.

And the more I think about it, the more the underlying sense of horror coalesces and magnifies. Think the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Philip Kaufman, and you’ll see where I’m heading.

Grade: solid-A.

NB. The “three stigmata” are Palmer’s artificial mechanical arm, his artificial black-slit eyes, and his artificial metallic jawbone. I forget what the books says about them (they are mentioned quite frequently, and often bystanders will suddenly manifest one or more stigmata), but Wikipedia tells me they represent “alienation, blurred reality, and despair.” Seems about right.

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