"Humpty Dumpty in Oakland" and "The Strain"
  • JayneJayne
    Moderator
    Maybe I should make two threads? Eh...whatever. "Humpty Dumpty" isn't much to talk about...

    I finished Philip K. Dick's "Humpty Dumpty in Oakland" this weekend after having purchased it last year at a sidewalk sale at the Princeton U. bookstore. I knew it wasn't a sci-fi book, and I was interested to see how Dick approached realistic fiction, aside from "The Man in the High Castle" (which had a much more fictional basis than "Humpty Dumpty...")

    Done with the story now, I'm not sure what to think of it. It was weird... different. It's basically a meditation on the plight of the middle-class working guy and all his insecurities. Written at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement in the US, it also examines race relations to one degree or another. The protagonist, who is the ultimate Charlie Brown type, has many "colored" friends who actually end up helping him out. The antagonist has none and won't do business with minorities. The third player is actually a rather benevolent man who, nonetheless, is certain that blacks are trying to take over the country.

    Basically, the story goes that Jim Fergussen, an older man, decides to shutter his auto repair service and invest the sales proceeds in a new development up in Marin County, CA. (As a land use planner, I found this part really interesting because California developed overnight, it seemed, and the story is set in a moment in time during this development extravaganza.) He owns two lots. The lot adjacent to his garage is also sold, forcing his tenant, Al Miller, out of business. Al is a used car salesman and the ultimate Charlie Brown mentioned above. Al meets the guy who recommended the Marin investment to Jim, and mostly out of self-preservation, Al decides the Marin investment contact, Harman, is a con artist bent on stealing Jim's money. He sets out to prove Harman's no good, and things subsequently fall apart in a cascade of miserable events. The end isn't particularly satisfying. It just kinda ends, and I was left wondering why the preceeding series of events had to happen at all.

    Another caveat: I had to keep in mind the era when it was written because slang terms-and not always favorable ones- for people of color are thrown around casually (not the "n" word, though, thankfully.) I tend to bristle at that sort of thing, trying to be aware of what's still not cool.

    I tried to figure what sort of course at Princeton would require this book for reading because, for a relatively unknown book published posthumously, they must have had 15 copies for sale, in hard cover. I guess sociology or something...

    I put down "Humpty Dumpty" and picked up "The Strain" by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. I bought it after watching del Toro inviewed on Colbert, where he described some of the basis for his imagination. As a Mexican Catholic, he's accustomed to macabre images in the context of something ultimately comforting (European Catholic imagery is focused more on divine beauty than the bloody stuff). This personal experience informs the type of stuff he created for the Hellboy series and "Pan's Labyrinth" -- a fairytale/folktale like context boasting some truly messed up monsters that aren't necessarily evil, despite their appearance.

    So when he started talking about his vampire trilogy, I paid attention.

    I'm only 50 pages into "The Strain" so far, but it is engrossing. The opening chapter consists of a Jewish grandmother telling a folk tale to her grandson. It was so vividly described, I could see the whole sequence of events-- like "Pan's Labyrinth" but set in WWII Romania. It's hard to describe that feeling you get when the narrative is so well composed that it's effortless to see the events playing out in your mind's eye. The subsequent sections follow in a similar way, although the tone of the prose changes a bit.

    I know vampires are overplayed in the media these days, and I don't want to be one of the sheeple hopping on the vampire bandwagon, but I'm giving myself a pass for this trilogy because it comes from a good pedigree (Chuck Hogan wrote the novel that became the movie "The Town.")

    If anyone has finished "The Strain" and the 2nd entry, "The Fall" I'm interested to know what you thought.
  • JayneJayne
    Moderator
    I've read enough of Dick's stuff to know his M.O., and that's all well and good for a story that raises issues and leaves them unresolved. The problem with "HDiO" is that nothing really happens in the whole story. If you Google the title, you'll probably come across some documentation regarding the controversy over whether to publish it at all because it was considered to be not very good. I tend to agree with those who suggested it should not see the light of day.

    There are no moral or plot-based quandries raised and left unanswered. The biggest hanging thread is "Will Al's wife come back?" but we spend so little time with her, and he's left in such as place at the end as to make the answer to that question meaningless in the context of what had gone before.

    One review said something about nothing being as it seemed. I was excited to have some kind of big twist or something that challenged my perception of the events as described-- like, who's POV is correct? What really happened?! No such luck. The revelation is that Harman isn't a con man. BFD. He has some distasteful views that make him "not a good man" per Al's black friends' assessments, but he's not a conman. The investment is legit. This shouldn't come as any surprise, though: Al tells us in the very beginning that he's pretty sure that there's nothing awry about Harman. He just wants to blackmail him so that Al won't lose everything when Jim sells the lot. Al concocts a plan to expose Harman as the publisher of obscene comedy records (something Harman does do), but along the way, Al gets distracted by his own misery and constructed reality. Still, I never got the sense that Al really believed Harman was up to no good with the investment. If he can't believe his story, how can I?

    There was a way that the readers perception of events could have been sucked into Al's twisted assessment of things, but it wasn't done. The structure of the story kept the reader at arm's length, I found. When it was over, it was just, "huh. Ok. Next." Not "Woah... what happened there?!"

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