Review by Jason Koornick: Confessions of A Crap Artist (1975)
Confessions of A Crap Artist is much different than what readers of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction might expect. It is one of his attempts at mainstream literature that is set in a very realistic modern-day world that is in stark contrast to the futuristic environments of his best known novels. However different the characters and setting of this novel may be, many of the central issues will be familiar to PKD fans. Like some of his sci-fi novels, Confessions of A Crap Artist is about relationships and their psychological effects.
Confessions of A Crap Artist is a troubled portrait of life in northern California in the 1950’s. The main character (and also the one with whom readers can most easily relate) is Jack Isidore, the Crap Artist referrred to in the title. However, Jack is a minor player in the series of events which unfold throughout the course of this novel. Most of the novel is about Jack’s sister and brother in-law, Fay and Charley Hume and their dysfunctional relations as seen through Jack’s enchanted eyes.
Dick readers will immediately recognize Fay as the manipulative, self-serving and deceitful wife who appears in many of his novels. Her insecurities play an important role in the story and her actions and wishes bring together the different characters in the book. From her miserable husband Charley and her weak-minded lover Nat Anteil to her brother Jack, the reader sees Fay from a variety of perspectives. This creates the backdrop for Confessions of A Crap Artist and the dramatic tension which is the heart of the story.
An entertaining subplot involves Jack’s attempts at discovering the true nature of his world which is so “normal” as to be bizarre. His desire for answers and quest for the “Big Picture” lead him to an unlikely association with new-age housewives in Marin County. Jack Isidore is the character which readers will most likely sympathize. A victim of his own love for science fiction, Jack is a nerdy type with boxes of pulp magazines and little to no ambition. He is an extraordinary character trapped in an ordinary world. His perception of Fay and Charley’s marraige is filled with irony and good-natured cynicism.
Confessions of A Crap Artist may not find its place among the greats of American literature but fans of PKD’s science fiction will undoubtably appreciate the ironies and complexities of this not-too fictional world. More than anything the character of Jack Isidore, the nerdy younger brother who fashions truth from fiction will entertain readers. They might just see a small part of themselves in this character.
The no vel is revealing in that we get a glimpse of the frustrations and absurdities PKD must have experienced living in California in the 1950’s. It is an America that is perfect on the outside but emotionally scarred on the inside. It is for his reason and others that Confessions of A Crap Artist is cunning and smart; a unique literary novel for PKD. Its appeal will extend to readers most familiar with the author. If you are a PKD fan looking for something a little different, then Confessions of A Crap Artist just might be the next book you should read.
Warning: Reading the review below may give away the story if you haven’t read it.
A cold and manipulative wife, a main character obsessed with his own fantasies and a series of events which mock the American lifestyle. All these elements sound strikingly like a work of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction. Yet Confessions Of A Crap Artist is a novel with a much different set of motivations than his best-known novels.
As I read Confessions Of A Crap Artist, I was trying to figure out Dick’s intentions with this book. It seems like it may have been an attempt to break out of the genre which provided him with the greatest rewards and frustrations – science fiction.
Using familiar plot and character devices, it is clear to see how this novel could be viewed this way. From Lawrence Sutin’s biography of Dick Divine Invasions, A Life of Philip K. Dick, we learn that Phil was obsessed with achieving mainstream success and acceptance throughout his career:
“But beyond economics, Phil wanted to break through into the mainstream so badly he could taste it. And so, in 1957, just as the glowing reviews of Eye [Eye In The Sky] were pouring in, Phil informed Wollheim and Boucher – the two editor most responsible for encouraging his rise in SF ranks – that he was giving the field up to devote himself fulltime to mainstream novels.”
- Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick by Lawrence Sutin (1989: Harper Collins), pg. 92.
What better way to accomplish the goal of mainstream acceptance than by doing what one does best? The inclusion if Jack Isidore seems to serve two purposes. First, he is a character with whom Dick’s loyal fans would greatly appreciate and second because his worldview is through a lens which most non sci-fi readers would find entertaining and gain a new perspective. Whatever the intention, Dick has succeeded in creating one of his most endearing and interesting characters.
This is where Confessions Of A Crap Artist achieves its greatest successes. Not just Jack but Charley, Fay and Nat Anteil are wonderfully developed and portray a broad range of complex emotions. More than his sci-fi novels which depend more heavily on circumstance, Confessions Of A Crap Artist is stronger on character development. The novel skillfully draws the reader into the characters and makes us feel their emotions. We feel Nat’s confusion as he succombs to Fay’s wishes. We want to believe with Jack that the world will end as the “seance” suggests and more than any of the others we can relate to Fay’s frustrations and needs as she strives for satisfaction in an unsatisfying world. All of these characters have their flaws and we are able to sense them in a very real and complex weay. All of this leads into this reader’s biggest criticism of Confessions Of A Crap Artist . . .
With the exception of Jack Isidore, I really didn’t like any of the characters. If they weren’t being manipulative and self-absorbed, they were weak and spineless. At a few points during the novel I found myself asking “Who cares about these people? Why should I concern myself with their petty insecurities?” Although I was frustrated with many of their actions, I can’t deny that it creates a dynamic contrast between Jack’s reality and that of his self-absorbed sister and brother in-law.
This seems to be the true point of Confessions Of A Crap Artist anyway. Which world is crazier? Jack’s fantasy world filled with nothing but hope for the future or Fay’s never-ending quest for happiness which she wouldn’t know if it bit her in the face? Jack’s point of view sums up this sentiment at the end with the following declaration:
“So it doesn’t seem to me that I should be the only person who has to bear the onus of believing an admittedly ridiculous notion. All I want is to see the blame spread around fairly.” (Timescape Books, pg. 206)
I chuckled out loud and thought twice about Dick’s intentions with this novel upon finishing the book. He is making us think twice about what is crazy and what is normal and status quo. If normalcy and acceptance turns people into monsters like Fay and Charley, maybe a reality of fantasy and individuality doesn’t seem so strange.
Although I was frustrated with some of the petty details of the main characters insignificant lives, I enjoyed reading Confessions Of A Crap Artist and appreciate it as a departure from the style we have grown to know and accept as PKD. It lacked many of the elements which endear a brilliant PKD novel to this reader such as the nature of religion and the infinite potential of the human mind but clearly presents some of his fictional themes in a “down to earth” context. It makes me curious to read some more of Dick’s attempts at mainstream fiction – but not before re-reading Valis one more time!
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