We Can Build You is a provocative and often mocking look at the state of mental health in this country. Published as a novel in 1972, its impressions of mental illness and the official agencies trying to cure it are just as relevant today as they were then. It is also a dysfunctional love story and a look at the role of technology in an increasingly modern/futuristic world.
Louis Rosen is the first person narrator of We Can Build You. He lives in a country plagued with mental illness. So many Americans are on the verge of insanity that the McPherson Act has passed through Congress, requiring the treatment by state agencies of anyone deemed “unstable”. Whether the government has created this mass psychosis as an excuse to “cure” the people and maintain their own power is unclear. A good portion of We Can Build You follows Louis’ own bouts with schizophrenia, paranoia and delusion. The reader is able to experience through Louis’ first person perspective, his tentative grasp on reality.
The major aspect of the plot is about Louis’ company, The Frauenzimmer Piano Company which manufactures mood organs & pianos (like those found in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). They have developed the technology to create simulacrum of real people. Fueled by his partner Maury’s fascination with the civil war, the first two simulacrum built are exact replicants of Abraham Lincoln and his secretary of defense, the shrewd Edwin Stanton. As they move ahead to sell this technology to multi-billionaire Sam Barrows, they become caught in a web of deception and ulterior motives.
The simulacrum become key players in the story, offering Louis & Co. legal advice and their stubborn negotiation tactics. It is very ironic to picture Abe Lincoln existing and interacting in the modern world of We Can Build You.
The other plot of We Can Build You is centered around Louis’ love/hate relationship with his partner’s teenage daughter Pris (a familiar Dick name). She is a cold and manipulative former mental patient who is able to draw Louis into her twisted realm. One of the reasons that we can’t dismiss her is that she is responsible for the design of the simularum’s mental capacities. There are some interesting comparisons between artificial intelligence and the creation of life.
As his obsession for Pris builds, so do his own mental problems until he has no control over his actions. As told from Louis’ point of view, We Can Build You is a dark and psychologically disturbing tale from the days before Prozac. An above average book by Philip Dick.
Warning: Reading the review below may give away the story if you haven’t read it.
Like the main characters own mental illness, the plot(s) of We Can Build You are schizophrenic as well. The two stories in this novel are the separate dimensions of We Can Build You. It is highly recommended to readers who wish to explore Dick’s dualistic themes of android vs. human and reality vs. insanity. Irony is intertwined with disturbing and serious issues in ways that Phil Dick is known for.
His portrayal of Pris Frauenzimmer in this novel has been connected to Phil’s personal views toward women in his own life. Her character is filled with all the worst qualities in a partner – greed, self-righteousness and spite. As these negative qualities as focused on Louis, he becomes more drawn to her. This sad state of affairs can be seen in many examples in our society. Obsession turning into paranoia is the first step in this soul wrecking process. Louis describes his feeling toward Pris:
“It was as if Pris, to me, were both life itself – and anti-life, the dead, the cruel, the cutting and rending and yet also the spirit of existence itself. Movement: she was motion itself. Life in its growing, planning, calculating, harsh, thoughtless actuality. I could not stand having her around me; I could not stand being without her. Without Pris I dwindled away until I became nothing and eventually died like a bug in the back yard, unnoticed and unimportant; around her I was slashed, goaded, cut to pieces, stepped on – yet somehow I lived; in that, I was real. Did I enjoy suffering? No. It was that it seemed as if suffering was part of life, part of being with Pris. Without Pris there was no suffering, nothing erratic, unfair, unbalanced. But also, there was nothing alive, only small-time schlock schemes, a dusty little office with two or three men scrabbling in the sand . . .”
There are very few authors who can so eloquently express such deep-rooted emotions like Phil Dick. To this reader, Louis’ relationship with Pris is the most outstanding aspect of the plot of We Can Build You. It is the epitome of Dick’s portrayal of women in his novels. Pris represents the evil, manipulative woman who is able to throw a man’s life & reality into disarray. It is a very personal revelation about the attitudes and relationships he developed in his own life. While he may not have had such nasty relations with all 5 of his wives, he clearly outlines the effect that love can have on a man’s soul. The physical appearance of Pris as the “dark-haired girl” is one that Phil would write about and focus on in his own life. The role of the “dark-haired girl” is clearly explained in the novel, Valis. Also see Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick for more on this aspect of Phil’s life
The science fiction plot of We Can Build You is also very intriguing even if it does not give as much insight into Phil’s own mind. There are many typical Dickian themes in this novel. A very clear example is the theme of a small operation (in The Frauenzimmer Piano Company) taking on the corporate giants (Sam Barrows). This underdog mentality can also be seen in The Simulacra, Ubik and The Man In The High Castle.
The characters of Abe Lincoln and Edwin Stanton are clever, ironic and true to their historical identities. In another theme common to Dick novels, the simulacrum demonstrate human emotional qualities more than some of the characters in the story, most notably Pris. By creating the simulacrum, her personality is transferred to the androids. An atmosphere of despair is magnified as Pris discovers she no longer can control her own technological handiwork.
We Can Build You is a significant book by Dick which continued to incorporate many of his personal views in his fiction. Themes which are present in the novels and stories of his whole career are developed in this novel. This book is recommended to both the new Dick reader and also the long-time fan. The new reader will be introduced to a classic work of science fiction that demonstrates many of Dick’s powerful themes. The well-read PKD fan will find Dick’s own voice speaking throughout much of the novel. A fascinating look into the mind of this creative genius.
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