Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Back to the Cardboard Universe

The announcement late last month that this fall Houghton Mifflin Harcourt would be publishing an edited version of Philip K. Dick's 8,000-page notebook of spiritual visions, Exegesis, sent me right back to Christopher Miller's Dick-based satire, Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank. I wrote about the new Dick and Miller's book for the Constant Conversation earlier tonight, but as I flipped through The Cardboard Universe, I kept finding more bits that I really wanted to share.

Like this sample of Dank's writing, drawn from F for Fatal, a novel about a murderous professor whose gradebook includes a column headed "Obnox," in which most students have at least one mark, and all the murdered students have ten:
In retrospect, the newspapers and other media would later come to wittily refer to this as the "Obnoxiousness Score," being as the students testified that the notorious professor never showed the least annoyment in the classroom, but, instead, that any time that a pupil said or did something in class that was obnoxious, the poker-faced professor would thoughtfully nod and, then, make a cryptical notation next to the offending scholar's name in his notorious grade book.
The guidebook is written by two Dank experts, one of whom--the one behind this entry--can't stand Dank or his work. He writes of the above passage:
Where to begin with such a sentence--such an embarrassment of poverties? The redundancy of "later" and "in retrospect"? The solitary "this," shipwrecked an ocean away from the homeland of its antecedent? The self-congratulating "wittily" with which Dank splits his infinitive? The clunky repetition of "notorious," or the even more ham-fisted effort to avoid a repetition of "students"? The way that those on the far side of the lectern--be they students, pupils, or scholars--know not only that the poker-faced professor's notation concerns the most recently obnoxious of their number, but also that it is "cryptical"? The annoyment of the non-words that made up so big a part of Dank's vocabulary? I could go on, but suffice it to say that F for Fatal is composed entirely of sentences, or "sentences" like the above, and so it's quite a slog--"like wading through glue," as Tennyson said of Ben Jonson.
The vitriol is bracing, no?

More succinct, but just as vicious, is the entry for "If Looks Could Kill":
Short-short story. Should be shorter. Title says it all.*
The asterisk, meanwhile, leads to a footnote by the guide's other editor, a fawning Dank apologist. The footnote gives an idea of the interplay that drives the plot that emerges from the guide as it moves through the alphabet:
* If my collaborator din't want to summarize the piece in question, he should have let me. "If Looks Could Kill"--inspired by my explanation of a game called Laser Tag to which I'd just been introduced by my students--imagines a terrifying world where people can kill one another just by glaring hard enough.
The book is long--522 pages--and it's a mark of Miller's inventiveness and humor that despite the constraints of its format it held my interest throughout. Between this book and Steve Hely's How I Became a Famous Novelist, last year was a good one for the comic novel.


  1. Excellent! I've been wondering whether to buy both of those books ('Dank" and "How I Became'), so you've given me the impetus I needed to lash out the cash.

  2. They're both quite funny, but reading them in relatively quick succession, as I did, can make it very hard to read anything else: Hely's satirical versions of a number of contemporary literary styles (and postures) is spot on to the point of making you cringe at the thought of putting two words together, while Miller's dissection of fandom, though less corrosive, nonetheless also makes the whole enterprise of loving an author hard to think about without giggling.

  3. Thanks, Levi,
    I downloaded Cardboard Universe onto my iPad a couple of weeks ago . . . it's now next on my list.

  4. Hiya Levi


    Join Dennis Cooper, Tony O'neill, & Augusten Burroughs reading Waiting For John.

    It will only run for 9 months. During that time we need as much online support as possible. Please come across and check it out and then pass on the word.

    Many Thanks Tristram. X

    Feel free to contact any of the above for verification. DC recommended it on his blog 14/5/2010. Tony has linked to it on his site & you'll have to mail Augusten