Review by C.J. Bunce
Allen Purcell, the protagonist in Philip K. Dick’s 1956 novel The Man Who Japed, unexpectedly reminded me of a character from a classic Hollywood film from 1955, Ensign Pulver, from John Ford’s comedy drama Mister Roberts. If you haven’t seen Mister Roberts or read The Man Who Japed, you’re missing out on two of the best comedic works from their respective creators.
A quick background on Mister Roberts. In the movie, Henry Fonda plays Lieutenant J.G. Roberts, XO on a World War II cargo ship far away from the action of war. Roberts feels left out, like he needs to be fighting. His problem is Captain Morton, played by James Cagney in one of his top performances as a near-retirement sea-dog who refuses to let Roberts transfer off the ship. Morton’s one true love is a palm tree about seven feet tall that he waters religiously and cares for almost tenderly. His oppressive nature causes his crew to go stir crazy, especially Roberts. When the captain denies liberty leave for his crew, Roberts caves in—he will comply with all the captain’s requests if the captain lets the deserving crew have liberty. The deal is made.
Enter wily Ensign Pulver, played by Jack Lemmon. Ensign Pulver is the young officer who has developed a real business for himself buying and selling–an early Radar O’Reilly. He is lovable but talks big and can’t back it up with action. He hates the captain, but even on this small ship he has never met him in person, and in fact runs and hides from the captain at every opportunity. When Pulver finally accidentally runs straight into the captain the captain tries to take him under his wing—to be his new Number One. Pulver plays along. He’s young, he has no choice. Yet he realizes he has never done anything before. Anything real. He knows he is “all talk.” When Roberts starts obeying every order of the captain Pulver wants to know why. Only when Roberts and the captain are arguing and the com is left on does the crew learn the truth. The next scene is a stunner, as the teary-eyed crew all salute Roberts—for they know he got them liberty, he was the guy to be loyal toward. Finally, in his single act of defiance, Ensign Pulver walks up to the captain’s beloved palm tree and plunges it into the sea. In one of Cagney’s best utterances in any film, he questions “Who did it? Who DID it?” Roberts gets his transfer and echoing the reality of war, he soon dies in battle. Now this is Pulver’s last straw. He marches into the captain’s office and proclaims who did it: “It was I, Ensign Pulver!” There is hardly anything more satisfying than someone who is oppressed finding his way to rise up and get his own footing.
Mister Roberts is one of Lemmon’s funniest movies. Likewise Philip K. Dick’s The Man Who Japed may be one of Dick’s funniest novels. You could say Ensign Pulver, like Dick’s protagonist, was another “Man who Japed.”
We first meet everyman Allen Purcell in the year 2114. Before we meet him he has already defiled or “japed” a sacred statue in the futuristic post-apocalypse city of Newer York. (Note: “japed” rhymes with “escaped” and “raped” and Purcell’s actions have a connotative hint of both of those words, making me wonder how intentional that might have been on Dick’s part). Purcell begins our story like Ensign Pulver, only Purcell hides his act of vandalism, partly because he was drunk and blocked the memory of the act. Strangely he starts to climb the ladder of morality, and Dick cleverly writes this so that the reader must ask whether he was in fact appointed the director of morality as a karmic reward for this illegal act. In a time of oppressive morality, it takes only one defiant act for rumors to begin—this is only the first act of defiance, yet more are sure to follow.
Like the horrific world written by Shirley Jackson in her short story The Lottery, each member of Purcell’s community comes to neighborhood meetings where each person is called out, here for lapses in morality in old churches and other Old World meeting-places as a kind of post-modern confessional. The lapses and more overt acts like adultery have been furtively recorded objectively by “juveniles”—not kids—but robot informants that coldly record and report to the head of the community. You wait and wait to be called and judged at these meetings. Purcell’s wife is frantic about getting called out. To one day be caught and called out for your wrongs brings dread and, ultimately, compliance. Law and order. Purcell responds differently after his late night binge. Imagine wanting to be found out, just to gain some relief from not wanting to hide anymore?
But why did Purcell “jape” the statue? A local psychiatrist–a bit of a hack like Bill Murray’s Dr. Venkman in Ghostbusters, tries to help him remember. Purcell was messing around where he shouldn’t have, with friends selling banned items for top dollar from an archaeological find of sorts. Copies of the Saturday Evening Post from centuries past are found among the most base of old, bad, pulp novels, and something else—“real” books, including Joyce’s Ulysses, books as Dick says, mean something. Later, Dick seems to return to this place in his novel Time Out of Joint. “To find answers to today’s problems, look to the past” seems to be a repeated message in Dick’s books.
But so is stopping the story at midpoint and thrusting his characters in seemingly parallel universes. Think of Doug Quaid in Dick’s other work We Can Remember It for You Wholesale and the film adaptations called Total Recall. It is a technique I find Dick using seamlessly and brilliantly. One minute Purcell is here in Newer York, the next he is off-world, married to his doctor’s sister. Or is he?
And Purcell japes again. He returns to his psychiatrist, who proceeds to give Purcell a very funny battery of every psychological test conceivable. The scene is almost slapstick, a refreshing, light-hearted change of pace for Dick’s stories. Also funny is the dialogue characters slip in and out of–pure Yodaspeak, “This a paradox is.” (Hey, George Lucas, we found your source for Yoda’s speech!)
Corruption, randomness, free will, rumors, the role of media in society, the loss of self in the great big world, how acting versus standing idly by can make an impact, how any one person can change the world–all of these grand themes and ideas are here.
As with past works, Dick doesn’t predict the dates right, despite his long-standing prophetic status—with some of the world-changing events happening in his then-distant, future date of 1988. But you can’t get around this, Dick isn’t the only 1950s writer to think we’d have hover cars by 2000, and you wonder if it would add any value for his estate to change these dates in new editions with better futuristic dates, then maybe a footnote at the end noting the change, simply to avoid the obvious misses.
The novel ends with a bang–a satisfying blend of chaos and clarity as Purcell takes over the TV airwaves with his grandest idea yet. Can one person really change the entire world or is Dick teasing us? Far more layered elements can be found in the story than I have hinted at here, as it is packed with social and political commentary, but not over-weighted with it. Of all of Dick’s early works, consider The Man Who Japed a fun and worthwhile read.