By C.J. Bunce
Today we know what happened to Charles Van Doren, either through living through the aftermath of the quiz show scandals or watching the movie Quiz Show. Like McCarthyism and later like Watergate, certain events poke at the public and make you question what is going on around you. Comparing ourselves to readers in the 1950s we know that we never made it to Venus colonization in the 1990s. We know that Marilyn Monroe would die young. We know that Tucker’s automobile would not get very far. Imagine the era of the Cleavers in Leave it to Beaver. When Sandra Dee didn’t have to worry about her future but could smile and make everyone happy on the big screen. Imagine back to the world of the Twilight Zone, but the Twilight Zone neighborhoods before weird things start to happen.
To me, it all looks black and white. That is of course because of television, because movies had color in the 1950s. Kodak photos were in color in the 1950s. But even if you grew up in the 1970s you got to see everything your parents watched because of the miracle of cable TV.
Of course Time Out of Joint could take place anywhere, but it is roughly 1958 when Philip K. Dick wrote Time Out of Joint that we meet Vic and Ragle and Margo and Junie and Bill. A time when Charles Van Doren was winning game shows on television. Upheaval in the Middle East. Recession, millions unemployed. Familiar? A normal family: Vic who works the registers at the grocery store, stay-at-home wife but civically active Margo, and son Sammy. Margo’s brother Ragle, irresponsible, single, 46 years old and flirts with the neighbor’s wife, lives with Vic and Margo and spends the day answering contest entries in the newspaper. He works as hard as anyone who works full-time, simply to keep winning the contests, and he has won two years in a row–national champion, his photo published in the newspaper. Publicity of Ragle as local winner was good for the local paper.
If you have ever moved across the country to a new city, you probably felt uneasy at first. Maybe its the new trees that look like nothing you grew up with. Ocean where you knew only plains. Seasons that don’t change quite right. Simple things like grocery store chains you never heard of in your several years as resident of planet Earth. And yet some things are familiar and you gravitate toward those places. Maybe it is something as familair as a Target store or A&W root beer stand. Anything that can help you get your bearing. maybe you put your phone down at home and later find it in your car. Too much on your mind? Or is it something else?
Neighbors Bill and Junie Black come over to Vic and Margo’s with espresso and lasagna one night. And tidbits of information make the reader feel like something is a little off. Sammy’s radio gets no signal, and we learn there has been no radio reception nearby for years. As a reader, you are slowly sucked into a world like our expected America of the 1950s, but something makes us uneasy. Vic walks into a room fumbling for a light cord that is not there. He doesn’t remember the room having a light switch. Soon Ragle becomes the central character in our trip back 50 years.
Vic is paranoid. But not so much as Ragle. No surprise, since this is the age of paranoia, right? Russians, civil defense alerts…all ready for the Bay of Pigs coming soon to a bomb shelter near you. Everyone is a bit… paranoid, everyone except Bill Black. Vic suggests Ragle can pull it all together, after all, he solves riddles with data and charts and scientific-precision calculations in their living room.
Later in the week Ragle asks Junie to go swimming, a break from strategizing his contest entries. She recalls walking up steps where there should have been three steps but there were only two. Ragle can’t seem to get the oddities out of his brain. He walks to the soft-drink stand to get a beer, and it dematerializes leaving a note that states “SOFT-DRINK STAND.” Ragle thinks he is having a nervous breakdown. He wants to quit the contests and take a vacation out of the country. He tells Vic. Vic and Ragle agree something is wrong. Somehow “the time is out of joint.”
Sammy has more slips of paper he picked up at the site of some old houses Margo was trying to have leveled by the city to protect kids from getting hurt there after school. Ragle buys the slips of paper from Sammy and goes to the ruins and unearths several magazines he is not familair with and a phone book from an unrecognizable town and time period. He begins calling the numbers and the operator says to try the call again. He questions the operator and she hangs up on him. He flips through the magazines. One features a story that Laurence Olivier is dead. “But he’s alive, I know it,” says Margo. And there is a photo of a beautiful woman none have them have seen before and the magazines speak of her as if she is famous. “Marilyn Monroe.” The magazine says she is famous here in America. But that can’t be. No one has heard of her.
As readers, and suggested by Dick, is Ragle just mentally ill? After all, he lives with his sister’s family at age 46. He doesn’t have a real job but sleuths out word games not by solving puzzles, but like the kids that ace the SATs because they figured out the supposedly random code of the bubble dots.
The next morning neighbor Bill Black gets to work and receives a report. About the phone calls being made. He rushes to the office of a man named Lowery. Could all this be happening? Is Ragle sane again? Suddenly we are thrust into a world that could be found in the TV series Lost. But this experience is for more personal, far more real. Hints at the world Dick would later write that would become the film The Adjustment Bureau and short story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” that M. Night Shyamalan would uncover with The Village, that Bruce Willis encountered in Mercury Rising, that Rod Serling would investigate in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and countless other Twilight Zone episodes. That The Truman Show would unapologetically borrow from decades later. But there is more here. Dick reveals ideas in his novels in a way that seems relevant and current, even 50 years later. Time Out of Joint is no different, and is one of my favorites of all his works.
My hints at read-alikes and watch-alikes above will give you a hint at themes to expect in this solid science fiction work that today would be side by side with mainstream bestsellers as the science fiction is only a small part of what happens to these characters. Looks for themes that Dick pursues in later works, like the meaning of what is real, who we are. I have a stack of all but one of Dick’s works and plan to make my way through many of them again and others for the first time. If you have only met Philip K. Dick through the numerous movies based on his works, then there is a giant volume of brilliant novels, and maybe even more brilliant short stories that lies ahead. Time Out of Joint would be a great entry into Dick’s work.