Retro read–Philip K. Dick’s look at life in 1950s San Francisco, The Broken Bubble

Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s always exciting to work your way through a Philip K. Dick novel for the first time.  The singular futurist who created the worlds of Blade Runner, The Man in the High Castle, Minority Report, and Total Recall probably created his most spectacular characters, ideas, and fantastical places in the pages of his five volumes of collected short stories.  His 38 novels are an up and down journey through a man who allowed his personal crises to seep in, and often obstruct his imagination.  Most of these were science fiction novels, but his novels outside that genre are another matter.  One of these, written around the year 1956 about a disc jockey in the changing streets of 1950s San Francisco, is The Broken Bubble, one of the closest and earliest read-alikes you’ll find from this author to the energy and twists of a Quentin Tarantino movie, in a compelling read that world pair nicely with a popular, more modern dramatic read like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

The Broken Bubble is a reflection of Billy Wilder’s 1950 look at the quirkier elements of Los Angeles in Sunset Boulevard.  Dick wrote the lead characters in similar states of angst and life crises: Jim Briskin is a disc jockey in San Francisco who still spins classical records, and because it’s San Francisco of 1956, along with the teens after the new music of Elvis and rock and roll, parts of the city still flock to Briskin and the flip side of the music scene.  The challenge is his ex-wife Pat works as a secretary at the station, and she’s dating a stereotypical radio station news sales guy named Bob Posin–think Herb Tarlek on WKRP in Cincinnati, but someone an attractive woman would more likely flock toward.   The challenge arises when Posin scores a big sale of air time commercials with a used car lot, which has an owner known for his annoying advertisements.  The station signs the contract, but when Briskin must read one of the commercials on the air during his quaint classical program, he refuses–on air.  But that’s only the initial conflict.

One of the band of kids that Briskin entertains, and lets follow him for lunches and the like, is a teen named Art, whose girlfriend Rachael is pregnant.  Dick takes us into the realm of The Graduate and telegraphs the unlikely collision of dissimilar characters that would later come in the film Grand Canyon (a Los Angeles story), when Briskin brings Pat over to meet the kids after she gets drunk–what seems like one of many stupors ex-husband Briskin has had to confront before.  Pat doesn’t know what she wants, and as touched on in other Dick stories, she has some psychological issues that need addressed.  She asks Art to take her on a quick trip to the store, which results in her seducing him.  Briskin is at the point where he wants to get remarried, and now by bringing Pat to these kids he threatens the relationship of the boy and his pregnant girlfriend.  Happily for the reader, Briskin is more like Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino’s Max Cherry from Rum Punch and Jackie Brown–he has his own code, and cleans up his own messes.

Enter the bigger Tarantino-esque storytelling element: Nazis.  A small underground movement in the Hayes Hole section of San Francisco that overlaps with the kids who like Briskin’s radio show go out on graffiti and vandalism missions throughout the city.  Ultimately their plan comes to a head when the promoter for a local stripper pulls the night’s talent away from a Fog City convention of optometrists–who then go on their own vandalism mission.  It also shares the flow and interaction of characters as found in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.

Dick’s non-science fiction novels are far more insightful into his understanding of the human condition than comes through in many of his science fiction works.  The Broken Bubble has an element of misogyny that can be found throughout Dick’s writings, but it’s far less pronounced here.  It’s likely because he drew his lead protagonist this time as the caring sort, and not that typical hero wandering aimlessly about a confusing planet.  One could argue the first two-thirds of the novel could be tightened up a bit, but then the reader would lose this ground-level view of San Francisco in the 1950s, the people, the shops, the police, the struggle between personal freedom and a city maintaining law and order.  Like Dick’s In Milton Lumky Territory, this is a glimpse at real life places, staffed with believable, although very quirky, characters.  Dick would be married five times, and upon writing this novel he was with his second wife.  His works reflect a man who clearly had difficulty in his relationships, and in this novel he seems to be working some of them out among his characters.  Somehow it works.

Originally titled The Broken Bubble of Thisbe Holt, The Broken Bubble was one of a handful of mainstream novels publishers didn’t want to buy from the science fiction writer in his lifetime.  It was published posthumously in 1988, and has been reprinted multiple times since.   The book isn’t entirely without its science fiction, however.  Dick includes a character, one of his devoted fans, who writes a science fiction story he wants to submit for a contest in Astounding called “The Peeping Man,” included in its entirety within the novel.  And the teens publish a magazine called Phantasmagoria.

Note the lead character is the same Jim Briskin that Dick re-uses in The Crack in Space, which is not a sequel, but reflects the author’s realization he was not likely to publish The Broken Bubble.

Check out prior reviews in my ongoing series on PKD’s novels and stories here:
Solar Lottery
The World Jones Made
The Man Who Japed
Time Out of Joint
Now Wait for Last Year
We Can Build You
Philip K. Dick’s cover art archive
borg articles referencing Philip K. Dick 

As a life-long Philip K. Dick enthusiast, I found The Broken Bubble a refreshing, tightly written Dick novel.  Aside from some cringey quirks involving sex, race, and violence, reflecting the era, this was Dick without the influence of psychedelics.  A recommended retro read, The Broken Bubble is available in several editions, including here at Amazon.

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