Personal biases and tastes aside, what most of us want from a work of art – particularly one made by an acknowledged master of his craft – is to experience something that feels unique, personal, and visionary. It isn’t reasonable to demand brilliance or greatness, as there are too many factors outside of the artist’s control to ensure that the work will live up to such lofty expectations. But it is fair, I think, to ask that artists attempt to push the boundaries and shake the foundations of their aesthetic to the point that the reader, regardless of whether or not they ultimately “like” or even “get” what they just read, feels that they’ve been through something.
Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik is something and then some, but it’s tough to pin down exactly what it is, especially since its plot, tone, and even setting change so rapidly. The feeling of the rug being pulled out from under you every time you start to get your bearings can be frustrating when it feels that the author is simply making up the rules as he goes along, but Dick’s nonstop changes are less oriented around plot than they are designed to get the reader into the paranoid headspace of his characters, who are always a step or ten behind the game in whatever mysterious intrigue they’re involved in. In keeping with Dick’s trademark druggy confusion, the exact shape of the plot is never entirely clear to either the characters or the reader – this is the kind of story where the main characters can’t even be certain whether they are alive or dead (and even after that question appears to be resolved, it is possibly turned on its head in a highly ambiguous final chapter) – and Dick uses the resultant uncertainty to mesmerizingly unsettling effect.
Here is what we (more or less) know: it’s 1992, and the North American Confederation is littered with mind readers. Glen Runciter is the president of a “prudence organization” that employs anti-telepaths, who have the ability to prevent high-paying clients’ minds from being read. Runciter runs the company with the help of his deceased wife Ella, who is kept in a state of “half-life,” a not-uncommon situation in which the deceased have limited consciousness and communication ability, and in which they can die again. The prudence organization is hired to secure a wealthy businessman’s moon-based offices from mind readers, a task which Runciter entrusts to an eleven-person team led by his right-hand man Joe Chip. The assignment is revealed to be a trap when the guest room that the prudence team is invited to explodes, apparently leaving Runciter dead…unless it’s actually Runciter who is the sole survivor of the blast. Chip and his associates begin to travel backwards through time at an accelerated rate, as they wonder whether they are in the real world, the afterlife, or in half-life. Before they can figure out what the hell’s going on, the group begins receiving ambiguous messages from their possibly dead boss, who instructs them to use a mysterious, all-purpose protective spray known as “Ubik” that can apparently protect them from the unknown forces that seem to threaten the prudence organization’s existence in their increasingly unfamiliar surroundings.
As is probably clear from the above plot description, Ubik moves very quickly, giving readers an overload of information that makes things more confusing rather than more clear, and then moving on to a new situation before they can fully comprehend the last one. A typical scene (if anything in this novel even fits that description) begins with Joe Chip stumbling into an old-fashioned pharmacy with a proprietor whose words move out of sync with his mouth as his body movements randomly shift between unnaturally fast or slow speeds, and ends with the building itself mysteriously disappearing. Dick’s relentless destabilization has a hallucinatory power that makes up for some of his novel’s noticeable flaws. None of the characters are particularly well-developed, and while protagonist Joe Chip’s lack of distinction seems purposeful (he is the everyman that the reader can identify with), most of the other members of his prudence team are literally given one sentence of description. Chip’s love interest, Holly, makes no impression at all, and the book’s main villain isn’t even introduced until the last several chapters, as if Dick realized too late that he needed some way to wrap up the story. But it is a credit to the power of the book’s mood-building and sheer unpredictability that these theoretically major flaws register as minor annoyances in a distinctive experience that the reader will never be able to fully understand or shake off.