09 April 2008

The Man Who Japed: Humor as sedition

The Man Who Japed
Philip K. Dick

I had never encountered the word "jape" before reading Dick's third published novel, although I did use it once in a game of Scrabble. (Most likely I'd subconsciously picked it up during the many times I've scanned the PKD section in bookstores.) Turns out that it is an archaic English verb that is defined thusly:
  • v.intr., To joke or quip.
  • v.tr., To make sport of.
The title is an appropriate one, since this is the first of Dick's novels to highlight his puckish sense of humor. In typical Dick fashion, levity is put to the service of weightier matters; the prankish plot brilliantly establishes that having a sense of humor can be downright seditious.

Allen Purcell, the man from the title, is "the forward-looking young president of the newest and most creative of the Research Agencies," a man whose career trajectory as a Moral Reclamation (Morec) propagandist belies his deep-seated antipathy to the entire endeavor. So strong is this antipathy that he gets drunk one night with some friends in the sterile wasteland of Hokkaido and on the way home japes a statue of Major Streiter, the beloved founder of Morec---by removing its head. After which he blacks out.

The novel begins the morning after this episode with Purcell "losing" his bedroom, as the automated furnishings in his one-room apartment rearrange themselves like clockwork. As Purcell goes about his day, the reader gets glimpses of this brave new post-apocalyptic world. The apartment overlooks the -- blessed -- Morec spire and the surrounding Park environs, complete with the 124-year-old statue of Streiter. We learn about the Morec phenomenon of the weekly block meetings, "the interminable interchange, the stuffy presence of his neighbors packed together in one room. And the whir of the juveniles as they surrendered their tapes to the Committee representatives" (p. 9). These "juveniles" (presumably named after the propensity of prudes to blame "the children" for their attempts at censorship) are "earwig-like sleuths," small camera-enabled robots whose regular invasions of privacy form the backbone of the humorless, puritanical snitch-culture that is Moral Reclamation. Another central tenet is the notion of "the domino method," in which it is assumed that all residents of a given block automatically believe the same thing:
The domino method operates on the assumption that people believe what their group believesm no more and no less. One unique individual would foul it up. One man who originated his own idea, instead of getting it from his block domino. (p. 20)

This new world was obviously not engineered with the best interests of the individual in mind; once again we find an everyman protagonist, not a larger than life hero, but a regular guy who is fed up with the repressive culture in which he finds himself.

As Purcell vaguely recalls his japing of the statue, he dreads being found out; however, instead of being discovered and pilloried he is invited to become the director of Telemedia, the central organ of Morec propaganda. Meanwhile, his block community has called him before the weekly meeting, which he loathes. We get to see this vile operation in action, as anonymous members of the community publicly interrogate and humiliate various block members for their infractions: sexual intercourse, rudeness, uttering morally objectionable words, etc.

In a whirlwind of events, Purcell is effectively kidnapped and taken to Other World, an offworld colony for those who can't cope with the world of Morec. There it is discovered that Purcell has some sort of defect on his brain scans---a sense of humor.
And a sense of humor doesn't fit in with Morec. Or with us. You're not a 'mutant'; you're just a balanced human being...The japery, everything you've done. You're just trying to re-establish a balance in an unbalanced world. And it's something you can't even admit to yourself. On the top you believe in Morec. Underneath there's that blob, that irreducible core, that grins and laughs and plays pranks....

Yes, your ethics are very high. But they're not the ethics of this society. The block meetings--you loath them. The faceless accusers. The juveniles--the busybody prying. This senseless struggle for leases. The anxiety. The tension and strain... And the overtones of guilt and suspicion. Everything becomes--tainted. The fear of contamination; fear of committing an indecent act. Sex is morbid; people hounded for natural acts. This whole structure is like a giant torture chamber, with everybody staring at one another, trying to find fault, trying to break one another down. Witchhunts and star chambers. Dread and censorship, Mr. Bluenose banning books. Children kept from hearing evil. Morec was invented by sick minds, and it creates more sick minds. (pp. 119-120)

Eventually his business rivals and a disgruntled ex-employee conspire to bring Purcell down. This they do by tailing him with juveniles and accusing him of extra-marital relations with the woman responsible for his kidnapping. After being caught "in the act" of giving this woman a peck on the cheek, Purcell weathers the ensuing shitstorm in the only way a living, thinking human being can---by not taking it too seriously. With his job as Director of Telemedia facing immediate cancellation, Purcell uses his last remaining bits of influence to create a huge media event revolving around the mysterious postwar policy of "active assimilation." This policy, invented completely out of whole cloth by Purcell and his creative team, insinuates that Major Streiter and his other Moral Reclaimers actually ate those with whom they disagreed as a means of obtaining nutrients while also maintaining population and social controls. Though the powers that be pull the plug on the faux panel discussion of "active assimilation" in the middle of the broadcast, the damage is done. As we leave Purcell, he is standing with his wife waiting for the coming Cohorts of Major Streiter, the brownshirt enforcers of Morec, and proudly announcing to all passersby that he is the man who japed the statue. All in all a well told, inspiring story about the radical nature of laughter.

I couldn't help but notice lots of frightening similarities between the world of Morec and the righteous nonsense Americans accept as a substitute for culture in the early 21st century. The leering need on behalf of the assembled people at block meetings to hear all the titillating details of every infraction is all too familiar in this age of "Humiliation Television." Ubiquitous spying technology in the form of "juveniles" echoes the current brouhaha over the President's illegal wiretapping of US citizens and the increasing omnipresence of security cameras throughout the UK. And of course, the entire Morec media environment, with its emphasis on hyperconformity, is far too similar to the televisual hive-mind I encounter at every water cooler; it's almost as if Dick saw what the cultural straitjacket of 1950s America would evolve into, given enough time. Luckily his message about resistance to this repression rings equally true; an entire body of social criticism owes its existence to stand-up comics like Lenny Bruce and his heirs.

Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke, right?

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