I own a lot of books, and I’ve read most of them more than once. Sometimes I’ll find that I’m in a spooky sort of mood, and I’ll dust off some Stephen King or Peter Straub; sometimes I’ll find that I’m up for some poetry, and I’ll open some Charles Bukowski or Richard Brautigan; and other times I feel up for some good old fashioned comic book geekery, and all of a sudden, “It’s clobberin’ time!”
But there’s one book that creeps into my life like clockwork. Without even realizing the date or consciously choosing the title to keep up with tradition, come the end of May I reach to my bookshelf and pull off Ubik by Philip K. Dick.
The tale is an odd one–those were Dick’s specialties. A group of people belonging to a “prudence organization”, who possess the psionic ability to negate other psionic abilities, travel into space on a business trip. While on the surface of Luna, a saboteur sets off a bomb, killing their boss, Glen Runciter. Quickly as possible, they return his body to earth and put it on cold-pack so that he can remain in a suspended state of half-life. Using special machines supplied at the moratorium where his body will be stored, his friends and family can still communicate with him. Just like Runciter would have wanted.
The operation, however, was not a success.
The survivors attempt to move on with their lives, but quickly enough things turn a bit sour. They begin experiencing strange slips in reality. Things around them begin regressing in age–their money becomes antiquated, their cigarettes crumble in their fingers, their hovercars become Model Ts, etc. And not only that, but Runciter seems to be trying to contact them from beyond the grave with cryptic messages about a cryptic product called Ubik that can perhaps set things right.
The first time I read Ubik was–surprise, surprise–in June. It was one of a number of Dick novels that I had “inherited” following my father’s suicide. I was plagued with nightmares–and still am on this particular month of each year–one of which revolved around this basic premise:
It was not my father who had hung himself. It was me. I just didn’t realize it. My punishment for putting my loved ones through such suffering was to eternally exist in a false plane of existence in my own mind, one in which my father had left me behind.
Upon waking, I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I continued to read Ubik, hoping to find that much-fabled distraction. What I found, instead, made me feel as if I were a character in the novel and not merely an observer who was reading the novel.
Joe Chip–the hero of the story–enters a bathroom and sees the following message scrawled on the wall, in what is obviously the deceased Runciter’s script:
LEAN OVER THE BOWL
AND THEN TAKE A DIVE
ALL OF YOU ARE DEAD.
I AM ALIVE.
Which, I guess, puts me in half-life. At least one month out of the year.