Here’s the writer of Ubik, stopping in at Art Music on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, a store selling sheet music and records and phonographs, a store where until recently he was a mere but happy clerk. Now he is something else, something less mere, something less simply happy. He enters the store, gives a genial wave to his old colleagues, the fellows still stuck in retail, and flips a glossy new paperback onto the floor as if ditching it at a security checkpoint before being frisked. He sallies past the book and the clerks, toward the back, toward the downstairs where the stoic and holy repairmen tinker at busted electronics.
“Hey, Phil, what are you doing?”
“Just thought I’d patrol the old precincts and make sure you guys weren’t getting into trouble without me.”
“Holy heck, it’s good to see you, Phil. Hollis sure misses you. He talks about you all the time. But he’s not here right now; his wife’s family’s up in Sonoma—”
“I’m here to see you guys. I’ll see Hollis another time.”
“What’s with the book?”
“Oh, that? Heh, that’s just something . . . nothing really.”
The one clerk stoops and picks up the book. “Hey, wait one cotton-picking minute. It’s got your name on it.”
“Yeah, I had that published, I got that published.” As if at his command, as if he’d flung the manuscript to New York with the same cavalier abandon as he’d flung the finished product on the music shop’s floor: Hey you! Publish this.
“Flame Disc, by Philip K. Dick. Geez! What’s it about?”
What’s it about? It’s about 235 pages, Ted. It’s about I wrote six novels about guys like you and me nobody wants to read, Ted. It’s about what it feels like to dwell in one place and yet feel you should dwell in another. It’s about there are no mere happy clerks. It’s about the bright paper of its cover and the bright paper of my shelves of complete runs of Astounding and Amazing, the way my dreams got turned into something shiny and put on a shelf, and now I’m one of them, one of those science fiction writers. It’s about my sister, only you can’t meet her because she’s dead.
“Just some pulp crap. I wrote it in two weeks.”
“A story about a planet?”
The music shop dissolved around the writer of Ubik and then he stood on the sidewalk of Shattuck, alone. The store vanished, Ted and the other clerks vanished, the book gone too. A slip of paper at his feet. The writer picks it up. The slip of paper reads, “Art Music Store.”
* * * *
Here’s the writer of Ubik, slouching through the entrance of the Lucky Dog Pet Shop on San Pablo Avenue, a few blocks from where he lives with his second wife in a small and innocuous house on a small and innocuous street where nobody suspects the thought-dreams that the writer dreams. In the late days of the 1950s, when the sound of a single dog barking at the garbage collectors could be seen as a ripple of subversion in the collective suburban hallucination, even in Berkeley. While across the Bay the Beats enact their gunky homosexual rebellion, the only brand of antidote on the market.
The Lucky Dog Pet Shop is where the writer of Ubik goes to buy ground horsemeat, ostensibly for his dog, actually for himself and his wife to eat. It’s not so bad, horsemeat. In the Pyrenees they smoke it into jerky and serve it with hard cheese and casks of good red wine. What’s bad is the shame. The writer of Ubik has come to suspect that the woman who runs the cash register at the Lucky Dog Pet Shop knows he’s buying the horsemeat for himself, that there is no dog. In a world where the FBI has already visited the writer’s house—they were dapper and polite, fine figures of men, a little older than he’d expected; they reminded him of Hollis, they took him for a drive, he sort of liked them—the woman is one of his foremost looming authority figures. She might turn him in. She might tell his mother.
Yet when the writer of Ubik gets to the cash register he finds not the dreaded woman but instead a substitute clerk, a young man with a small beard like a Beat. When the writer approaches, the substitute clerk greets him in a voice conditioned by cigarettes and bearing traces of an accent. The writer understands without knowing how he understands that the substitute clerk is from France. More than just from France. The substitute clerk is a Marxist literary critic. The writer feels relief. Here is someone who certainly must grasp the eating of horsemeat. The writer’s going to get away with it, at least today.
“You are Philip?”
“You will write Ubik?”
“I don’t know, I guess so.”
“In that book reality proves unstable and can only be restored by the application of a product in a spray can, available on drugstore shelves.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure. Can you sell me two pounds of ground horsemeat, please?”
“Therefore, you apprehend that all around you is ideology. You know better than anyone daily life is delusory. You see the commodity fetish. Why are you so afraid?”
How to explain that when the writer was tiny he feared suffocation under the blankets of his own bed, feared it before he could have known the word suffocation or understand what it was to breathe or to not breathe, feared that he might vanish as his sister had vanished, before even being permitted to utter a word, to form a question. And so he slept with his blankets pinned beneath his arms, in terror of the blanket surrounding his face, in terror of it rising up in the night to muffle his mouth. Even on the coldest nights, his arms outside the blanket, always.
And yet—and this was the essence, possibly—the fear itself had always seemed a clue to something else. He had seen himself, a child in bed with his bare, cold arms pinning his sheets and blankets beneath his chin, as if from above, watching himself. He was always studying himself, his own activities and behaviors, trying to deduce their meanings. What was he up to? Why was he different? If he didn’t report on himself, who would?
The Marxist critic measures out two pounds of horsemeat on the shop’s scale. He isn’t as adept at estimating weights as the usual woman and keeps missing.
“Close enough. Just wrap it up.”
“You will eat this?”
“Must philosophers truly be so cowed in this culture? Or are you perhaps being paranoid?”
To be different is to be suspicious and to be suspicious is to be a Red and to be a Red is to be the enemy of normality and to be the enemy of normality is to be part of a faceless communist groupmind where everyone is exactly the same, and so when we conform we show that we are totally different from the people who are all exactly the same and don’t allow anyone to exhibit freedom from conformity, and so maybe the freaks are the only true Americans. You wouldn’t understand. We went through McCarthyism and the Cold War to keep you fuckers eating horse.
“If you keep talking to me I’m going to turn you in.”
“It would be a privilege, Mr. Dick.”
“Keep pushing me, chump.”
“Can’t you at least grow a beard?”
“My wife doesn’t like it.”
* * * *
Here’s the writer of Ubik, gregariously welcoming into his ramshackle parlor the bigshot Hollywood hipster filmmaker Dancer Handclasp—who has probably come here to rip him off—and Handclasp’s girlfriend, the famous and beautiful actress Lena Finney. The writer of Ubik, in his snuff-stained beard and with his barrel chest stretching the buttons of his paisley shirt and with his cat elusive underfoot—avoiding him ever since scratching the hell out of the speakers—has seen so much come through his door by now, the freaks and cops of various kinds. He’s been both freak and cop himself. Recognizes the fatal confusion in others when they appear before him, and this guy Handclasp is a classic case. He is fey and strong at once, pathetic and menacing, European and totally Californian, a hippie with power, a beggar arriving with something the writer wants: a movie deal. Legitimacy.
He sees it everywhere, legitimacy, an elusive substance the world has chosen to tease him with. He renounces it: You can’t fire me; I quit. You propriety, you legitimacy, you money, you grown-ups. You wives. You mainstream writers. There is no mainstream; he knows it now. And then legitimacy comes calling in another guise, and today it’s Handclasp, brandishing the actress, his trump card. The actress has the writer totally buffaloed. She is so beautiful and all he can do is imagine her not in his room and not in his bed but in his movie. Handclasp can have her in bed. The writer will not tell his secret: He’d give Handclasp the book he wants for free if he would only make it real, make it happen, fix the crack in the world. Put Lena Finney in a movie called Are Androids Dreaming of Me While I Sleep? The book is out of print, anyway.
Do they know who they’re dealing with?
I’ve got nothing to sell. I already gave it away, cast my pearls, wasted my treasure. Every confusion etched in stone for all to see, brought down as by Moses or Mercer from the mountaintop. But totally out of print, broke, screwed, fnargled. Famous in France, among the horse lovers. And horse lover, after all, means only Philip.
I’m the greatest nobody you ever heard of, but you’re here telling me what I want to hear: that I’m the greatest, that I know the secret of the world and that makes me important and dangerous. What does that make you?
A freak or a cop?
* * * *
Here’s the writer of Ubik at the pharmacy counter in Orange County, one of those old soda fountain and pharmacy shops that might as well be a museum of the 1950s, everything covered with dust and old products on the shelves that you didn’t even know they made anymore. An electric fan with a cage for the blade you could put your whole hand through. Tempting but no. And all the pills in unlabelled jars and a metal scoop—old-timey except it’s a pretty good decoy. Who’d know what they were getting until old Doc Labyrinth there roused himself from his stool and filled the prescription? So it might throw a lot of desperate freaks and heads off the scent. Not the writer though; he’s got every pill that matters memorized by shape and color. He could do this job if he wanted. Work the counter. Be that kind of clerk. Tempting but no. He turns his head forcibly from the jars of pills.
Incredibly enough the store also houses a spinner rack for paperbacks—old-style, too, and covered in dust like the rest. And in the wire frames of the rack the writer finds Ace paperbacks, Ace Doubles, and the early “Giant Size,” which just meant something along the lines of the length of an ordinary novel, for crying out loud. The writer spins the rack. It’s all his old stuff, as though it had been sitting there for twenty years. Death of an Anti-Watcher. We Can Wrap It For You To Go. The Variable Feasibility of Perkus Tooth. Celestial Crap-Assessor.
The jackets are yellowed and the spines rigid. He doesn’t dare widen the pages beyond peeking in to see that the type survives, that the words, for what they’re worth, are his, not some counterfeit. These are his real books, only degraded into worthlessness, if they were worth anything to begin with. He concludes he ought to rescue them, that this is what’s he’s come here for—the pills he had in mind to extract from the pharmacist with the faked prescription page are beside the point. Besides, old Doc Labyrinth looks like a canny one, best not to try to fool him. He scoops up an armload of the paperbacks and dumps them on the counter beside the cash register.
“You want something for that?”
“Sorry? Uh, just the books.”
“I meant the books. If you want I can spruce them up a bit, only take a minute.”
“Spruce them up?”
“We’ve got a cure for most anything in here, son.”
“Well, sure. If it doesn’t take too much time.”
Doc Labyrinth reaches behind the counter and emerges with a spray can labeled “Ubik!”. The scripted font and sparkles of stardust surrounding the letters make it look like a hairspray his mother might have had in her bathroom cabinet in the forties. Hardly encouraging. The spray, whatever it contains, is plainly another relic from the same yawning past that has hidden these paperbacks here for so many years. Nevertheless, the pharmacist sprays it liberally over the books piled on his counter.
The writer realizes he was expecting some transformation to occur. Nothing would have shocked him. In a way, this is the most surprising result of all, that they’re unchanged. If his books had been transformed into clean, new editions, given handsome, worthy jackets replete with fulsome endorsements from the critics who’d sneered at them in their first incarnation, he’d have been grateful. Or they might have grown fangs and tusks, coarse fur, batwings and claws, might have become creatures that could fend for themselves, migrate out into the world and compete with the other creatures. He wouldn’t have minded that in the least. But the homely fact of the unchanged books disconcerts him.
He turns to the pharmacist, who has recapped the spray can of Ubik! and now grins at him, widening his hands munificently over the heap of books, essence-of-Ubik! forming a sticky coating on their once bright jackets.
“There you go. All better now. Those should keep a while.”
The writer doesn’t wish to disappoint the old man, who now strikes him as pathetic. “How much do I owe you?”
“Let’s see . . .” The pharmacist squints at the covers, discerning the ancient prices, all in the double figures: thirty-five cents, fifty cents, ninety-five cents. He laboriously punches the sums into his antique register and eventually produces a total, which the writer pays with wrinkled bills from his wallet. Then accepts a paper bag—brown paper bag for this stuff, he thinks—and trudges out onto the sidewalk, into the sunshine, to look for his car. It’s still there. And when he glances back at the drugstore, it’s still there too.