Ragle Gumm is an ordinary man lives with his sister’s family in a sleepy suburban 1950s town. He makes a living by winning a newspaper contest over and over again. He dallies with his neighbour and plots where the Little Green Man will be Next, but starts to realise all is not well. This is how Time out of Joint, by Philip K Dick, begins.
“In the 21st century, the label of the “Atomic Age” connotes either a sense of nostalgia or naïveté,” – 1
The theme of the novel throughout is of cosy complacency, of living in a world designed to lull Ragle into a false sense of security. The fear of nuclear strikes is still present – at one point Ragle muses that when the H-Bombs start falling, CONELRAD won’t save them. But it is a fear curiously anesthetised in this suburban population. They drink newfangled espresso, eat the then exotic lasagne, argue over the price of coffee.
Everything has been made as easy as possible for Ragle. He’s a well-respected veteran with a good income; he has a sister, Margo, to look after him, a brother in law, Vic for friendship and Junie, a (not very bright) lover on hand, conditioned to fall for him. He lives in a picture perfect 1950s American town, with diners and tree houses, open air pools and ice cream stands.
Of course, in reality, this life of charming suburban bliss is a construct designed to alleviate Ragle’s fears and moral qualms about life in a destructive and likely unnecessary war. It isn’t a perfect 50s replica; more an amalgam of Ragle’s childhood memories. The town is a kind of Stepford Suburbia, an obvious critique of the apparent complacency of everyday Americans in the face of nuclear war.
The Cold War
The novel was written in the 1950s, during the height of the cold war and the space race. Fear of nuclear annihilation was rife. It was just after the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but before the American government began building fallout shelters.
The atmosphere was tense and people were afraid. They began to believe that any nuclear attack would lead to the end of the world. Yet there was an atmosphere of denial where families would pretend everything was fine.
“The idea of exterminating ourselves is so chilling that we have decided to deny it to ourselves and to our children and pretend it cannot happen,” wrote Carlos Salguero, assistant professor at the Yale University School of Medicine and Child Study Center, in 1983.
Of course this is a common coping mechanism, but one that fuels The Time is Out of Joint.
It could be considered a more sinister precursor to the Truman Show. Everyone from his loyal brother in law to his lover have been brainwashed and implanted into a model town designed to keep him passive. His contest is a way for him to figure out nuclear bomb targets without affecting his conscience.
Of course throughout most of the novel we aren’t sure if Ragle is sane or not. A 46 year old man living with his sister, playing a contest, getting cheques from a kindly looking man in a baggy suit; a man Ragle says looks like a minister. It could easily be a kind fiction by his family, set up for a veteran affected badly by the war. He plays his contest, and gets his disability cheques, framed as ‘prizes’ by a sympathetic charity worker.
The author uses mental illness as he does frequently – but almost in reverse. Ragle’s greatest symptom is his perception of the world as safe and wholesome. His paranoia and a fear is a sign of his sanity returning; of being forced to confront reality.
In The End
I would almost recommend stopping reading around page 158. PK Dick was never very good at endings – this one was particularly poor. Part of the issue was that Dick was pigeonholed as a pulp sci fi writer, and was ‘encouraged’ to add an explicitly futuristic ending. I would have preferred something more ambiguous. Of course, maybe it is; when he and his brother-in-law explore the future, the final confrontation takes place in a pharmacy; where he and a woman in a white lab coat discuss his memory and sanity, and his relative decides to abandon him. The whole diversion into the futuristic world could easily have been Ragle’s final break with reality. And he and Vic’s ‘escape’ was his brother delivering him up to the white coated doctor with the sensible grey bun.