Tuesday, February 12, 2013

On Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint

While traveling to and from Deauville I took along a copy of Philip K. Dick’s 1959 novel Time Out of Joint. It’s a book I first read long, long ago, but have thought about a lot ever since. In fact, looking back through the blog I notice I mentioned it a few years ago as belong to a list of books that “for whatever reason, stand out in my mind.” I bought a copy at the Labyrinth Bookstore in Princeton prior to the France trip and took it along, and finished it on the way home.

Like all of Dick’s novels and stories, the premise of Time Out of Joint is inventive and thought-provoking. In this case, a middle-aged ex-vet named Ragle Gumm finds himself living with his sister and brother-in-law in an ordinary ’50s neighborhood. Gumm has no job per se, but makes a decent amount of money each month by winning a daily puzzle-solving contest in the newspaper, something called “Where Will The Green Man Be Next?”

The story proceeds in a fairly mundane, realistic fashion for the first third or so of the novel, then a few strange things occur that lead Ragle to believe either something is wrong with the world as he knows it or perhaps he is going insane. He finds what seems to be a current phonebook but all of the numbers are disconnected. He also reads a story in a magazine about a beautiful contemporary movie star named Marilyn Monroe, but neither he nor his sister and brother-in-law have ever heard of such a person.

Ragle additionally starts to experience what he believes to be hallucinations in which objects disintegrate before his eyes and are replaced by strips of paper stating what they were (e.g., “door,” “drinking fountain,” etc.). All of which further fuels his anxiety about his own mental health and whether or not the strain of putting in hours and hours each day creating his contest entry is getting to him.

As you might guess, there’s a lot more happening here than initially meets the eye. I won’t give away more about the plot than to say that eventually Ragle does come to confirm his suspicions that the contest he’s been working on is more than just a harmless bit of problem-solving, but has much larger implications. And that the mundane suburban setting in which he lives isn’t what it seems at all, either.

I read a lot of Dick novels long ago, and I seem to remember most of them having these highly intriguing set-ups and then the execution sometimes feeling a little hasty. I think Time Out of Joint falls into this category, too, although ultimately the story is successful at making the reader think about the nature of reality and larger philosophical questions such Hamlet contemplates when he utters the line that gave Dick his book’s title.

I don’t want to say too much more about the book, though, because I want to recommend it to anyone reading this blog. I think it’s a book that poker players should find especially interesting, and not just because there’s actually some poker played early on in the book (something I’d completely forgotten about).

Rather, I’ll quickly list three reasons why I think the book might appeal to poker players, especially full-time players who sometimes find themselves stepping back and thinking about the significance of having found themselves playing a game for a living.

One reason is the obvious parallel between Ragle’s “job” and that of, say, a full-time poker grinder, especially one who only plas online and thus finds him or herself kind of isolated from the world in much the same way Ragle is when working on his puzzles.

Aggravating his wondering about his own sanity are Ragle’s self-doubts about the nature of his employment and whether or not his life has any real significance. In fact, there’s a small argument early in the book between Ragle and a neighbor in which the latter kind of chides him a little for not having a “real job.” Ragle thinks to himself about how even though he makes more money at his “job” than his brother-in-law does at the supermarket, his existence ultimately boils down to “puttering about with something in the daily newspaper... like a kid.”

I know some poker players -- especially those who mainly make their living playing online -- have these same conversations with themselves and with others regarding how they earn their living. I’m thinking especially of these guys chasing Supernova on PokerStars or who pursue other endurance-test type promotions (or self-created goals) which assign a kind of tangible significance to their activity that perhaps gives it extra meaning beyond simply trying to earn money playing cards.

A second idea that comes up in the book is the question of Ragle’s “skill” at solving the ““Where Will The Green Man Be Next?” puzzle. Years of working it have allowed him to accumulate data and charts he uses to help inform his predictions with each new puzzle, much like the grinders keep and review their stats and use it to increase their chances of winning.

Ragle gets asked questions about his skill for the game sometimes, and it is clear there is at least some doubt among others about how much chance is involved in the contest’s outcomes. And in fact there are some suggestions made as well about cheating and/or the contest being “rigged,” in some fashion, all of which I think would prove intriguing to online players, too.

Finally, a third reason I’ll recommend Time Out of Joint to poker players has to do with the way it invites readers to think about the difference between subjective experience and objective truth. You know, that big existential question of whether or not one person’s idea of the world is similar to what others think about it, and how our subjective experiences often diverge and force us to compromise when it comes to assigning meaning to the world around us.

Poker is a game that highlights this idea that there is a difference between reality as such and what individuals think about it. I’ve written in the past about the John Lukacs essay “Poker and American Character” in which he makes a grand statement that “poker is the game closest to the Western conception of life... where free will prevails over philosophies of fate and chance, where men are considered free moral agents, and where -- at least in the short run -- the important thing is not what happens but what people think happens.”

I take Lukacs as saying that poker provides a great context for demonstrating how humans can collectively experience something -- e.g., a hand or session -- and come away with entirely distinct ideas about what happened or what it meant. A bluff is a concentrated example of this sort of thing, wherein the significance of a given bet can obviously mean different things to different people. But I think the idea applies more broadly to the game and the seemingly endless ways people tend to approach it, define it, and define themselves and their actions when they play it.

In any case, this invitation to think about the nature of reality (as we know it) that Time Out of Joint offers seems to be the kind of thing poker players might be interested in pursuing. Thus my recommendation.

And if you do happen to read the book, come back here and tell me what you thought it meant and we’ll see how well our ideas match up.

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Blogger BuzzedSaw said...

One of my very favorite PKD books, one of the ones I recommend to introduce people his writing, along with 'Eye In The Sky'.

2/13/2013 2:17 AM  
Blogger dD said...

only a day late .. had the pleasure of YP's company a couple of times playing live team events this side of the pond. if ever there was a candidate for walking thru wet cement, Mathew gets the vote !

2/13/2013 6:48 AM  

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