Confessions of a Crap Artist
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Confessions of a Crap Artist is a 1975 novel by Philip K. Dick, originally written in 1959. The novel chronicles a bitter and complex marital conflict in 1950s suburban California from the perspective of the wife's brother, an obsessive compulsive amateur scientist. The novel contains only small amounts of the complex mystical and science fiction concepts that define much of Dick’s work. Rolling Stone Magazine called it a “funny, horribly accurate look at life in California in the 1950s.”
The novel’s protagonist, the “crap artist” of the title, is Jack Isidore, a socially awkward tire regroover obsessed with amateur scientific inquiry since his teens. He catalogs old science magazines, collects worthless objects, and believes disproved theories, such as the notions that the Earth is hollow or that sunlight has weight.
Broke, Jack eventually moves in with his sister’s family in a luxurious farm house in suburban California. On the farm, Jack happily does housework and cares for livestock. He also joins a small apocalyptic religious group, which shares his belief in extra-sensory perception, telepathy and UFOs and believes the world will end on April 23, 1959. However, most of his time is dedicated to a meticulous “scientific journal” of life on the farm, including his sister’s marital difficulties.
Jack’s sister, Fay Hume, is a difficult and subtly controlling woman who makes miserable everyone close to her, especially her misogynist husband Charley. Fay has an extramarital affair with a young grad student named Nat Anteil while Charley is in a hospital recovering from a heart attack. After Jack reports this to Charley, the latter plots to kill Fay.
Charley kills Fay's animals and then commits suicide, realising that Fay has led him to do this. However, his will stipulates that Jack will inherit half the house, and Fay must buy her brother out, although Jack has used his half of the money to replace the slaughtered animals. Nat and his wife Gwen divorce, and Nat decides to stay with Fay. When the end of the world doesn't occur on the predicted date, Jack decides to seek psychiatric assistance.
Jack feels compelled towards ideas and studies that those around him consider worthless. Although Dick never states directly that Jack is mentally ill, his behavior closely mirrors obsessive compulsive disorder and several characters suggest that he seek psychiatric help.
Despite his possible disorder, Jack is the most productive character in the novel. He runs both the farm and the household when Charley is in the hospital without sacrificing his scientific inquiries. At one point in the book, Jack is offered the opportunity to enter into the same comfortable, suburban lifestyle as his sister. Although circumstances prevent him from doing so, Jack’s meticulous nature allows him to go to impressive lengths to secure a job, and to confront difficult and complex financial and legal situations.
Fay and Charley, on the other hand, are wholly destructive characters. Throughout the novel, it is revealed, or at least implied, that each of them has concocted complex plans to emotionally destroy the other due to long-standing bitterness. They refuse to get a divorce both because of the social taboo against it and because each fears losing their luxurious home to the other. Neither shows much concern for their two children.
At the novel’s end, Jack concludes that his obsessions are healthier than those of his sister and his brother-in-law. However, the novel does not argue explicitly that Jack’s illness is acceptable, or not really an illness. In the end, he does accept suggestions that he requires psychiatric assistance, and finally obtains it.
Comparison to Dick’s Other Work
Most of Philip K. Dick’s fiction falls under the category of science fiction and is strange even by the standards of that genre. Characters often discover that they or people around them are dead, robots or supernatural beings, or have been living in some other state of unreality.
Comparatively, Confessions of a Crap Artist is literally mundane: ordinary and of this world. Aside from the new age religious group that plays a small part in the novel, there is not much discussion of science fiction concepts. (The theme of the new age religious group is also found in Dick's novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.) Most of the novel concerns the quotidian conflicts between Fay and Charley, and Jack's efforts to keep up his "scientific studies" despite the misgivings of others.
The novel also reflects themes of fantasy and hidden conspiracies, which are common in Dick's work. With his misplaced notions of science and his belief in absurd theories, Jack is living in a state of unreality, although a mild one when compared to those of other Dick protagonists. The conflict between Charley and Fay also reveals a state of unreality in that, although they live under the facade of typical suburban life, each has conspired extensively against the other.
Confessions of a Crap Artist, like much of Dick’s work, features a protagonist who appears to have a pervasive developmental disorder. There are many similarities between the character of Jack Isidore and that of Bill Lundborg in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Jack was a tire factory worker and Bill was an auto mechanic, and both characters demonstrate obsessive-compulsive behavior and traits found among those with Asperger syndrome. Jack also shares the surname of John R. Isidore in "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," a "Chicken Head" whose brain is deteriorated and nearly useless.
In 1992, French director Jérôme Boivin released Confessions d'un Barjo (Barjo for the English-language market), based on the novel. The film follows the novel fairly closely, although Jack (played by Hippolyte Girardot) is given the nickname “Barjo” (loosely translated as nutcase) and is referred to by that name throughout the film. Also, the story is shifted to contemporary France.
- Jack Isidore is named after Isidore of Seville, who wrote what he felt to be an exhaustive encyclopedia on all the facts of the universe, the Etymologiae.
- Aside from a short science fiction story that Jack reads to himself in the book, and the UFO cult he becomes involved in, there are no SF or fantasy aspects to this book at all.
- Philip K. Dick longedTemplate:Fact to be known as a 'serious' writer, and worked on non-SF novels throughout the fifties, in addition to his science fiction novels and short stories. This is the only "straight" novel he wrote to have been published during his lifetime.