In 2114, Allen and Janet Purcell live in Newer York, a post-apocalyptic city that strictly regulates morality so that all citizens understand exactly how to fit in. Robotic spies film suspect behavior and turn it in to the committee members who are in charge of renting out apartments to law-abiding citizens. Citizens who get drunk, curse, or engage in sexual or other misconduct are brought to trial by the peers who live in their apartment complexes. A guilty verdict usually means losing your lease and having to move to one of the faraway planets that supplies Earth with food.
Allen Purcell has just been offered the top position in the government’s ad agency which produces propaganda meant to maintain public ethics. The job is very prestigious, but there’s only one problem: The night before, in his sleep, he japed (made a joke of) the statue of General Streiter, the man who started the current governmental regime. Allen wasn’t conscious of his activity, and he doesn’t think there’s any evidence that he’s the culprit, but he needs to find out why he did it before he takes a job that puts him in charge of promoting the government’s agenda. But when he decides to visit a psychoanalyst, things just go from bad to worse.
The Man Who Japed (1956) is Philip K. Dick’s third published novel, and it contains many of the same themes and types of characters seen in most of his works — a bewildered male protagonist with a neurotic wife, a society obsessed with the morality of its neighbors, bad psychoanalysis, fascism, paranoia, fear of nuclear war, media propaganda, McCarthy-like witch hunts, synthetic food, and drug trips. Unusually, women are in positions of power in The Man Who Japed, and the Purcells actually seem to love each other (bad marriages are the norm for this author).
Perhaps I’ve read too much PKD, or perhaps it’s because I had just finished another of his novels, but I was not truly entertained by The Man Who Japed until the last 20% of the story. The final jape and its aftermath was hilarious and completely satisfactory, but much of the story up until that point lacked the constant humor and bizarreness that I love about Philip K. Dick. There were certainly some funny moments (such as the joke with the statue and Allen’s visit to a black market dealer in banned 20th century novels), but most of the novel is obvious hit-‘em-over-the-head social commentary, and none of it is anything I haven’t previously seen many times from Dick.
Compared to his other works, The Man Who Japed is short, linearly-plotted, and not at all confusing (if you’re a fan, you know what I mean). I listened to Brilliance Audio’s recent production which is 5½ hours long. Luke Daniels, who I’ve come to love, reads the story and does a great job highlighting Dick’s weird sense of humor. The Man Who Japed isn’t one of Philip K. Dick’s best novels, but it’s one of his first, so just for that reason, it’s worth reading.