Genius or fraud? Hack or Hemingway? The life and work of obese, obsessive, logorrheic pulp novelist Phoebus K. Dank have long enflamed bitter controversy—and numerous drunken rants often culminating in vomiting, unconsciousness, or both. In this uproarious novel, Christopher Miller pulls back the curtain on two unforgettable critics—fawning scholar William Boswell (the world's leading Dankian) and his mortal enemy, the murderously snarky Owen Hirt. No stone is left unturned—and no gooey mess unstepped in—in this essential study of Dank's all-too-brief existence and all-too-extensive oeuvre.
About the Author
Christopher Miller is the author of the novels The Cardboard Universe, a Huffington Post Best Book of the Year and finalist for the Believer Book of the Year Award, and Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects, a Seattle Times Best Book of the Year. He lives in Annapolis, Maryland.
Read an Excerpt
Cardboard Universe, The
A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank
"Abbie's Babies": After the birth of her child and the simultaneous desertion or abduction of her husband—last seen gazing skyward from a local hilltop—Abbie gets to wondering. She wonders why her children are so puny, when her pregnancies all lasted upward of ten months. She wonders why none of the kids look like her, why they all bear such a striking resemblance to her short, slight, pop-eyed, pointy-eared, bigheaded husband. She wonders why she was so irresistibly attracted to the man, whose personality—cold, aloof, superior—was as unappealing as his physical appearance. She wonders why her seven children have inherited those traits, along with their father's high, toneless, "unearthly" voice and cold, clammy "reptilian" flesh. Can it be (as her gynecologist suggests) that Abbie's chromosomes are "just too wimpy to assert themselves"? No. It turns out her husband was actually a Martian, one of hundreds impersonating earthmen as part of a scheme to infiltrate humanity. (Martians, we are told, reproduce asexually but viviparously, the male of the species depositing an egg inside the female, whose job is just to incubate it.)
Things are not what they seem: If I had to reduce Dank's metaphysics to a simple formula, that would be it. And, I'd add, not everything that looks like a human actually is, since that was the deception Dank found most disturbing. "It's bad enough when some dumb bug impersonates a twig," as the narrator of another story says, "but when you find out that your roommate is really a Venusian, then you don't know who to trust."Dank's fiction swarms with seeming humans who prove really to be androids, simulacra, clones, hallucinations, holograms, extraterrestrials, or worse. Usually extraterrestrials. Dank, I think, sometimes suspected that everyone but he was only posing as an earthling.
"Abruptophobia": Jim is an audio repairman in a Dankian near-future. After his hot-tempered wife hits him on the head with a rolling pin, he develops a morbid sensitivity to everything sudden: a camera's flash, a thunderclap, even a violent sneeze (and even when he is the sneezer). Jim also has a bad heart, so his new allergy to surprises endangers his life, and reduces him to a bedridden invalid in a soundproof room (a room that also functions as a refuge from his marriage). He is thrilled the day his doctor tells him of a wonder drug named Graduall. Originally developed for the drivers of the superfast and frequently colliding helibuses that are now the standard form of mass transportation, Graduall makes everything appear to happen in slow motion. Jim gets a prescription, and his abruptophobia clears up at once, since when you're on Graduall, nothing is abrupt. Not even the explosion of a toy balloon:
One time Julia [Jim's awful wife] tried to surprise him, or maybe, mused Jim with a cold chill, to kill me by inducing a deadly heart attack, by sneaking up behind him when he wasn't looking with a red balloon and sticking a big pin in it, so it would pop. Except, on account of Jim's altered perception of Time, due to the drug that he was on, it took so long for the balloon to pop, seemingly, that it sounded more like when you open a creaky door, slowly. Gruffly, Jim wheeled around and saw Julia wincing from the loudness of the noise even though it paradoxically didn't bother him one bit, ironically. He derisively laughed at her so-called "prank."
So far so good. The following day Jim is feeling so perky that he tiptoes up behind his spouse, as she stands "making noises" at the kitchen sink (Dank was still unclear at that point as to just what women do there), and startles her for a change by pinching her rump, as he hasn't dared to do since their honeymoon. Julia jumps, but Jim gets the bigger surprise: thanks to Graduall, he witnesses for the first time her transformation, almost instantaneous, from her real self into the ugly and shrewish but seemingly human woman he married. Her real self turns out to be "some kind of hideous Thing, the color of a rotten avocado, with fangs instead teeth and eyeballs dangling from long slimy stalks." Jim clutches his heart and drops to the linoleum, and "Julia," with no further need for concealment, reverts to her fanged and avocado-colored self the better to gloat at his death agonies.
"Abruptophobia" was written in 1976, during Dank's first marriage (to the ill-tempered Jessica Teller). In the spring of '76, when his Amphetamine habit first got out of hand, Dank himself developed an abnormal and unhealthy sensitivity to the abrupt—to everything that rudely claimed his attention or rerouted his train of thought. All at once he was so sensitive to noises, even his own, that he glued a circle of felt to the bottom of his favorite coffee mug (science fiction writers do it with a sense of wonder), to keep it from startling him each time he set it down. He also modified his toaster to eject his toast in slow motion rather than a spasm of mechanical panic. He had to give up his favorite pastry, those "poppin' fresh" biscuits packaged in a special cardboard cylinder de¬signed to burst open at the seams, with a never-quite-anticipated POP!, as you peel off the helically wrapped label. No, it was all too much for him—the POP!, the leap of the can, the instantaneous expansion of dough into daylight like an angry mollusk surging from its shell, at once thoroughly ex¬pected and utterly surprising.
After a few weeks, Dank reduced his daily ration of amphetamines and his abruptophobia vanished, but not before he had a chance to take down all the mirrors in his house in order to avoid the jolt of sudden confrontations with his image. He even squandered a day in the basement trying to invent a new kind of mirror in which it would take a minute for his image to materialize, as with a Polaroid snapshot. Though he never managed to patent his "gradual mirror," a slowly-brightening-video-screen-and-camera combination, Dank convinced himself that his invention was destined one day to replace the old-fashioned unelectrified variety.Cardboard Universe, The
A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank. Copyright (c) by Christopher Miller . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
What People are Saying About This
“The funniest novel I’ve read in years. Smart, clever, and utterly original…an instant classic that belongs on the same shelf as Catch-22, Portnoy’s Complaint, and A Confederacy of Dunces….[with] mindblowing plot twists worthy of Philip K. Dick himself, merciless mockery of everything ridiculous about the literary life.”
“Chris Miller’s powers of invention seem infinite…one of the most original books I’ve read in a long time.”
“Miller’s brilliant, hilarious The Cardboard Universe must be read immediately. Sentence by sentence, Miller proves himself a top-notch comedian, a master of invention, and a writer with a big heart.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Cardboard Universe, Christopher Miller, is a book in search of an audience. Not really sf, this is a comedic faux-encyclopedia on the works of Phoebus K. Dank, an alternate-universe version of Philip K. Dick. Although I sense the author's knowledge and love of PKD's work, this is not an homage. There is minimal trivia to interest fans, and actually, with the insistence that the "Dank" character is such a terrible hack, the book comes off as slightly insulting to Dick. (Not intentional I believe but there it is.) The comedic plot, while it works, is not enough to carry the length of the novel. So it's like the peanut butter got dipped in the chocolate, but they were both that diet stuff with the questionable sugar substitutes that people keep making law-suits and web pages about, and the aftertaste wasn't really worth it anyways.I will say that Miller absolutely nailed some of the faux-book titles and plot lines listed in the encyclopedia. I kept thinking "That's not funny, that sounds exactly like a PKD plot" and then laughing at myself. It did seem he was channeling at times and this was no doubt the impetus for the book.An innovative and impressive effort, it just went on a little too long.
Innovative and original, but, at heart, simply a great story about a bizarre SF writer and his enthusiastic/delusional biographer. Truly one of the funniest books I've ever read.
The late Phoebus K. Dank was a copious author of mostly science fiction. His collective work was not highly regarded by critics as his plots were simplistic proof that the shortest distance between two points was his storylines from start to finish. Yet somehow anything Dank wrote was published and his loyal fan base would have bought his copying the Hemlock phonebook. After his death, an encyclopedia of all things Dank and dirty appears. Primarily two men debate the merit of Dank. Professor Bill Boswell who did his thesis on Dank conducts a class in Dank Studies at Hemlock in California; Dank's housemate Owen Hirt is renowned in Dank circles for more than rooming with the author as he is famous for murdering him. They represent the polar opposites with both sharing the thought that Dank would have abbreviated them. This is an odd brilliant premise that satirizes the self proclaimed experts on the works of a writer, but could be any topic like TV business and financial reporters. The book has an encyclopedia feel to it as it serves in many ways more like a biography than a novel in spite of the clever murder mystery that runs throughout. Although at times the tale is difficult to read as "encyclopedia" sections require filler to insure the concept remains valid, fans will enjoy this often amusing lampoon summed up with the ironic twist that Phillip K. Dick appears in a Phoebus K. Dank story. Harriet Klausner