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However interesting as characters, Matt Damon's Norris is not everyman and Emily Blunt's Sellas is not everywoman (Photo Credit: Andrew Schwartz/© 2011 Universal Studios)
However interesting as characters, Matt Damon's Norris is not everyman and Emily Blunt's Sellas is not everywoman (Photo Credit: Andrew Schwartz/© 2011 Universal Studios)

Neil Reynolds

Philip K. Dick's salesman as everyman Add to ...

In his 1954 science fiction short story Adjustment Team, Philip K. Dick made his protagonist, a happily married everyman named Ed Fletcher, a real estate salesman. In the current film adaptation ( The Adjustment Bureau), the protagonist is a charismatic politician named David Norris (Matt Damon) in romantic pursuit of a ballerina named Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt). However interesting as characters, Norris is not everyman and Sellas is not everywoman. They are special people, the aristocracy of our times: performers.

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Mr. Dick peopled his tales with ordinary folk, often casting them as salesmen. In Adjustment Team, Fletcher gets to work one minute late, with cosmic consequences, because an insurance salesman inadvertently takes his ride. In the denouement, Fletcher escapes - well, readjustment - when a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman commands his wife's attention with a product demonstration: a neat bit of deflective staging. (Fletcher looks heavenward and says: "I think we'll make it after all. Thanks a lot.") God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform.

Mr. Dick's interest in salesmen, as a literary prototype, went beyond the coincidental. Four years after Adjustment Team, he wrote a weird and wonderful novel - In Milton Lumky Territory - in which he casts his protagonist as a young Middle America typewriter salesman named Bruce Stevens. (As an example of weird, Stevens eventually marries his Grade 5 teacher.) The protagonist is definitely not, as the title suggests, Milton Lumky - an aging paper salesman whose role in this novel merely recalls Willy Loman, the tragic hero of Arthur Miller's 1949 classic Death of a Salesman.

Mr. Miller portrays Loman, salesman, as capitalist wreckage - an ideological perspective on the selling of things that relentlessly gripped the 1950s - most famously in Sloan Wilson's novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) and Vance Packard's social study The Hidden Persuaders (1957). Advertising executives were dark enough, but it was the salesman who epitomized the darkest of all. Loman was delusional. He blamed others; he pitied himself. He had lived his life for nought.

"After all the highways, and the trains and the appointments, and the years," Loman laments, "you end up more dead than alive." But death is not, by itself, tragedy. Mr. Dick's salesman is not Willy Loman - nor, for that matter, Milton Lumky. Mr. Dick's young salesman understands fully that Des Moines isn't New York City, that provincial life can be tedious, that selling and fixing typewriters is humble work - but that it requires heroic endeavour all the same. Although not conscious of the process, Mr. Dick's salesman does what it takes - and some days it takes a lot - to get better typewriters to more people at a lower cost.

Other people disagree with this reading. For sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson (Mars trilogy), Mr. Dick's typewriter salesman represented "a bitter indictment of capitalism." But then the great sci-fi writers all project their personal ideologies across space and time - and Mr. Robinson is a progressive of the first rank. He knows Mr. Dick's work - he did his doctorate on it. And Mr. Dick, in his darker post-1950s work, often relied on the intergalactic mega-corporation as a symbol of evil.

In Milton Lumky, however, Mr. Dick portrayed the 1950s in an extraordinarily detached, matter-of-fact and apolitical way. He yanks you back to the last decade in which people were square and didn't know it. Someone once asked: How square were the '50s? Mr. Dick affirms: This square.

He cared for his '50s characters, and made them more funny than tragic. In his foreword, he noted that he had provided a happy ending for them. "What more," he asked, "can an author give?" In the end, Bruce Stevens, the authentic everyman, "heard his wife in the kitchen and was aware of the child beside him, and that brought him his happiness." Did God have a plan for this life? Whether yes or no, Bruce Stevens found his calling - a term we've lost somewhere along the way.

Though Mr. Dick wrote 44 books and 121 short stories, he made very little money. Robert A. Heinlein, the libertarian sci-fi writer, gave or loaned him enough money to keep him going. (He once offered to buy Mr. Dick a new electric typewriter). "There are no heroes in Dick's books," Mr. Heinlein once said, "but there are heroics."

 

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