Vol. XXIX , #2 Herman Melville's ; or The Whale
Edited by Damion Searls
Review of Contemporary Fiction
The Cardboard Universe, by Christopher Miller
Reviewed by Scott Esposito
Harper Perennial, 2009. 522 pp. Paper: $14.99.
The Cardboard Universe is an encyclopedic guide to the life work of an imaginary, reclusive sci-fi author whose initials are PKD. That should raise a few alarms with anyone, but don't worry: Christopher Miller handles his book with grace and ingenuity. Although decidedly metafictional, The Cardboard Universe is also deeply character-driven: one of the book's many pleasures is determining exactly who Phoebus K. Dank is and whether he’s a hack or not. This is not easy, as the encyclopedia is written by two heavily biased critics (one a sycophantic academic that lived with Dank for years, the other a haughty poet that finds joy in tearing Dank down), and we get precious few glimpses of the author’s writing by which to judge firsthand. Paralleling this literary mystery is a criminal one: Who murdered Dank and why? Miller capably strings this out to the end, and the question is far more than an idle one in the context of the book. Even if you choose to hopscotch through The Cardboard Universe (it is a reference book, after all) it’s hard to spoil the plot, and such a reading sustains interest because the book is resplendent with scores of premises from the prolific Dank’s work. For every jarringly stupid plot (a story narrated by a "sentient washing machine") there’s something almost brilliant (the consequences of a world where everyone has the same dream), and even when the conceit stinks we gain insight into the character of the heavily autobiographical author. There’s even an entry for Dank’s fictional character "Philip K. Dick," wherein we learn “Dick seems at times to realize that he is nothing but a fictional character.” Happily, The Cardboard Universe can attend to such fine moments without beating us over the head with its glorious metafictionality, which is to say The Cardboard Universe has enough grist for the grad students and enough life for a satisfying story.