The Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank (P.S. Series)

Overview

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 ...

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The Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank (P.S. Series)

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

The Wire (Portsmouth))
"A Dickian feat of science-meta-fiction . . . plenty of devastating laughs . . . tragically funny and funnily tragic."
Deb Olin Unferth
“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.”
Mark Jude Poirier
“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.”
Lynne Sharon Schwartz
“Chris Miller’s powers of invention seem infinite…one of the most original books I’ve read in a long time.”
The Wire (Portsmouth)
"A Dickian feat of science-meta-fiction . . . plenty of devastating laughs . . . tragically funny and funnily tragic."
The Believer
“A delight . . . a Day-Glo Pale Fire, and maybe the best pure comic novel of the year.”
The Wire (Portsmouth
“A Dickian feat of science-meta-fiction . . . plenty of devastating laughs . . . tragically funny and funnily tragic.”
Booklist
“Must reading for [Philip K.] Dick fans and anyone who enjoys a little irreverent fun at the expense of a literary world.”
Details
“[A] pulp Pale Fire…hilarious.…It’s deranged metafiction at its most entertaining.
Boston Globe
“Ingenious.…In the vein of John Kennedy Toole, Swift, and Twain, it’s a tall tale that touches on all manner of topics, from bizarre clothing to punk rock to insomnia….packed with literary allusion and commentary, along with splashes of mystery…a brilliant, deliriously wordy stab at reimagining and recasting fiction.”
Booklist
“Must reading for [Philip K.] Dick fans and anyone who enjoys a little irreverent fun at the expense of a literary world.”
Boston Globe
“Ingenious.…In the vein of John Kennedy Toole, Swift, and Twain, it’s a tall tale that touches on all manner of topics, from bizarre clothing to punk rock to insomnia….packed with literary allusion and commentary, along with splashes of mystery…a brilliant, deliriously wordy stab at reimagining and recasting fiction.”
Details
“[A] pulp Pale Fire…hilarious.…It’s deranged metafiction at its most entertaining.
Publishers Weekly

Miller's follow-up to Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects once again experiments with narrative, exploring the life and death of prolific science fiction novelist Phoebus K. Dank through a definitive encyclopedia of the author's work; the commentators-one sycophantic, one antagonistic-devote as much space writing about themselves as they spend on their subject. Dank, based loosely on Philip K. Dick, wrote scores of novels involving secret Martians, twins and doppelgängers, enhanced or diminished senses, and near-futures in which global warming and new viruses lead mankind in drastic new directions. Unlike Dick (who features in one of Dank's alternate universe tales), Dank is an extraordinary hack (though one of his commentators would violently disagree). The book is clever and often very funny, and the murder mystery at its heart is more complex than it first appears. A near total lack of dialogue, though, creates a feeling of endless description, and the structure lends itself to momentum-crippling padding. This novel should prove a delight, though, to science fiction fans with a sense of humor about their genre. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Everything you always wanted to know about a terrible writer. Expanding on the premise of his first novel (Sudden Noises From Inanimate Objects, 2004), which purported to be CD liner notes discussing the oeuvre of a cranky composer, Miller here offers a putative guide to the works of one Phoebus K. Dank. A prolific author of low-grade sci-fi novels and stories, Dank crafted consistently mediocre prose and predictable plots, which didn't keep him from being published, or from attracting a few hard-core fans. One member of this group is Bill Boswell, a professor of "Dank Studies" at a small college in California. This novel is Boswell's magnum opus, an A-to-Z encyclopedia of all Dank-related matters: his curious shorthand for much-used phrases ("cdcswffc=at the CDC, scientists were working feverishly to find a cure"), his efforts to hire assistants to write novels in assembly-line fashion, his busted marriages, weight issues, etc. One of Dank's biggest betes noires was his longtime housemate Owen Hirt, who inserts entries of his own throughout. (Curiously, Hirt is identified as Dank's murderer early on.) Boswell and Hirt don't merely trade entries; they exchange swipes, bitter retorts and threats amid arguments over the value of Dank's collected works. Their verbal food fights in the footnotes give the text some narrative drive, and in time the story darkens and deepens, calling into question in interesting ways the motivations and identities of the dueling authors. But Miller has set himself a high hurdle by structuring the narrative around an encyclopedia, and the book often feels exceedingly overstuffed with repetitive, arcana-filled entries. A novel about authorship and unreliablenarrators that too often loses its own plot. Author appearances in New England. Agent: Eric Simonoff/Janklow & Nesbit
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061686368
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/14/2009
  • Series: P.S. Series
  • Pages: 560
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher Miller is the author of Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects, a Seattle Times Best Book of the Year. He teaches at Bennington College in Vermont.

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Read an Excerpt

Cardboard Universe, The
A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank

Chapter One

"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.
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2009

    Brilliant

    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.

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  • Posted March 23, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    This is an odd brilliant premise that satirizes the self proclaimed experts on the works of a writer

    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

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