While Eye in the Sky is often hailed as Philip K. Dick’s first successful original novel to be published in his lifetime, I find it a bit clunky, a little rough around the edges — a contrivance.

I’m reading, again — after four decades! — his The Man Who Japed, written the same year, 1955. And this is much better constructed, not “clunky” at all. It is an original work, from the title to the imagined future to the plot to the characterizations. Arguably this is his first real success among those published during his waking, breathing life.

I’ve hedged here, twice mentioning the books of Dick’s published while he was alive — and for good reason: early on, he was trying to succeed as a non-genre novelist, but his “realistic fiction” was completely orthogonal to the warp and woof of the age, and all of his “mainstream” novels were rejected until he proved himself a success in science fiction. And then the only one of these early works to be published before he died, Confessions of a Crap Artist, saw print in 1975. I read it in the mid-80s and disliked it, but another of these early novels, Puttering About in a Small Land, came out a few years after his death, and I read it and thought it first-rate at the time. Alas, I now have no memory of it.

The Man Who Japed was one of the very first of PKD’s novels I read, soon after Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and The Man in the High Castle (1962). I knew nothing about it going in; I just liked the title.

In his first two decades of writing, Dick wrote to keep the wolf from the door. He took amphetamines to enable him to achieve a 60-pages-per-day output. As a consequence, his writing is very uneven, prose and character and plotting. The Man Who Japed stands out among those early works, and shows a writer finding his way.

Here are two early passages. The first helps explain the title, the second builds the social world a century hence, a world Dick explicitly drew to dissuade critics and fans and enemies from thinking he was a leftist — for he based the “highly moral” future America on the totalitarian social controls of pre-Cultural Revolutionary Red China.

Dick was an instinctive individualist. His political thought was thoroughly anti-totalitarian, as can be seen over and over again in his best work, not least being the great paranoiac novel Radio Free Albemuth (1976; 1985). In The Man Who Japed, a contractor-propagandist beheads and defaces the statue of the fascist leader of the future, and does not know why — for he suffers from a kind of amnesia. A blockage of memory. His discovery of his own motive is the reader’s discovery of a key to liberation: mocking the trite and destructive memes of oppression.