Perhaps Dick’s most misunderstood book, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is not wholly an examination of the reality of reality. Despite that the characters’ experiences often transcend concrete objectivity, the book is more than metaphysics. It is an exploration of morality, and if may be surmised from the parallel events of Dick’s own life, perhaps even an act of catharsis.
The universe of Three Stigmata... is not as we know it. Global warming has turned Antarctica into a beach and humans inhabit the solar system. Colonists living on other planets – often drafted like soldiers to leave Earth – participate in communal fantasies augmented by a drug called Can-D to escape the spiritual desolation of their lives. Channeled through Perky Pat and Walt dolls (like Barbie and Ken), the dolls, drugs, and fantasies are supplied by Perky Pat Inc. at great profit. Barney Mayerson, the main character, is a pre-fash working for the company, and under the authority of his greedy boss Leo Bulero, must identify items before they become popular so that they can be marketed as Perky Pat accessories. Things are going well for the company until Palmer Eldritch, missing from the galaxy for 10 years, mysteriously appears on the scene, bearing Chew-Z, a drug that threatens to overtake Can-D and Perky Pat Inc.’s market share.
Plot structure, however, takes a back seat in the novel to the characterization of Mayerson. Having several years before divorced his wife and agreed to have their first child aborted in order to maintain his position at Perky Pat Inc., the guilt of this decision hangs palpably in his day-to-day life. He mopes, lives lasciviously and erratic, and out of spite even undermines his ex-wife’s attempts at making her way as a pottery artist. These events seeming to come from the pages of Dick’s biography (see his 1960 relationship troubles), Mayerson spends the majority of the novel trying to come to grips with his past, and ultimately upon his moral orientation. Confusing matters highly - throwing things into a violent spin, in fact - is Eldritch’s new drug Chew-Z, which seems to allow for escape from reality through interminable imaginative wandering. The trouble Mayerson has clawing his way through reality and drug induced hallucinations – one often seeming like the other – is the emotional impetus fueling the story, and ultimately what makes the novel well worth reading.
In the end, fans of Silverberg, Heinlein, and perhaps even Hunter S. Thompson, will enjoy The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Furthermore, those who enjoy a good mind twist – reality extremely slippery underfoot – will also undoubtedly enjoy Dick’s portrayal of Mayerson’s uncertainty, there being several moments when the reader is unsure what is real, hindsight the only benchmark. Readers who value highly stylistic novels should be warned that “lush” is word that has never been used to describe Dick’s prose. He is an ideas man, and in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch the metaphysical moves to the ethical in a fashion that will have you thinking long after you’ve finished. ...how could I not have seen that religion and hallucinogenics are both based on the idea that true reality is perceived, yet, unperceived, somewhere in the middle, located between…