Richard Cox’s novel Thomas World is yet another symptom of our collective identity crisis. Today even 20-somethings are suffering from an anxiety that used to be relegated to mid-life, and this is having a weird effect. Everyone secretly hopes that something like a Gmail theme might let them in on the big secret of life, or that getting a pedicure can repair their broken relationships. Why is this? Somehow our sense of unreality, our uncertainty, is turning us to toward the mundane. None of us know who we are or what we are doing and that is why articles that teach you how to have a conversation about the weather or that promise to explain what to do with your hands while riding the elevator are so necessary.
In that vein I want to offer you this: How to Read Richard Cox’s Thomas World in Three Easy Steps
Step one: Judge the book by its cover.
While the original editions of the novels of the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick featured all the standard crapola you’d expect to find on a 50s pulp scifi novel (big chested space babes, phallic rockets, bug eyed aliens) the reprints of these books published by Vintage in the late 80s and early 90s featured postmodern covers with digital fractals and bulging sans serif fonts. So it’s important to note that Cox’s fake PKD novel looks like a reprint. The original Philip K. Dick’s books were dominated by the imagery and tropes of the larger category, but Cox’s homage to PKD attempts to partake not of Dick’s genre but of Dick’s Vintage sanctioned genius. That is, while PKD created his idiosyncratic works of art by aiming at a general category and missing, Cox aims at exactly replicating the exact look and feel of a particular author and he hits it precisely.
Another way of looking at the difference between Cox’s book and PKD’s books is this: PKD wrote about worlds full of simulations and fakes while Cox’s book is a literal example of its subject. PKD created fictional fakes while Cox wrote a fake fiction. What’s the difference here? Well, the fake fiction is actually real.
Step two: Note how the solipsistic protagonist in Thomas World, who discovers that the world outside his own subjectivity only exists for his viewing pleasure, has to be backed up by something outside of his perception in order to make sense of his own solipsism.
“Clearly the only reason the roads I’m driving on are paved is because I’m expected to take them.” Cox’s protagonist tells himself this, but what must be noticed is that he has to propose that there is somebody out there watching him in order to imagine that his is the only real mind around.
In every story of solipsism there is always a conspiracy. Why? Because there is always a background involved in every perception. The protagonist in Richard Cox’s fake novel can only speak, can only exist, if he takes it for granted that, as the only existing character, the only real fiction, there is a great secret plan in store for him. That is, he’s part of somebody else’s story. In order for the world to be a product of his own imagination there has to be a conspiracy and conspirators who are working to keep him from realizing this fact.
In Thomas World there is something dream like, something unreal, about the revelation Richard Cox lays out on the page for us, but precisely because of that unreality we are compelled to presuppose something with a permanent substantiality that supports Cox’s dream. And it turns out that that the substance is PKD himself.
Step three: Put Thomas World on your nonfiction shelf.
Richard Cox’s novel is what happens when the borders between reality and fiction begin to weaken. This is literally true. We are in a world where the borders are weakening and this book by Richard Cox is one of the results of that dissolution. Cox has written down a reality in the form of a fiction. This book is real precisely because it recognizes itself as a knock-off or a contrivance.
What does it mean to read a fake book? It means that what you’re reading is real.
Douglas Lain is a fiction writer, a “pop philosopher” for the popular blog Thought Catalog, and the podcaster behind the Diet Soap Podcast. His most recent book, a novella entitled “Wave of Mutilation,” was published by Fantastic Planet Press (an imprint of Eraserhead) in October of 2011, and his first novel, entitled “Billy Moon: 1968″ is due out from Tor Books in 2013. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.