What’s True about The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick?

Just because he (double) lost the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel to Frank Herbert’s Dune, Philip K. Dick didn’t stop writing. With so much of his own “golden period” ahead in 1965, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is often put back on the shelf with something akin to regret. This was the case with a former student who admitted she didn’t “Get it.” She needs to know what’s true in the novel and what isn’t.

This is a tall order and Google didn’t help much, which is how she got stuck with me. An unsourced line on Wikipedia indicated, “It is one of Dick’s first works to explore religious themes.” I’m skeptical, but intrigued. Depending on your metric, Dick wrote between 36-44 novels. So we’re at roughly the “halfway” point in his “development” as an Artist. His “concern” for “certain philosophical themes” may be understood biographically. But it doesn’t have to be.

Anyway, plenty of folks struggle with some aspect of the story. One frustrated GoodBooks reviewer claims only a liar would pretend to understand. I may not convince them (or my student!), but I suggest the following options for deriving meaning from this tricky text.

Start with the epigraph.

I mean, after all; you have to consider we’re only made out of dust. That’s admittedly not much to go on and we shouldn’t forget that. But even considering, I mean it’s a sort of bad beginning, we’re not doing too bad. So I personally have faith that even in this lousy situation we’re faced with we can make it. You get me?

“Leo Bulero” is a character in the novel. The hopeful sentiment he expresses is given a time and a place: “immediately on his return from Mars”. This is billed as a pep talk to his employees.

Curious, then, that Chapter 1 opens not with Leo as we might expect from the optimistic epigraph, but Barney Mayerson. (We know other characters are dazed when he becomes “Bayerson”.) And, crucially, he’s hungover. He’s disoriented. But like him or not, he’s our eyes and ears. We’re inside his head now. He wants to be made so unwell he’ll lug around Dr. Smile, a metal box, to put toxic thoughts in his head. (“They call this therapy?!” you’re supposed to scream.) If he does this just long enough he’ll evade being “drafted” by the Spaaaaaace United Nations to “colonize” Mars! Barney doesn’t want to go to Mars because he’s not done crushing it here on Terra.

Barney is a semi-autonomous consultant for Leo’s company, P.P. Layouts. Thus he chafes against his own dispensability by vying for greater power. Like many of the companies in Dick’s novels, P.P. Layouts is bloated and corrupt. They furnish legitimate entertainment: Layouts and upgrades for the Barbie-like Perky Pat. They also provide a drug to “enhance” the fun: Can-D. Barney has fingers in both pies as a “precog”. It’s mundane, but Barney’s livelihood and self-esteem depend on Leo. Barney has already sacrificed a wife, Emily, and child just to stay in a nice building and get closer (geographically) to the boss.

He’s supposed to meet Richard, her new husband/manager, and render judgment on some of her pottery designs. What a quirky dilemma that won’t provoke a deeper pain at all! He instinctively wants to hate these designs. A lot of the novel is him overcoming a troubled relationship with clay, which is just dust by another form.

If only he had a sensitive boss because Leo is unbearable. A micromanaging narcissist with a bubblehead (sic and sick), Leo acts as if women are disposable. Leo assumes his subordinates are like him. (Barney did wake up with Miss Fugate, after all.) He has a casual disregard for environmental degradation that fries people at high noon in New York because he has a time-share in Antarctica. For him the equation is simple: Money = happiness. Unlike mere mortals, Leo can afford “E” (evolution) therapy. Never mind the whole process renders him repulsive to Miss Fugate, for whom he offers to topple a mistress atop his orbital bachelor pad.

Further, Leo thinks he’s disciplined. He commits to (mostly) weekly transformative sessions with a former Nazi, Dr. Willy Denkmal. It gives him the confidence to talk down to someone with natural abilities (Barney) and political power (the duplicitous Indian Buddhist “Secretary of the United Nations”). Indeed, the mysterious Palmer Eldritch alone shakes Leo’s confidence. Honorable mercenary, Felix Blau, reinforces it with varying degrees of conviction. More on that later.

Palmer Eldritch arrives quickly but emerges gradually. He seems so much larger than life. Reports of a crash landing Pluto do not satisfy Leo. He wants to send private police to investigate. All of this lends weight to a vague concern about alien invaders from Proxima, beyond Sol. At one point “they” are blamed for the scorching planet, but I’m not even convinced “they” exist. But Palmer Eldritch is back from somewhere. Whether it’s Proxima is, at this point, irrelevant. (But the clue is in the name. Break it down and you get “palmer” as in a pilgrim who has been transformed and “eldritch” as in sinister.) So the rest of the novel unfolds in pursuit of… various somethings.

For Leo, it’s supremacy. He’ll kill to maintain it. That certainty is the dramatic core of the story. Miss Fugate wants Barney’s job, like any respectable corporatist. She’ll wheel and deal. It will involve clashing with Leo. It will ultimately involve clashing with… Palmer Eldritch. Their fates, such as they are, are entangled. All the while, Barney is learning—too late?—the importance of love. Many of his Martian “co-hovelists” just want to escape what they perceive to be squalor and boredom. The United Nations is putting in efforts to improve their quality of life like building three hospitals and lending out robots. “But something about horses and water,” Dick might muse.

Which leaves two characters: Anne Hawthrone and Zoe Eldritch.

Anne is a Neo-Christian, initially zealous and then drained by the mission. She jokes in complete paragraphs about cats and ontology. She too thinks deeply about transubstantiation—same as Dr. Denkmal! And yet he would’ve “devolved” Emily to the point of (further?) stupidity if Richard didn’t evolve a spine at the last possible second to intervene. Denkmal’s faith is a gimmick. Anne, on the other hand, is a nurturer and doesn’t expect monetary profit. Such is her love for all God’s creation that she volunteered to go to Mars. Overall she’s a sympathetic character.

As for the potentially unsympathetic character, Zoe is up to something. (After Barney makes fun of the slogan for Chew-Z, Leo replies audibly in disgust. So it must then be Barney who speaks: “It was all set up by intersystem radio-laser long ago, through his daughter with the approval of Santina and Lark at the UN, in fact with Hepburn-Gilbert’s own approval. They see this as a way of putting a finish to the Can-D trade.” Zoe is not quite a philanthropist, then. Which may mean she’s like Leo in spirit, if not substance. Corporate sabotage and competition drive a lot of this story.) At present, it’s merely control of her father’s remains.

So the crack team at P.P. Layouts devises a plan: Leo will walk right into the Eldritch compound with press credentials. It’s convenient because they own a small quarterly publication. And press were invited to get an update about a safe and legal alternative to the poison they’ve been peddling. See? See? It’s meant to be. Which means… it’s too good to be true. Palmer Eldritch may be pulling the strings. That dastardly villain from Terra yet in possession of sweet, forbidden Proxmia gold rumored to be better and cheaper than Can-D.

“Gold” in the form of Chew-Z that may flush Leo (and everybody that works for him) right out of the market. So Palmer Eldritch, in any case, has to die. If he’s not dead already. But proximity doesn’t lend clarity… for Leo or readers. The man uses an augment to “appear” before Leo. And here’s where I suspect he turns from being just a business competitor (physical) into a bogeyman (spiritual). Because some drugs can make reality terrifying. Perhaps Chew-Z is one of those drugs. And maybe Palmer Eldritch (or his fabulous MBA daughter) is trying to take Leo out.

Things get especially weird after Leo first ingests Chew-Z, but that’s par for the course for Dick. The story doesn’t ultimately take that much time to tell and we could stop to examine every gluck and crawly desk creature and little girl, but that’s besides the larger point, which I think is this: Palmer Eldritch is both big and small. He’s just a man and he’s an internal demon. “Palmer Eldritch” doesn’t have to be a rival drug kingpin. For Barney there’s no greater demon than himself so he’s got very little need for the introspective “magic” Chew-Z promises. Whereas Can-D appealed because it integrated groups (at least at first), people now seek Chew-Z to isolate themselves. Indeed, Barney is somewhat frozen out of his new Martian “community” precisely because he arrives at a time of transition. Leo always wants to float above, but Barney just wants stability even if it took him a long time and pain to discover.

I suspect the trick to “truly” understanding this novel is to finally consider the image of the dog peeing on the plaque in Leo’s first Chew-Z trip. It’s either really funny or it’s a desecration, just as the “time travelers” indicate. The plaque reads,


Dick constructed this scene carefully. He doesn’t have to note that it is “imitation—but impressive—granite.” It’s tacky of him as a writer, but it’s the kind of tackiness we would expect from Leo. At by the end of the novel, Barney at least learned to love Emily’s painstakingly crafted pots.

Leo and Barney—together—capture something essential about folks who struggle with addictions. I suspect the unhappy key to understanding this story is to have experienced an addiction. (Here’s where we could in longer form consider everything Dick had to say on the subject.) Folks with addictions often struggle with being seen.

Palmer Eldritch promises amplification: To be God-like. Leo is sold on the concept from the word Go. Which is bizarre because it doesn’t square with the humble-sounding declaration from the epigraph. On the other hand, Barney is just trudging through the day. Palmer Eldritch can’t make him small like a stone; it can’t make him into a plaque like he desperately wants.

But Palmer Eldritch “makes” Leo a plaque. It may not be a memorial, it may be a tombstone. The only way Leo could truly defeat Palmer Eldritch was to, himself, die. “The Future humans” he chats with would of course pay homage to him as a hero because that’s how he already sees himself. At least from his hovel Barney finds contentment with his garden and Anne.

So, then, by way of conclusion: What about that title?

As far as I can tell, it refers to the peculiar self-distortions one perceives when they are tripping on Chew-Z: “a couple Jensen luxvid artificial-type eyes”, huge metallic teeth, and an artificial arm. It’s never clearer to me that this is an internal experience than in the last scene of the novel: Leo and his goon, Felix, are going home. They’re surrounded by other people. Felix doesn’t partake. And Leo is desperately selling himself up as the superior man. The conversation unfolds in a familiar way with anyone who has ever been trapped on an airplane with a drunk.

‘Okay,’ Felix Blau said. ‘Anything you say, Leo.’

‘Leo? How come you keep calling me Leo?’

Sitting rigidly upright in his chair, supporting himself with both hands, Felix Blau regarded him imploringly. ‘Think, Leo. For chrissakes think.’

‘Oh yeah.’ Sobered, he nodded; he felt chastened. ‘Sorry. It was just a temporary slip. I know what you’re referring to; I know what you’re afraid of. But it didn’t mean anything.’ He added, ‘I’ll keep thinking, like you say. I won’t forget again.’ He nodded solemnly, promising.

The ship rushed on, nearer and nearer the earth.

He goes on to compose the first draft of a memo about grace because he bears the three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch even as he hurls back toward his job like nothing bad happened. We know he invokes Genesis: Aren’t we all just humble beings doing our best down in the muck? But we know Leo undermines himself immediately by going right back to the same old muck. His faith doesn’t yield results. He isn’t lifting up his team like the epigraph suggests. He’s selling himself—temporarily—on a positive vision. That’s the work of Palmer Eldritch. The partnership will kill him. And he’s fine with it.


About wlivings

PhD student in Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy at Florida State University. Stetson '12, Vanderbilt '14.
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