I first read Mary when I was 17, as part of a cache of the Dick Good Stuff bequeathed by a wise mate at college. I’d remembered it fondly, but on rereading it find how little of the plot I retained.
Mary Anne Reynolds is 20 years-old and living in a small town not far outside San Francisco. She’s bored and restless and a bit difficult, and looking for ways to escape. To begin with, it looks like the giant Black singer, Carleton Tweany, might be her way out. But when Tweany ditches her for another, married woman, Mary Anne’s best hope is the 58 year-old Joseph Schilling, who’s just opened a record shop in town…
Was a bit surprised about how little Tweany, the giant of the title, features – disappearing entirely for most of the latter half. It’s Schilling’s relationship with Mary that’s more important; his grooming her to work in the shop, to appreciate music, to want more from life. It’s through Schilling that we come to understand Mary, her irascibility and constant flight from commitment, even from those who want to help her.
“If she were let alone she would recover. If she had always been let alone she would not need to recover. He had been trained to be afraid; she had not invented her fear by herself, had not generated it or encouraged it or asked it to grow. Probably she did not know where it came from. And certainly she did not know how to get rid of it. She needed help, but it was not as simple as that; the desire to help her was no longer enough. Once, perhaps, it would have been. But too much time had passed, too much harm had been done. She could not believe even those who were on her side.”
Philip K Dick, Mary and the Giant, pp. 221-2.But what I also think I missed the first time round was the constant tension and paranoia. Yes, there’s a murder attempt and a bloke gets killed, and there’s the casual, sexual violence threatened by Mary’s father. But there’s even threat in the quietest of moments: the stench of new paint in an otherwise perfect apartment; Mary’s ignorance among the experts on music; and the general horror that a white girl might choose to live in the “coloured neighbourhood” – a horror only Mary seems to miss. Seems, because it’s this wilful running into danger that Schilling slowly comes to comprehend.
It’s the paranoid tension that really makes the book something special, a vivid and enthralling read. But I think at 17 I maybe missed that aspect, and mistook her awkward restlessness for teenage despair at grown-ups.