Dick is on record saying two things about his writing: first, that he wrote most of his novels before 1974 on amphetamines, and second, that he rarely revised. This novel is proof of both. It's written as if in a stream of consciousness, almost automatic writing a la Gertrude Stein.
The bare bones plot is this: a company that makes "mood organs" finds their sales lagging, and at the direction of Pris Frauenzimmer, the owner's daughter, they create a simulacrum of Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. They try sell the US Government on the idea of staging educational Civil War re-enactments using their androids, but it's a no-go. Meanwhile, they create another simulacrum, one of Abraham Lincoln himself.
In his burgeoning mental instability, Rosen imagines himself to be a simulacra, and then has an utter and complete breakdown and is committed to the Kasanin clinic in Kansas. During his therapy sessions he slowly regains sanity through induced hallucinations where he spends a happy lifetime with Pris. Just as he’s restored to a stable state, Pris appears in the hospital and he tries to convince her of their happy life together, but she drifts further into the hospital as Rosen is released.
It's almost as if Dick was following whatever idea he had at the time, then moving onto the next idea. People who think they're androids? Check. Androids who think they're people? Check. Simulated neighborhoods on the moon? Check. Drug-induced false realities? Check.
This novel is as schizophrenic as the characters. Dick can’t seem to decide on one name for anything. Pris Frauenzimmer is the daughter and the name of the company is Frauenzimmer Piano Company. Later, though, it cycles through other names: Rock & Rosen Associates, Rosen Electronic Organ Factory, The Rosen Spinet Piano & Electronic Organ Factory, Frauenzimmer Associates, and even MASA Associates.
Of course, Pris Stratton is the android sought by Deckard in "Do androids Dream...?". According to Dekard, Pris looks just like Rachael Rosen, who is ostensibly the niece of Eldon Rosen, the president of the Rosen Association, fabricator of androids. In "Do androids Dream...?" they also have mood organs, although the model owned by Deckard is a Penfield, not Hammerstein.
I often wondered if Dick had gotten the idea for this book when visiting the animatronic Lincoln at Disneyland under the influence of drugs, but apparently he wrote most of the novel before Disney’s Lincoln. Although it was published in 1972, he initially wrote it in 1962, and it was serialized in “Amazing Stories Magazine” in 1969. As for Disney’s Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln: “The first Audio-Animatronics version of Lincoln debuted in 1964 at the New York World's Fair. The show was so life-like that National Geographic magazine called the figure "alarming" in its realism. The smash hit moved to Disneyland Park in 1965.”
Despite the chaos in this book, there are some interesting parts, worth reading. Theodore Sturgeon said this of the book: “WE CAN BUILD YOU proves for all time that: 1) Philip K. Dick is overwhelmingly competent and capable and might – probably will –produce a major novel and that: 2) this isn’t it.” This is the only first-person narrated novel by PKD. One thing I discovered while googling this book is that the mosaic in the bathroom that Pris is working on in chapter 3 is essentially the same thing that Anne Dick put up in their Point Reyes home, and it’s still there. And I also found more evidence for what I believe are I Ching generated names: the housing project on the moon is called Green Peach Hat, a codeword for Gracious Prospect Heights. Both of these phrases sound a lot like the Pretty Blue Fox and Straw Man Special groups in “The Game Players of Titan.”
Given all this focus on simulacra, I have to mention perhaps the oddest example of life imitating art with regard to Philip Dick. In 2004, Andrew Olney, a programmer, and David Hanson, an independent roboticist, attempted to make an android that would look, talk and respond in the manner of Dick himself. PKD left a lot of written and recorded material, so they had good sources to start with. Or, perhaps, with Dick’s eccentricity, they had a good bad source to start with. According to an article in Wall Street Journal:
“The android was prone to verbal loops, in which it would keep responding to one question long after others had been asked. Anyone, however, who has tried to read Dick's strange, posthumously published testament "Exegesis" (2011), a sampling from his hallucinatory diaries, will know that he was just like the android. The android also responded tangentially, or perhaps cheekily, to questioners like the unfortunate president of the University of Memphis, who had come to see what the geeks were doing. ("Are you a man or a woman?" the android Phil asked. "Do you have any conditions I should know about?") Yes, that's what gurus do as well. Building the artificial PKD seems to have given its creators insights into how biological brains work.”Unfortunately, Hanson accidentally left Dick’s android head in a plane’s overhead storage compartment, and it has never been seen again.
Bottom line, there’s a good reason it took nearly ten years before this story was published. Dick was probably working out a lot of ideas while writing “We Can Build You,” but luckily he revisited most of them again in more polished works. Despite other reviews that call this a major work, I’m sticking with Sturgeon’s assessment.
From the back of the 2008 HarperVoyager edition:
Maybe going into android production wasn’t the obvious step for a firm devoted to the manufacture of pianos and electric organs, but business was slow. It was a creative leap, and one suggested by Pris Frauenzimmer. Pris had been a schizophrenic -- but that didn’t mean that there was anything particularly wrong with her idea.
It would also mean a new owner: millionaire tycoon Sam K. Barrows, a man with a vision to colonise the Moon and the money to make it happen. Fake people, especially famous fake people, would make the place an attraction, and real estate value was sure to sky-rocket. All they had to do was to stop the androids from losing their minds...