“[Philip K.] Dick is a species of Kafka manifested by lysergic acid and rage.” (Roberto Bolaño)
I have been on a Phillip K. Dick binge this past week. Thanks to this trusty black hardcover Library of America compilation, I’ve chomped my way through A Maze of Death, VALIS (a re-read of a classic), and I just finished The Divine Invasion. Only The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is left and then I’ll have finished the volume.
Reading Phillip K. Dick makes me feel like a crackhead. He makes me feel like Christian Bale’s character in The Fighter: jumpy, twitchy, bug-eyed, sweaty forehead, fidgeting constantly, a barrage of words in a thick accent. He makes me feel paranoid and twitchy, like I’m hearing voices in my head, like I want to say things to my friends and co-workers that will make them feel uncomfortable and furrow their brows in concern for my mental health and well-being. He makes me feel like I’ve taken too many amphetamines.
I had to pull two nighters in a row last week (a self-inflicted punishment I hadn’t experienced since ye college days of yore) thanks to an intense envelope-stuffing session for one of my jobs. It was crazy how no sleep makes you feel. It’s crazy how you can walk around and talk and drive on two hours of sleep in two days. It made me feel like a Phillip K. Dick character.
His books have also been giving me crazy dreams. I had an Inception-type one last night, in which I’d dreamed that I was banging myself against the bed, trying to wake myself up from another dream I was having, and when I finally woke up in Real Life (whatever THAT means) it honestly took me a couple of seconds to realize that no, it had been in the dream where I was banging myself against the bed like that, not in Reality. I also had this INSANE dream the other week in which I was watching a reality TV show based on the premise of Chopped (a Food Network cooking show I watched WAY too many episodes of during the envelope stuffing sessions. Watching it made me feel guilty, but then again it provided the basis for this dream, so at least something useful came of it). Anyway, so the premise of the reality show I was watching in this dream was that contestants were judged on the quality of their dreams. Similarly to Chopped, they were given a basket containing something: random assorted items. Other times they were made to experience something weird and intense (my memory is sketchy here). Then they had to go lay down on these flat beds and dream about it. The four judges provided intense, rapid commentary (“I see that he’s going for the quick two minute cat-nap…. She’s going for the full twenty minutes, will she reach R.E.M.?”). Then during the judging portion, the judges assessed the dream according to how well they helped the dreamer digest their experience, as well as by their narrative quality (“It felt a bit disjointed to me… I don’t feel like it really helped you make sense of what happened.”).
I attribute this dream 100% to Philip K. Dick’s influence and saturation on my brain.
I just love reading Philip K. Dick. He makes me want to clap my hands together and whoop in delight. To me, he just embodies the best thing about reading: escapism and imagination. The stuff he comes up with just boggles my mind. I think Borges is truly the only other comparable peer. There are just so many moments in his books (especially these three I’ve just read) in which I just shook my head in a “How does he come up with this stuff?” style.
One of the many things for which I am most grateful is the way Philip K. Dick reminds me that This Reality Is Not All There Is. It’s a feeling I get sometimes at the end of a REALLY freaking good yoga class, the kind that makes me so sweaty my toes tingle, and it’s like all my resistance has just been wrung out of me like I’m a wet towel, and I lap up all the Rumi and Hafiz-influenced quotes that the teacher reads out of her little hardcover notebook, about how God is the surf and human beings are just shells tossed by it. It’s the feeling that Elizabeth Gilbert talks about in the India chapter of Eat Pray Love, of just wanting to be reminded that we are MORE than just these little neurotic human creatures, fretting about our bad habits, fretting about our jobs, our graduate school applications, our chewed-down nails and procrastination, our concerns that we are developing a glucose addiction thanks to the copious amounts of honey and Adobe sweetener we feel like we absolutely need to add to our herbal tea (or maybe this is all just me, haha). It’s the feeling (reminder?) that there is MORE to this world than our puny human selves. I am not a religious person by any means at all but this is definitely something I fervently believe. It’s a big universe out there and there is some WEIRD STUFF out there, a lot of it involving infinity and quantum mechanics. Not to mention that it is likely that time is an illusion and that everything is going to happen already has, in the style of Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan. Let’s leave it at that for now.
ANYWAY… on that quasi-mystical note, I especially liked/appreciated these three novels (A Maze of Death, VALIS, The Divine Invasion) for the way they deal with intense theological questions. The presence and the nature of God is a huge theme in these three books. For me, this elevates the books beyond the mere realm of science fiction, and into philosophical exercises similar to Borges.
But beyond this very intense nature-of-God stuff, what makes me love Philip K. Dick is how funny and human he is. Take this very first sentence, from A Maze of Death: “His job, as always, bored him.” What a PERFECT way to start a science fiction novel. Yes, the spaceships come later, as well as the interplanetary exploration and the nature of God (here called “the Mentufacturer”), but this sentence is so grounding. It grounds us in something very real, something we can all relate to. “His job, as always, bored him.” It’s a Kafkaesque detail. It’s just like what Borges said about fantastical writing, that in many ways it needs to be more realistic than traditional realism. You have just got to have these very realistic, down-to-earth details that ground you, or otherwise the fantastical story is not going to captivate you. It will slip through you fingers into the “Why should I care about any of this?” realm and become Lord of the Rings/Simarillion speeches (yes, I was not able to finish LOTR. I made it partway through the first part of The Two Towers and gave up. Sorry, Tolkein. I am grateful for the movies and find them a perfectly acceptable Hollywood commercial distillation). But through the details, Philip K. Dick makes us care. Maybe if Aragorn had bitched a little more I could have given more of a crap about the fate of Middle Earth. If only other LOTR characters like him had been given the same loving and realistic characterization as the ponies…
Anyway, I love Philip K. Dick, I love writing, I love fiction, I love art, and I love passages such as this one from VALIS that nearly make me pee from laughing:
(Background: Horselover Fat is the main character from Valis, and is basically Philip K. Dick himself–“Horselover” is the Greek translation for the name Phillip, and in German “Dick” means “Fat.” In this passage he’s talking to Maurice, one of the psychiatrists at the mental institution:)
“Let me just say one thing,” Fat said.
Irritably, Maurice nodded.
“The creator deity,” Fat said, “may be insane and therefore the universe is insane. What we experience as chaos is actually irrationality. There is a difference.” He was silent, then.
“The universe is what you make of it,” Maurice said. “It’s what you do with it that counts. It’s your responsibility to do something life-promoting with it, not life-destructive.”
“That’s the existential position,” Fat said. “Based on the concept that we are what we do, rather than, We are what we think. It finds its first expression in Goethe’s Faust, Part One, where Faust says, ‘Im Anfang war das Wort.’ He’s quoting the opening of the Fourth Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ Faust says, ‘Nein. Im Anfang war die Tat.’ ‘In the beginning was the deed.’ From this, all existentialism comes.”
Maurice stared at him as if he were a bug.”
“Like a bug.” LOVE IT. Or how about this from The Divine Invasion. I just love the main character’s reaction to the prophet Elijah’s (here called “Elias”) speech about the upcoming apocalyptic battle between God and Satan:
” [excerpt from a MUCH longer paragraph I am too lazy to type completely out] … We must be the world’s information source, speaking in all tongues. We will be the tower that originally failed. And if we fail now, then it ends here, and sleep returns… rust will rule and dust will rule–not for a little time but for all time and all men, even their machines, for all that lies ahead.”
“Gosh,” Herb Asher said.”
CLASSIC. What better way to react to a speech about the impending apocalypse? It’s these little moments that make or break Philip K. Dick for me, and every time he comes THIS CLOSE to losing you with very intense fantastical headtrips, he brings you back with these little human moments. “Gosh.” “Maurice stared at him as if he were a bug.” His job, as always, bored him.” “Mental illness is not funny.” (from VALIS)
Thank you Philip for your prophetic madman rants, your Berkeley LSD-scene infused ramblings, and for generally making this world a better place to live in…