Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dick's Broken-Backed Novels

I've read nothing like a majority of Philip K. Dick's novels, but I have read quite a few. Most recently I read We Can Build You, about which more below; it's among the prizes I bore away from the Cool Book Sale I described a few weeks ago. (The dear old ladies are selling those books by the box now. It's criminal, I tell you!) I started reading Dick in college after seeing Blade Runner for the first time. Naturally I began with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but since then have read a pretty good selection of his work from different phases of his career.

Probably my least favorite Dick novels are the ones with his trademarked what-the-hell-is-going-on-oh-that's-what's-going-on plotline. These include Ubik and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Even these have their moments, though, like the subtle dig against the protagonist at the end of the latter.

It's quite interesting, really, if you think about it. (In fact, I'm having a little epiphany right now as I'm writing.) In a nutshell, international celebrity Jason Taverner wakes up to find himself utterly unknown and without papers of identification. It's as though he'd never existed. After various adventures he throws himself on the mercy of Mary Anne Dominic, a potter. She's so introverted and unworldly that you get the impression she wouldn't have known who Taverner was even when he was famous.

This is where it gets interesting. Taverner thinks her pottery is nice in an offhand sort of way, but through carelessness breaks one of her beloved pieces. Afterward (or maybe it's before, I can't remember) they go to a café, where they hear one of Taverner's records on the jukebox. People begin to recognize him, and everything is back to normal. Eventually everything is cleared up in typical Dickian fashion, i.e., through drug use. But the epilogue is where the dig is; for we find that Taverner has lived out the rest of his rather frivolous life like any A-list celebrity, in pointless dissipation, while Mary Anne's simple yet beautiful work continues to quietly inspire. Do you see? Taverner returned to reality only after making contact with Mary Anne, whom he plainly saw as a nobody and whose work he took for granted; then it's Mary Anne who's revealed to have lived the true life.

And that's what makes Dick great, in my opinion: his humaneness. It's always people that he cares about, not things; beauty, and not power. This sets him apart from a great many science fiction writers. His most unsympathetic characters are handled with a profound compassion. This is attributable, I suppose, to the suffering and existential bewilderment Dick himself underwent throughout his own life.

Schizophrenia runs in my family. My uncle, who's severely paranoid schizophrenic, lived with my grandparents up until their death; he was (on the surface) a silent, morose man with an enormous brown beard who spoke only in monosyllables, but sometimes he'd lock himself in his bedroom and guffaw and chat about crazy things with the voices in his head. I remember listening to him late at night. He's in an institution now, and isn't the first in the family to have been institutionalized. There are various other quirks and hang-ups that crop up here and there. I myself have of course been diagnosed with an autism disorder, and have at times lived on the verge of homelessness.

So, it's something I have a bit of experience with. Dick's novels are often gripped with a terrifying paranoia that stemmed in part from his LSD use but more, I suspect, from his disorder, for which drug abuse was probably only a desperate remedy, as it was for my uncle. But, miraculously, he was able to turn it to good effect, and the people in his stories are real people, not figments or delusions.

Some of the novels in which he tried to handle themes of mental illness ended up not being wholly successful. Perhaps this is because a what-the-hell-is-going-on story has to have a stable backdrop of reality in order to arrive at a satisfying resolution. When the characters are deluded it's anyone's guess what the real story is. This would apply to V.A.L.I.S. and We Can Build You, both of which have a kind of broken-backed structure; but they're quite memorable, and a more "successful" attempt, The Clans of Alphane Moon, strikes me as rather trite.

V.A.L.I.S. is largely autobiographical; it amuses me that the Library of America copy I have on my shelf is entitled V.A.L.I.S. and Later Novels, as if the editors weren't entirely certain how to classify it. It's narrated in third person by the protagonist, Horselover Fat, which is of course a cryptogram for Philip Dick. The first half is a fairly realistic account of Dick's mental illness, drug use, and various theophanies; the second, a typically Dickian sci-fi story, is quite different in tone, and ends without a clear resolution. That's not doing the book justice, I know, but what I'm pointing out is the visible seam in the middle, where we go from schizophrenia to sci-fi. I'll discuss the work itself in a later post.

We Can Build You, a much earlier work, has this same seam, but it goes in the opposite direction, from sci-fi to schizophrenia. I read it, as I do most of Dick's books, in a single day, and the ending both disappointed me—because the main plot of the book had been abruptly and completely abandoned— and filled me with a very real, poignant sorrow. It is, from many points of view, a failed novel, but it's one that I think I'll go back to long before I re-read Ubik

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