I spoke with Jonathan Lethem, an author with a pretty good shot at having his own edition in the Library of America someday, and the editor of Dick’s Library of America volume. Lethem has been a vocal advocate for Dick’s oeuvre (or ‘irv’ as he calls it). We talked about each of the novels in the volume, the timeline he prepared, and what this release means for Dick’s legacy:
Lethem on “The Man in the High Castle” and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”:
“High Castle”… was a watershed book in his biography, so it connects to his life story in an interesting way. On the other hand “Do Androids…” has “Blade Runner” attached to it. I think in terms of the role that Dick has taken in terms of the popular imagination it’s an important connection… I reread [each of the four novels] carefully and “DADoES” is the one book I’ve been underrating. It struck me as totally controlled and emotionally precise and I thought, “There’s a reason this got turned into this big movie.” Because of the film noir elements, it stakes out ground that is unusually accessible without being compromised in any way. So those two book are the ambassadorial book, framing the volume, while “Ubik” and “The Three Stigmata” are the quintessential books.
Lethem on “Ubik”:
Of the four books “Ubik” has the most howlingly bad Dick, especially in the first chapters. He seems to be spinning his wheels putting these elaborate costumes on the characters. When I hand that book to people I tell them to ignore what everyone’s wearing. Nonetheless, “Ubik” was my early favorite. It’s the book of his where it all clicked into place for me. While it wasn’t as flawless as some of the others, the only word I can come up with is quintessence… a pure glimpse into Dick’s insight into the way the world is — you know — fucked.
Lethem on “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”:
It’s Dick’s masterpiece.
What was it like working on the Chronology (a brief timeline for Dick’s life that appears at the back of the LoA volume with biographical and publishing information)?
I lapsed into a kind of depression [working on the timeline]. As much as I know his life story and as much as I’ve dwelled on it, something about assembling the facts it was like falling into a kind of vicarious doom.
What will the LoA volume mean for Dick’s legacy?
It’s a weird thing to leap into this concept of what is a legacy, what is posterity—those things are so bizarrely subjective. In some quarters Dick is already one of the defining voices of the second half of the twentieth century and in other quarters he is obviously disreputable forever. This volume becomes part of a conversation that’s a cacophony. There’s not one paradigm anymore, if there ever was, of a literary reputation.
With Dick there’s a sense of his always arriving in the culture, always being discovered. There are certain things that no matter how many people love them they retain their dissident quality. If you love something like Philip K. Dick you feel like you’re the only one that gets it. That said, I go back a certain distance with this. I was around in the years just after his death, hanging out with Paul Williams working on the Philip K. Dick society newsletter. Which was this photocopied labor of love, with a circulation in the hundreds. And all the books were pretty well out of print. There’s an unimaginable difference between now and 1991-92 when in order to even read the major works people were circulating imported British mass-market paperbacks.
That’s the way change happens, people declare it and then slowly their declaration is turned into a reality; it’s like the gentrification of a neighborhood. When my parents moved into this part of Brooklyn in 1968, everyone was promising each other it was about to happen here. Fools invested their money in opening boutiques on a street that was mostly boarded up shops and gas stations. But now you know what? There are boutiques there now, thirty years after it looked like a silly idea. You say something is going to happen for a long time and then a lot of people get exasperated and say oh you’re ridiculous; it’s never going to happen. Then one day it sort of happens. I think Dick’s gentrification has that quality too. This is not only the way literary reputations are transformed but the way change generally occurs, especially change in opposition to entrenched class prejudices. And a lot of the biases against genre fiction have not to do with any kind of aesthetic or literary judgment but with class discomfort. That kind of change happens very slowly, but it does occur, it distills as people come of age: people in your generation, people even younger than you, don’t care; they just don’t understand the prejudices of the previous generation. So that’s how it’s happening. It’s a very layered kind of transformation. Yet Dick retains an outré vibe—the work conveys a permanent and intrinsic cult affect.