The Three Stigmata of Phillip K. Dick

Cover illustration, <em>Clans of the Alphane Moon</em>. Masters of Science Fiction.

Cover illustration, Clans of the Alphane Moon. Masters of Science Fiction.

Philip K Dick’s very first published short story, “Beyond Lies the Wub,” introduced the world of science fiction to the Wub, a creature that takes possession of other bodies. In Dick’s 1968 story “Not By Its Cover,” contents of books that are bound in Wub-fur are transformed, becoming oddly religious. The release of a volume of four of Philip K. Dick’s 1960s novels earlier this year by the Library of America literalized another of Dick’s metaphors. The prestigious hard cover renders Dick’s words — which once filled the yellowed pages of countless 99-cent paperbacks — sacred.

[... Read David Gill's interview with Jonathan Lethem ...]

According to its Web site, the Library of America is a nonprofit publishing house “dedicated to publishing, and keeping in print, authoritative editions of America’s best and most significant writing.” Of course this begs the question how can anyone determine what exactly the “best and most significant writing” is, but let’s put that aside for the moment. Hailed by The New York Times Book Review as the “quasi-official national canon of American literature,” the LoA has released authoritative volumes by Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, Henry James, Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams and many, many others. Dick’s inclusion in the LoA is an incredible accomplishment for any writer, let alone a sci-fi writer who many critics have denounced as unreadable and unworthy of study. Upon hearing of the book’s release, a sense of relief washed over me. No longer would I have to defend my serious scholarship of Dick’s work, no longer would I have to justify assigning Dick’s novels in college literature courses—finally I had some hard evidence to support my assertion that Dick was one of the most insightful and courageous philosophical writers of the 20th century.

But my satisfaction was short-lived. A string of articles that announced Dick’s arrival as a literary Golden Boy rehashed the same accusations he endured from critics for most of his life: clunky prose, recycled characters, creaky plots. Instead of celebrating Dick’s long, prolific career and his incredible professionalism, these reviews chronicled the darkest moments in Dick’s life and cataloged the long list of criticisms people have leveled at his writing. In a May 21 Newsweek piece, Malcolm Jones writes, “Judged by conventional critical yardsticks, Dick falls short of greatness. His plots creak. Reading his prose can feel like being assaulted with a blunt instrument.”

In a May 6 New York Times article titled “Prince of Pulp, Legit at Last,” Charles McGrath writes, “…you don’t read Mr. Dick for his prose.” And in his August 20 review “Blows Against The Empire” in The New Yorker (a publication Dick dreamt of appearing in), Adam Gopnik writes:

“The trouble isn’t that Dick suffers by some school-marmish standard of fine writing. It’s that the absence of any life within the writing on the page ends up robbing the books of the vital force that pushes you past pages. As an adult reader coming back to Dick, you start off in a state of renewed wonder and then find yourself thumbing ahead to see how much farther you are going to have to go.”

My favorite reaction to the LoA’s Dick volume came from some snobbish blogger who wrote, “Even by the compromised standards of science fiction and other genre fiction, Dick’s books were awful and left me feeling unclean for having tried to read them.”

Like Herman Melville, who was virtually unknown as a novelist at the time of his death, Dick owes his literary reputation to a small cadre of die-hard fans who through dedication and word of mouth slowly built a fan base of freaks who not only loved Dick’s novels and short stories but also philosophized endlessly on Dick’s experiences—exactly as Dick did for much of his life. Dick gained readers, and many of these readers became missionaries, preaching the gospel of Philip K. Dick far and wide, handing an old beat-up paperback to anyone who would read it. “Man, if you want a novel that will really blow your mind … .” The notion that the literary world has finally “discovered” PKD is akin to the notion that Columbus “discovered” America: both lands already had thousands of inhabitants happily living there.

The problem with learning about an artist from the press is their allegiance to the bottom line; the urgency of finding a saleable angle often outstrips the less sensational but true facts : “Raving Lunatic Turns Out To Be a Visionary Genius!” “Author That Wrote a Lot of Movies That Made Money Must Be Good!” “The Library of America Release is the Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread—You Really Ought to Buy One!” Instead, reviewers lazily regurgitated the same tired narrative that Dick’s canonization was newsworthy because it was surprising: Who would have thought a science-fiction writer whacked out of his mind on drugs would have anything serious to say about anything? All the fanfare about the LoA release seemed to center on Dick’s life, on his prodigious drug consumption, his lifelong battle with schizophrenia, his string of broken marriages and his “mystical experiences.” What’s more, the critics implied that Dick’s genius was born of his insanity—he was great precisely because he was crazy. Dick’s very best fiction in fact blurred the distinction between madness and sanity. It’s profoundly ironic that these writers try to reduce Dick’s life and work down to one half of a binary opposition he worked his whole life to undermine.

The way Dick’s persona is constructed in these articles reveals a lot about who we want artists to be. We’ve internalized the notion that the core of who we are and the really meaningful parts of life—all the stuff art is supposed to be about—lies beyond the grasp of the reasoning mind. And so we look to crazy people because they are not afraid to bark like a dog or scream in anger or cry. They seem to be consumed by the very same emotions we work so hard to hold back. They give in to the impulses we repress.

Hollywood certainly glamorizes insanity. Movies like “A Beautiful Mind,” “Shine,” and “Pollock” depict mental illness as the wellspring of genius. Too timid to feel we can judge the quality of the artist based on his or her work, we decide we can evaluate their sanity objectively and use that as a stick by which to measure genius. As Malcolm Jones wrote in Newsweek, “…greatness in art is always a subjective thing—if you’re comparing Philip K. Dick to Henry James, someone is going to fall short.”

Dick’s lifelong and very public battle with mental illness inadvertently gives him more cachet as a genius writer. It’s therefore natural that the media would portray him in this way. The scary thing is that the legitimacy of Dick’s reputation might ultimately depend on the authenticity of his insanity. His reputation as a amphetamine-addled mystic, a disheveled prophet having returned from the mothership with the Truth, makes him a hot commodity. His madness conveniently focuses his genius like a lens and allows mental illness to become a critical affectation defining Dick’s literary legacy. Gopnik writes in The New Yorker, “The gift of Dick’s craziness was to see how strong the forces of normalcy are in a society, even when what they are normalizing is objectively nuts.”

In one of his regular Sunday Hangover columns over at SuicideGirls.com, British writer Warren Ellis riffs on how nuts Dick was:

“And make no mistake, Phil Dick was mental. As mad as Lovecraft, who was afraid of everything. Phil Dick used to leave notes for the FBI, informing on his friends, under his garbage cans, certain that that was where the FBI were checking. On the street, he’d be almost overwhelmed by the compulsion to surrender to passing police officers. If he were around today, he’d be holding up hand painted signs reading ‘I give up’ to security cameras.”

But Dick’s reputation was already firmly established as that of a prophetic junkie rather than a professional author long before this recent spate of articles. Once I was lecturing on Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” A girl raised her hand and asked, “Is it true that Dick’s cat told him he had a brain tumor?” Obviously Dick’s reputation has gone through a long game of Telephone.

Dick didn’t benefit from his bouts with insanity. He suffered a life of unappreciated poverty, churning out novels and short stories at an inhuman rate (sixty finished manuscript pages a day at times). From the tales of his thousand-uppers-a-week habit to his intensely vivid visions, Dick’s life story is a sad one, both marred and shortened by mental illness. The critics and fans who imagine Dick simply channeling a pink beam of light with a Ouija board and a typewriter fail to appreciate his work ethic. Fifty-five novels don’t just write themselves.

In his New York Times article Charles McGrath writes, “…it’s hard to know what Mr. Dick, who died in 1982 at the age of 53, would have made of the fact that this month he has arrived at the pinnacle of literary respectability.” Perhaps Dick would be amazed that the pinnacle of literary respectability in someone’s eyes is a hard cover edition issued by a particular publisher. Imagine, it’s not an aerosol spray that fights entropy, it’s a fancy book binding that magically elevates the status of the author, making him—finally—a legitimate genius.

Yet I have no doubt in my mind that Dick would have dug this edition. Many think that Dick really wanted to make it as a mainstream fiction writer, but I think he just wanted to be taken seriously. Regardless, he would have flipped over this edition’s onion-skin paper, gold-stamped spine, and the silk-tassel bookmark. If you’ve always meant to pick up a Philip K. Dick book but were intimidated by the huge selection and his reputation for being uneven, this release is a good place to start. The four novels include “The Man in the High Castle,” “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” (my personal favorite) and “Ubik.” With a list price of close to $35, this edition is a little pricey. I suggest you buy these titles used, preferably in the pulpiest edition you can find (eBay is a great source—buy them in bulk). When you finish a title, you can pass it along to a friend.

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One Comment

  1. ell
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    until it came out in the LoA edition, i didn’t read it. boy was i glad i did.

    i think Philip K. Dick is great in the sense that he will provide a “payoff,” usually in some outrageous idea or comment about how weird and insane a “normal” society actually might be. as if Dick were saying, “i hate to tell you how nuts *you* really are, but jeez…” (and hey, all you did was, you believed what they told you).

    so it’s exhilarating in bursts of insight, and then also painful, because, well, there’s this huge lack of respect for living things, if you can somehow manage to label them as inferior… anyhow, i paid my fare, now i’m already strapped in, the pilot got up and left, now someone else is flipping switches randomly and saying, “Do these systems actually work?”

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