Philip K. Dick keeps it (un)real

Hollywood's favorite sci-fi writer didn't think it was all fiction

Nov 23, 2011 at 12:00 am


The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick

by Philip K. Dick, edited by Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem

Imagine you're a regular guy named Joe Chip, a technician and evaluator of psychic-blocking talent. You and your boss, Glen Runciter, assemble a team for an important mission on the moon. You land, there is an explosion, Runciter is dead. Things go downhill — fast — as the world around you gets, you know, entropic. All the food rots. Technology regresses as holograms become televisions become radios. Your friends age rapidly, then wither and die. Is this really happening to you? Is this a nightmare? How can you stop the approaching forces of decay?

You wouldn't want to be a character in Philip K. Dick's 1969 novel Ubik, or any of his other 35 novels and 121 short stories. But if he's right, you just might be. Or maybe in a reality even worse.

Dick's speculative universes are some of the most inventive ever. Outside the science fiction community, however, he's best known for providing the bases for movies from 1982's Blade Runner to this year's The Adjustment Bureau — 11 so far with more in the pipeline (a Total Recall remake next year) or under discussion (including Ubik and his classic fantasy story "The King of the Elves").

Of course, Dick's ascension from cat-food-for-dinner poor — as he and his then wife, Kleo, were at one point — to becoming the most-filmed sci-fi author of all time must have seemed an impossible dream. Paltry book sales and exploitive publishers held him down throughout his career. And if he'd lived to see this success — he was around only long enough to see a rough cut of Blade Runner — he probably would have thought he'd entered one of his own alternate universes.

But his complaints about the world weren't just financial or material. Metaphysical is more like it. Dick once wrote that "the world we actually have does not meet my standards." His suicide attempts, chronic agoraphobia, amphetamine abuse, five marriages and divorces attest to this. So does the consistent riddle in any great Dick narrative: "What is (really) Real?"

For all his adult life, even as he cranked out his novels of unfathomable worlds for pennies a word, Dick sensed that the world in which he seemed to live was fake. Then, at age 45, Dick underwent a nearly indescribably series of perceptual phenomena — let's call them, in total, one prolonged mystical revelation. Dick may have been hallucinating when he saw "hundreds of thousands of absolutely terrific modern art pictures," but this incident, and many more, wasn't drug-induced.

These experiences verified his skeptical intuitions. They also scared the shit out of him.

The final eight years of Dick's life became an exploration into these events, which he labeled 2-3-74, standing for February-March, 1974. He wrote so voluminously on his experience (approximately 8,000 handwritten pages) that even after posthumous mainstream acceptance — besides the movies, there've been numerous reprints and even a prestigious three-volume Library of America box set — publishers feared approaching the tome both because of its sheer mass and subject matter.

Until now. Novelist Jonathan Lethem and Dick scholar Pamela Jackson undertook the monumental task of selecting, editing and arranging the unwieldy manuscript into a digestible read. The outcome of this labor, titled The Exegesis of Philip K Dick, is a still substantial 967 pages.

Author of the acclaimed Motherless Brooklyn, Lethem acknowledges Dick as one of his largest influences, literary or otherwise, and campaigns on his behalf in the enthusiastic introduction. He counts Dick among the modern literary giants, describing him as "one of the more brilliant and unusual minds to make itself known to the 20th century." Lethem and Jackson also offer their interpretation of the Exegesis and its value as a literary work. But while Dick fans are certainly grateful after a 30-year wait, average readers might wonder, what's the point?

Well, let's return to the crisis of '74 and the following weirdness.

One unassuming day, Dick returned home from dental surgery still under the influence of the sodium pentothal. A woman wearing an ichthys (Jesus fish) pendant around her neck came to his house to deliver additional medication. Sunlight reflected off the pendant. This triggered a vision of Dick and the woman in ancient Rome, exchanging signals as furtive Christians.

In the period following, Dick wrote, "I seem to be more and more living in my own novels."

The Christian deliverywoman left and the painkillers wore off, but further visions occurred almost daily. Pink beams of raw information flashed before him several times, once revealing his son's potentially fatal inguinal hernia. Dick sometimes came under the influence of "Thomas," a Latin-speaking, persecuted Christian. A gender-neutral voice spoke coded messages to him at night. There are more descriptions like these, all equally surreal.

Then Dick sat in front of a pad of paper for approximately eight years, writing mystical things like: "To remember and to wake up are absolutely interchangeable" and "The world began to talk in a true language of signs."

Minus a few blinding flashes, Dick was never able to shed consistent illumination on those dark, confusing days. But the journey yielded its share of insights, the book's central premise being one. It's a singular version of Christian Gnosticism with dashes of SF and other philosophical systems Dick felt an affinity for. Dick biographer Lawrence Sutin united the various threads and described it as such: "Our apparent but false universe is partially redeemed by its ongoing blending with the genuine source of being. Together the two sources — set and ground — create a sort of holographic universe that deceives us. Disentangling reality from illusion is the goal of enlightenment."

As for the numinous visions, Dick believed that God, or a Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS, also the name of one of his novels), was revealing its true nature to him. But its messages were coded in dreamlike images and required considerable interpretation.

Confronting this text, even in its abridged and edited form, is an intimidating prospect. But just because Dick sought to unearth hidden "Reality" doesn't mean readers should approach the book with a similar intent.

Better to treat The Exegesis as you would the diaries of any other seminal writer. Think of The Exegesis as a case study on graphomanic insanity, just as The Journals of John Cheever is about depression or The Diaries by Franz Kafka is about alienation. "I have so much to say and can't spit it out," Dick writes. "Papers slide off my desk; books I'm quoting from fall shut; I type wrong letters entirely. I am so fucking excited, keyed up, high on all this, and terribly impatient."

Lethem and Jackson describe the writing as "frantic, obsessive and, it may be fair to say, involuntary."

At times, Dick seems more than slightly touched: "That I am in direct mind-to-mind touch with extraterrestrial intelligence systems has been obvious to me for some time." In two of Dick's novels, A Scanner Darkly and VALIS, the main character has two personalities. There are passages in The Exegesis concerning "bilateral parity in brain functioning" and the need to reunite the two hemispheres of our brains to perceive correctly. It's as if The Exegesis is an extended therapy session, an attempt to cure his own schizophrenic tendencies.

But true to his iconoclastic self, Dick defied the label "crazy." His objectivity and self-awareness are remarkable. He was never entirely convinced of his visions' significance — they could easily have been the product of a deranged mind. He can even be humorous and self-deprecating about the whole thing. For example, in the midst of a lengthy entry about a "tutor" taking over his personality, Dick suddenly writes:

"I can see me telling my therapist this. 'What's on your mind, Phil?' she'll say when I get in, and I'll say, 'Asklepios is my tutor, from out of Periclean Athens. I'm learning to talk in Attic Greek.' She'll say, 'Oh really?' and I'll be on my way to the Blissful Groves, but that won't be after death; that'll be in the country where it's quiet and costs $100 a day. And you get all the apple juice you want to drink, along with Thorazine."

The Exegesis is both exciting and exhausting. Because if Dick hadn't died, the inquiry would have been unending. Lethem and Jacksoin sum it up best: "The Exegesis can be viewed as a long experiment in mind-regarding-itself. The puzzle that Dick can never solve."


Aaron Mondry is a Metro Times intern. Send comments to [email protected].