Dark prophet

A new collection reveals the despair and distrust at the root of Philip K. Dick's science fiction

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mark Feeney
July 27, 2008

Philip K. Dick: Five Novels of the 1960s and 70s
Edited by Jonathan Lethem
Library of America, 1,128 pp., $40

Is Philip K. Dick the father of the paranoid style in American fiction? "Every pay phone in the world was tapped," a character thinks in "A Scanner Darkly." "Or if it wasn't some crew somewhere just hadn't gotten around to it."

As it happens, that character is an undercover narcotics agent assigned to spy on himself. Perhaps he got the job through an employment agency run by Franz Kafka. His boss tells him: "We evaluate; you report with your own limited conclusions. This is not a put-down of you, but we have information, lots of it, not available to you. The broad picture. The computerized picture." That final sentence fragment, the way it's both sinister and ridiculous - re-DICK-ulous? - is a true Dick touch.

Paranoia came naturally to Dick (1928-82). Bedeviled by drug abuse, mental illness, and the bill collector, he had good reason to think people might be out to get him. He churned out science fiction novels at a dizzying rate. According to Jonathan Lethem's excellent explanatory notes, Dick wrote 140 pages of "Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said" in 48 hours. (Flow my words, the novelist said?)

Not infrequently it was the reader who got dizzy. Writing hardly comes any clunkier than this sentence from "Now Wait for Last Year": "But in all fairness, it had to be realized, Eric reflected, no one possessed the money and economic know-how to underwrite this admittedly uniquely expensive and beyond all others - imitations all - utterly impractical venture."

Dick was also capable of fine, simple writing, too. A nuclear attack in "Dr. Bloodmoney" raises "a stout trunk of smoke, as dense and brown as a living stump." Another character in that novel wonders if a recent experience (unexpectedly happy - as happiness in Dick's novels tends to be) wasn't merely "a pageant of figments." It's a lovely phrase - a bit of poetry, really - and just the sort of thing one might expect from a hallucinogen user, like Dick.

These novels are usually set in what was then the near future. In "Martian Time-Slip," it's 1994 and a labor boss tries to pull off a Red Planet land grab with the help of a clairvoyant native. "Scanner" occurs in that same year, in Orange County - a place Dick makes seem only marginally more attractive than Mars. In "Dr. Bloodmoney," it's 1988, eight years after a warlike event, "the Emergency," has devastated the United States. Ostensibly the most futuristic of the novels, "Now Wait for Last Year" is set in 2055, with the United Nations engaged in a losing extraterrestrial struggle - but resonances from the Vietnam War are unmistakable. In "Flow My Tears," it's 1988, the United States has survived a second civil war, and a TV star enters a parallel world where the only difference is his identity no longer exists.

Wild unevenness is the price a reader pays for Dick's two great virtues: a blazing fecundity of imagination (the science part of science fiction didn't interest him that much, but the sheer fictiveness of it certainly did) and a quality of claustral despair that only Theodore Dreiser can match in American fiction.

The hero of "Martian Time-Slip" ("hero," of course, isn't quite the right word for the main character of a Dick novel - more often it's "chief victim") "felt as if he were at the bottom of a great stagnant sea, struggling merely to breathe, almost unable to move." In "Now Wait" a character feels "trapped in a membrane of crushing density, unable to act or escape from action, caught in a halfway land."

"A halfway land" isn't a bad way to summarize Dick's fictional world. Past and future merge. Technological might and personal frailty mock each other. Life on Mars feels a lot like life on Earth - both are equally grim (there's just less water on Mars, and the air is a lot thinner). The truly unsettling thing about Dick's novels isn't how dystopian they are. It's how comfortable he feels in dystopias. It's almost as if, his suspicions confirmed, Dick can now relax and get on with things - however grim those things might be.

The closest literary analogue for Dick may not be Dreiser or such masters of paranoia as Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo (even if a sentence like this one, from "Dr. Bloodmoney" - "It was war and death, yes, but it was error; it lacked intent" - could come straight out of "White Noise" or "Underworld"). It's George Orwell, though the similarity isn't so much in his own dystopian masterpiece, "Nineteen Eighty-Four," as in the three kitchen-sink novels he wrote during the 1930s, "A Clergyman's Daughter," "Keep the Aspidistra Flying," and "Coming Up for Air" (definitely a Dick-worthy title). There's the same sense of ceaseless desperation and perspiring spiritual fatigue - "the damp sweat of anxiety," as Dick writes in "Martian Time-Slip." Actually, in his novels there's hardly any other kind.

This is the second Dick volume from the Library of America, following last year's "Four Novels of the 1960s." The library began publishing its sets of classic American authors more than 25 years ago. The first four authors were Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman: mighty pillars of the canon (well, three out of four, anyway).

The only canon Dick is a pillar of is Hollywood's. Among films adapted from his fiction are "Blade Runner," "Minority Report," "Total Recall," "Paycheck," and "A Scanner Darkly." There are another three movies in various stages of production.

Yet make no mistake. Dick belongs in the Library of America as Melville and the rest do. True, he is often turgid - so are all of those four (and Dreiser, with two volumes of his own in the library, definitely makes five). More important, like Melville and Whitman, he's a true visionary, a writer who's enlarged our literature and continues to vex it.

Dick is, in fact, just the sort of author for whom the library should exist: one whose work can be hard to find, who is so variable in quality as to cry out for editorial selection, and who greatly benefits from such a body's imprimatur. That the library should publish, as it has, novels by Saul Bellow and Philip Roth - work that's long been in the canon and remains securely in print - makes no sense. Publishing these novels by Dick, though, is a real service to American literature.

Mark Feeney is a member of the Globe staff.

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