Philip K. Dick Sneaks Into
The Library of America
Today, the film rights to a Dick short story can bring in close to $2 million to
the author’s estate. But during his lifetime, Dick was so poor he bought
horsemeat from a pet shop for dinner. His drug habit — Dick would pop pills by
the dozens — also ate into his income, and fed his paranoia and psychotic
episodes. As a result, Dick churned out novels and tales in mad rush to stay
financially afloat, and set down the visionary images and concepts of his over-
heated imagination. His fervor resulted in a oeuvre of 44 published novels,
countless short stories, and (most intimidating of all) his so-called Exegisis,
some 8,000 pages of journal writings, documenting his mental strife, visions
and metaphysical speculations.
Even his best known books, including the four novels featured in The Library of
America collection, reflect the haste with which they were written. Dick’s prose
is often lackluster, his plot lines full of holes, his characters as flat as a
cardboard cutout. Why, one might ask, do such works merit recognition as
But Dick does matter – perhaps even more now than during his lifetime. He
showed a different way of responding to the growing awareness that reality
in literature (and life) is problematic. While other writers retreated into word
games and an exploration of “discourses" (to use the fashionable term for
this linguistic approach), Dick accepted the challenge head-on. If reality was
constructed, confused and beset by issues, Dick would try to map the maze,
especially the most labyrinthine corners of it.
His books revolve around one grand truth: namely, that things are not what
they seem. The idea is a simple one, but Dick builds it into grand
superstructures of ontology and epistemology translated into sci-fi narratives.
In Ubik, the reader is still uncertain halfway through the novel whether the
main protagonists are alive or dead. (See how many students in Creative
Writing 101 can pull that off!). In The Man in the High Castle, we shift into an
alternative universe in which World War II turned out differently. In Do
Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, we
explore the foundation of religious beliefs and the nature of human existence,
but in fanciful ways never anticipated by the philosophers.
Today we see both serious fiction and popular culture moving in the same
directions that Dick so brilliantly explored in his writings. Even when he is not
listed in the credits or acknowledgements, Dick’s influence is palpable. Films
as different as The Matrix and The Truman Show reflect distinctive Dick twists
in their storylines. Recent novels by Michael Chabon and Philip Roth also build
from an “alternative reality” version of World War II that is very much in the
spirit of Dick’s work.
The Library of America volume offers a excellent introduction to this visionary
writer. Jonathan Lethem is the ideal editor for this work, although I am
disappointed that he did not write a lengthy introduction for the volume (or at
least include his great essay “You Don’t Know Dick” – with its answering
opening line: “Not like I know Dick.”) Let’s also hope that the publisher follows
up with Dick’s later novels, including his unfairly neglected Valis trilogy, which
ranks among the finest experimental works of fiction of its era.
In short, with some 50 books to his credit, Dick cannot be appreciated in a
single gulp. But if you haven’t yet experienced the mind-expanding writings of
this seminal author, The Library of America collection is the right place to start.
But be forewarned: once you let Dick into your head, things will never seem
the same again.
This review originally appeared on Blogcritics.
REVIEW OF PHILIP K. DICK: FOUR NOVELS OF THE 1960s
by Ted Gioia
Can this be for real? Have I entered some
alternative universe? Do I actually see the pulp
sci-fi novels of Philip K. Dick infiltrating the
distinguished shelf of classics published by The
Library of America? Yes, there it is, “DICK”
emblazoned across the discreet black
background, with red, white and blue trim -
sitting between James Fenimore Cooper
and John Dos Passos.
What planet am I on?
Yes, this feels like a scene in one of Dick’s alternative
reality novels, where somehow history (lit history in
this case) gets re-written and all familiar guidelines
disappear into the fifth dimension. But Dick’s arrival
in the pantheon of American novelists is no sudden
plot twist. No American writer has seen such a
dramatic turnaround in reputation over the last half
century. But the shift has happened gradually, fueled
by the interest of film-makers (Ridley, Scott, John
Woo, Paul Verhoeven), younger writers (most
notably Jonathan Lethem, who edits the Dick volume
for The Library of America), and a growing cadre of
fans and admirers.