Saturday, March 28, 2009

FOUR NOVELS OF THE 1960S by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick is probably the worst writer to have his works enshrined in the Library of America series. The L of A is publishing Dick in 3 volumes, the first of which is the subject of this post. It contains The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Ubik. Although Dick's importance to science fiction and popular culture arguably justify his inclusion alongside the 'popular' L of A authors (Lovecraft, Chandler, Hammett) as opposed to the 'literary' members of the club (Whitman, Emerson, Melville, James, Faulkner, Roth), I want to further argue that despite their multitudinous flaws, there is something inherently impressive about each of these four novels. They are, finally, just good enough to read.

A tentative verdict on Dick after reading Man in the High Castle: he's a too fast and sometimes careless writer, but some of his ideas and scenes are very good. What surprises me most is the obvious intelligence behind the story, along with the almost sickeningly plausible occupied fascist America he imagines. The trip Dick takes us on is interesting enough that I'm not overly disappointed by the anticlimactic destination.

Halfway through Palmer Eldritch, I'm enjoying it as a good genre novel and a satirical artifact of the acidhead 60s (the 'good' Sixties, as opposed to the Altamont-Manson-Vietnam 'bad' Sixties; unfortunately, it's impossible to keep them apart). Dick's intelligence is manifested in the witty drug-and-dollhouses corporate marketing satire, and his hallucinatory imagination is on display throughout.

Best known as the basis for the film Blade Runner, Androids is a smart, pulpy, Mickey Spillane-ish ride. (I can't believe I just used the words 'smart' and 'Spillane' in the same sentence.) Dick goes off on an unconvincing spiritual tangent and doesn't always sufficiently imagine the book's world, but as with the other novels, there's almost enough good stuff here to justify a reading.

After a slow start, Dick's Ubik becomes quite good. The wonderfully bizarre time regression stuff and the talking-coin-operated-objects-with-attitudes compensated for the clumsy, pedestrian prose. Toward the end of the book there's even a whiff of Dickish self-consciousness, with Jory as the 'author' of this 'realistic' 1939 world, providing just enough detail for a convincing 'reality effect.'

Having finished the four novels, I can now safely proclaim Dick a 'guilty pleasure.' (How I despise the Puritanism of that phrase!) He's a pulpy, unintentionally funny, occasionally groaningly bad, almost always careless and clumsy writer, but for some reason--most likely the sheer imaginative gusto of his stories, combined with his obvious satirical intelligence--I keep on reading. Even Dick's juvenile double entendres and his dated, reactionary, stereotypical view of male-female relations can today be appreciated as camp, read ironically, and/or understood as artifacts of the pulpy, pop-y past...Dick only seriously stumbles when he tries too hard to write well, straining for metaphor and lyricism. His prose is better stripped-down and Spillane-ish (as in Androids). And personally, I can do without the fashionable 60s California mysticism, from the I Ching to Christian/Gnostic allegory, that infuses his work. We know that by the end of his life, Dick was an L. Ron Hubbard without a church (Dickology?!?!), wasting most of his last years on an 8000-page 'exegesis' of his alleged 'visions,' but this strain of his thinking adds little to the novels under discussion here. It was the 'real' Phil Dick's bad luck to become a character in one of his own books, as paranoid and cranky as his most eccentric creations.

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