A baffling work from Philip K. Dick discussed at ALOUD
Jonathan Lethem and Pamela Jackson, the two editors of the new 976-page book "The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick," were joined by Dick's eldest daughter Laura and writer Steve Erickson Monday night at the L.A. Public Library's ALOUD series to talk about the book and the writer, who died in 1982 at age 53.
Dick, who has entered the pantheon of great American science fiction novelists, was massively prolific, occasionally paranoid, somewhat nuts and/or brilliantly visionary. Between 1951 and 1982 he published 121 short stories and 36 novels; in 1966, he wrote three books, including "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," the story upon which the film "Blade Runner" was based, and "Ubik," which was included in Time magazine's list of the 100 greatest modern American novels. In the last eight years of his life, while Dick was writing stories and novels at his regular pace, he worked on his Exegesis, too; when he died, it was 8,000 pages long.
"It's as if the novels themselves were visions," Lethem said Monday night. "He was preparing to be the writer of the Exegesis from the very beginning."
So if it's not a novel and it's not a collection of short stories, what is it, exactly? That's what moderator David L. Ulin asked about a third of the way into the conversation.
Nobody could sum it up quickly, but the impression they left was that it's a philosophical, spiritual, religious exploration; it's inconsistent, contradictory; it's a restless, impossible exploration of the boundaries of perception and reality and time. Lethem explained that Dick "has a rupture with reality, then he spends 8,000 pages trying to describe it."
There have been various hypotheses that the rupture was physical. "The earliest and most common was that he had temporal lobe epilepsy," Laura said. "He was also clearly manic depressive. And I became fairly certain that he was having a series of small strokes." She acknowledged that he was a frequent user of amphetamines. Yet, she added, "Whatever it was, it was also a legitimate mystical experience."
"This is a guy who argued, again and again, that time was round, and his novels were round," Steve Erickson added. He wrote an important piece for the LA Weekly in 1990 that shone a new critical light on Dick's work. Erickson said Dick's writing, centered around three themes: What is reality? What is memory? What is God?
"The quip is," Lethem said, "He became a character in a Philip K. Dick novel."
Laura said the family was initially reluctant to find a way to publish the Exegesis because it would confirm the suspicions of people who dismissed her father as "crazy as a loon." Now, after 30 acclaim-filled years, during which Dick's reputation has grown and he became the first science fiction writer to be published by the Library of America, Laura said, "they won't think he's crazy."
" 'Crazy writer' is a redundancy," Erickson assured her.
Whatever it is, "The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick" is an important, fascinating, and baffling addition to his legacy.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Philip K. Dick in the 1970s. Credit: Isa Dick Hackett