November 13, 2009

And What's So Great About Sanity, Anyway? (The Awkward Haiku Philip K. Dick Series, Part I)

The empire never ended, but the time you have been waiting for is at hand.

That's right, an Awkward Haiku series on Philip K. Dick! Ben starts us off with a look back at Tom Disch's reflections on PKD in 1976, about what's changed in the last 23 years. Check back for a PKD post from Dave tomorrow.


I discovered Philip K. Dick as a teenager, back in the Godforesaken period known as the late 1990s. That means that, unlike the previous generation of PKD fans, I never read any of his stuff in the tiny disposable paperbacks with pastel colors and overdone pulp art on the covers. I read all of them the first time in those shiny yellow Vintage trade paperbacks with the quotes from people like Paul Williams and Ursula LeGuin on the backs. (To be fair, I did read Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? in that little black edition with the name of the novel changed to "Bladerunner" and the images from the movie on the cover, but I always resented that one for not looking like a Philip K. Dick novel.) Back then, despite a couple of high-profile Hollywood movies being "based" on his novels (a fact of which most fans of said movies were appropriately ignorant), and the loving attentions of the likes of Jonathem Lethem having resulted in those nice-looking reprints on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, liking Philip K. Dick definitely still felt like a counter-culture thing, an unusual interest that instantly bonded you with anyone who shared it. Those big yellow trade paperbacks got passed around from friend to friend like joints at a concert, and the conversations afterwards were great.

I went through another peak of PKD interest around the time I graduated from college. I was working at the receiving area at Meijers, loading and unloading boxes from trucks for eight hours a day--which is exactly as fun as it sounds--and somewhere in my boredom I re-discovered my little shelf of Vintage editions of Philip K. Dick. There were friends on the job who I enjoyed hanging out with, and various form of fun were to be had at lunch and during breaks, but there were a few weeks there where I skipped out on all of that every day to grab whatever big yellow PKD book I was reading out of my locker, go to the food court at the front of the store and read until I had to go back to work.

Since then, I decided that getting paid to grade papers sounded like more fun than getting paid to load and unload boxes from trucks, and I ended up getting my MA in Philosophy at Western Michigan. About halfway through that, I started writing fiction of my own for the first time since I was about 15, and that went hand in hand with re-reading all my PKD books and reading some that were new to me. That third big PKD kick hasn't really stopped. When my philosophically-tinged Israeli/Palestinian role reversal story Dark Coffee, Bright Light and the Paradoxes of Omnipotence was published in Atomjack this fall, my bio at the bottom of the story read, in part:

"Ben Burgis is a PhD candidate in the Philosophy Department at the University of Miami, and a low-residency MFA student at the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). His dissertation is about the problem of how we can be sure that reality itself is logically consistent, and his academic thesis for his MFA is about the religious experiences of Philip K. Dick. Those two issues strike him as being, in some strange way, closely related to each other."

To be fair, my academic paper for my Third Semester Project at Stonecoast isn't directly about PKD's religious experiences. It's about the philosophical issues related to the existence of God and the problem of evil raised in the novel Dick wrote based on those experiences. I might say something about that book in my next post.

Meanwhile, though, I want to note that somewhere in the timeline of my own PKD enthusiasm, the same condition has infected a lot of the larger culture. We've had a major movie (Scanner Darkly) that was actually directly and faithfully based on a PKD novel to the point of being full of PKD-ish dialogue and PKD-ish dark humor. (Not to mention the extended discussion of some of Dick's ideas from Valis in Waking Life.) We've had nice hardcover Library Of America editions of his books signaling a bizarre level of acceptance into the literary cannon. We've had a full-sized Philip K. Dick android disappear to parts unknown. (Not making that last bit up.) Knowing Dick isn't much of a distinction or a counter-cultural signifier these days.

All that makes it interesting to go back and read Tom Disch's 1976 introduction to The Solar Lottery, reprinted in 2005 in Disch's anthology On SF as "Dick's First Novel." The first few pages of that essay were devoted to Disch wondering why Dick wasn't particularly popular. To be sure, even back then, there was "a fair-sized and growing cult that faithfully buys each new book before it passes from the paperback racks into oblivion."

Even so, by "comparison to sf writers who have made a name for themselves in he Real World, who can be bought at the SuperValu and are taught in the trendier tenth-grade classrooms, by comparison to the likes of Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, or Vonnegut, Dick might as well be an avant-guard poet or a composer of electronic music. The public hasn't heard of him.

"It isn't fair. If he were guilty of metaphors or some such elitist practice that makes books hard to read, you could understand people being leary of him, but Dick is as democratic as Whitman, as demotic as Spillane. When he's at his best he is--even by 'literary' standards--terrific. His prose is as plain and as sturdy as Shaker furniture, his characters as plausible as your next-door neighbors, his dialogue as authentic as Watergate transcripts, and his plots go rattling along with morei deas per paragraph than the College Outline Series' Introduction to Western Philosophy. He makes you laugh, he make you cry, he makes you think, and think again: who could ask for more?

"So what went wrong? Why have so many sf writers who are clearly his inferiors (naming no names) been so much more successful in the marketplace--and even in attracting the attention of academics, who, after all, are supposed to be abel to recognize Quality?"

Disch pauses to consider the possibility that "that's just the breaks," and considers some mundane reasons why Dick never really caught on. Then he moves on to his favored theory, which is that "Dick's books have failed to win a mass audience precisely because of their central excellence--their truth to life. Not that Dick (or any other sf writer, for that matter) is in the Prediction Sweepstakes. Forecasting the future is best left to Jeane Dixon and the Rand Corporation; sf has better things to do. The truths of sf (in its platonic form) and of Philip K. Dick are prophetic truths in the Old Testament sense, home truths about here, now, and forever."

"Also, they're dark truths. Any reader with the least proclivity toward positive thinking, anyone whose lapel button shows a sappy grin, anyone, in short, who still believes in the essential decency, or even feasibility, of the System, is liable to experience one of Dick's novels as a direct assault on his sanity."

Elsewhere in the essay, Disch puts this point even more nicely: "He tells it as he sees it, and it is the quality and clarity of his Vision that makes him great. He takes in the world with the cleansed, uncanny sight of another Blake walking about London and being dumbfounded by the whole awful unalterable human mess in all its raddled glory. Not always an enviable knack. Vision, if you're not well-trained in its use, is what bad trips are bad of...")

"For all that," Disch allows, "Dick isn't really one of that infamous Brotherhood of Blackness that includes Swift, Beckett, Burroughs, and the suicide brigades of modern poetry. There is too much of the sunlight and wine of California in him to let Dick qualify for the deepest abysm of Literature.

"Perhaps the problem is his evasiveness, the way his worlds refuse, iridescently, to stay in any kind of unequivocal moral focus. (As against the clear blacks and whites of Heinlein's homilies, or eve the subtly graduated grays Ursual LeGuin's.) Guys you thought were on Our Side end up acting like monsters--even, or especially, such guys as God. Dick is slippery, a game-player whose rules (what is possible, and what isn't, within the world of his invention) change from book to book, and sometimes from chapter to chapter. His adversary in these games is--who else?--the reader, which means that as fun as his books are, as smooth as they are, they are also surprisingly strenuous.

"There is a form of Monopoly called Rat in which the Banker, instead of just sitting there and watching, gets to be the Rat. The Rat can alter all the rules of the game, at his discretion, like Idi Amin. The players elect the person they consider the slyest and nastiest among them to be the Rat. The trick in being a good Rat is in graduating the torment of the players, in moving away from the usual experience of Monopoly, by the minutest calibrations, into, finally, an utter delirium of lawlessness. If you think you might enjoy Rat a bit more than a standard game of Monopoly then you should probably try reading Philip DIck."

So. Wow.

In the 23 years that have passed since that essay was written, everything Disch complained hadn't happened has happened in spades. PKD is big in the marketplace, he's a name in the Real World, and the academics supposed to be able to recognize Quality have recognized it there in spades. All this despite the refusal of his worlds to stay in any kind of moral focus, the fact that the rules won't stay the same, that this is the stuff bad trips are made of and that any reader who believes in the essential goodness of the System will experience these books as a direct assault on their sanity.

So, presuming for the sake of argument that Disch was right about why Dick wasn't a Big Name 23 years ago, what does it say about the difference between American culture circa 1976 and American culture circa 2009--about the happy pins on our lapels, about how we view the System, about what we think about the value even of bad trips--that he's a Big Name for us now?

I have no idea, but I will say this much: I haven't played monopoly since I was a kid. Thinking back to it, it sounds pretty boring, and if someone asked me if I wanted to take out the board and play a game right now, I'd probably pass.

But if they asked if I wanted to play Rat?

I'd be tempted.

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