Sunday, April 22, 2012

On "VALIS" by Philip K. Dick **

In places, this seems to me one of Dick's best-written novels. This is especially true in the first half of the book. And it is in the first half of the book that the text is in fact mostly autobiographical--and realistic. Dick's one strange plot device: he splits himself into two. So there is a first-person narrator (the first in the novels I've read of his) and a third-person character who is also, in a sense, himself. The third-person character is there to help him deal with his troubles, to be able to write this all down. In that sense, that character, Horselover Fat, is akin to a secondary personality in a person with a schizophrenic disorder. And indeed, one gets the sense that that is exactly that Dick intends.

The reason for the disorder is this: Dick's friend Gloria has committed suicide. He tried to stop her, or he didn't try to stop her well enough. Whichever is the case, it doesn't matter. She's dead. How could she do this? And how could he not stop her? Likewise, why does his friend Sherri suffer from an incurable cancer that also eventually kills her? And why did Fat's friend Kevin's cat die?

It is the search for the answers to these questions, the search for the answer to why their is pain and suffering in the world, that causes Fat and Phil to eventually become familiar with a cast of other characters and situations that lead him toward a partial answer.

In this book, Dick's concern with gnosticism is explicit. Long passages are devoted to theories of the universe and of God. Dick posits that there are in fact two gods, a god of the earth and a god above that god. The higher god is all good, but the lower one is not. It is the lower one with which we deal--and the reason that there is suffering.

Add to this a few science fiction plot devices in the second half of the book, and we get back to slightly more typical Dickian fare. It turns out the world is a toxic place and we're all being fed an antitoxin by a "VALIS" system that keeps us alive but that also keeps us from understanding the ultimate reality. For to understand the ultimate is to die. There's also a movie called Valis that reveals some of this info to the characters and ultimately helps Dick and his compatriots get in touch with a baby who is also a messiah figure who can tell them all. Sent out into the world to make disciples, their messiah dies, leaving them with seemingly no meaning.

So what then does it all mean? It means, I suppose, what we want--we are god, we assign meaning. This is the existential truth. But in the end, the novel seemed to me too weighed down by these lofty themes and discussions to be the usual fun text that I've come to relish from Dick's other better works.

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