Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My Other Staple Reading: Philip K. Dick

Vladimir Nabokov and Philip K. Dick have each appeared many a time on this blog to date. Why stop now? Why stop when such a good thing is going?

I don't know, perhaps because it's hard for me to imagine "VALIS" being topped by anything else in what remains of my "to read" PKD reading. I've nursed on this book for the better part of the last several months, not so much because I couldn't focus on it (although as previously mentioned focusing on reading has been difficult of late), but instead because it's such a bizarre and fun romp to read, and I am one to savor such books.

But "romp" probably doesn't adequately describe the fact that this book is insane. As Ben commented on a previous post, PKD sort of lost his sense of . . . things . . . near the end of his life. It's also possible that instead of losing his mind he became a modern-day prophet, technologically oriented and so forth. One thing is for certain, whatever the case, something profoundly affected his fiction. Something gave us "VALIS."

So let's talk about what it gave us, then. "VALIS" is in a very superficial sense a story about a man, his friends, and his mortality. It's about mortality, also, in a more general way. I feel like when Jean Baudrillard was sussing through the offerings of simulacra and postmodernity in the novel, sure, yes, "Crash" by J.G. Ballard was a good choice, a great example of the synthesis and synesthesia of postmodern techno-simulacra that's possibly come to define our present way of life, but c'mon, Baudrillard: Philip K. Dick. I mean, c'mon.

"VALIS" is so much a synthesis of the age-old theological, ontological questions set against the backdrop of modern communications and greater media. The modern prophet would receive his call from God through a medium like a major motion picture, wouldn't (s)he? The modern prophet wouldn't know if he or she was crazy or sane, right? (We, the viewing public, would assume insanity, which I maintain is not an unreasonable thing to assume.)

The answer to all questions posed above: yes, yes absolutely. (I'm comfortable being categoric as those things go.) But would the prophet, the receiver of this information simultaneously be both "VALIS"' third person subject/object of narration, i.e. Horselover Fat (PKD's alter ego), and the narrator himself, i.e. Philip K. Dick? Um, yes again. We're introduced to Horselover Fat at the beginning of the "VALIS" through a presumably omniscient, third person narrator, but who in fact, it turns out, is Philip K. Dick himself. This meshes perfectly with the dichotomous nature of the tale -- e.g. reference to the rational and irrational creators of the universe abound.

This will sound stupid, I suspect, but one of the most satisfying qualities of "VALIS" is just how much esotericism fills its pages. I mean, there's religious references of all kinds, Gnosticism (the codices of Nag Hammadi are cited frequently), numerous eastern sects (Buddha and the like), countless nods to various other derivations of the Semitic religions, Zoroastrianism, and truly more than I could hope to identify or keep track of, even when PKD invokes them by name. Then there are references to philosophical schools and their preeminent thinkers. Goethe's Faust is mentioned, and how that work more or less engendered existentialism, revealing in it that humans are defined not by words but by deeds. From this seed came the outgrowth of man's awareness of and relationship to his absurd conditions -- to, in PKD's parlance, the unstable creator deity who begat a world that is not rational but irrational. Richard Wagner is referenced several times. Wagner's "Parsifal," his last opera, is taken to task in an amusing anecdote:

I can see Richard Wagner standing at the gates of heaven. "You have to let me in," he says, "I wrote Parsifal. It has to do with the Grail, Christ, suffering, pity and healing. Right?" And they answered, "Well, we read it and it makes no sense." SLAM.

SLAM, indeed, Wagner.

Others noted are Pascal, Spinoza and Schopenhauer. Immanuel Kant might as well have been cited by name with the introduction of Fat's friend Doug, a man Fat meets while he's institutionalized, following Fat's suicide attempt. Doug states his belief in two forms of knowledge that which is empirical and that which is occurring a priori -- i.e. knowledge that requires no experiential observation, et al, "that arises within your head." Certainly Kant isn't the inventor of a priori vs. a posterieri knowledge, but he is one of its greatest advocates, one who best advanced and infused this dichotomy in Western thought, of phenomenon (things experienced, or of the senses) and noumenon (thing-in-itself or Ding an sich).

All the while, an unnamed but monomaniacal search continues. It's a search for things, and each thing becomes a new singular focus. At one time it's a search for the cause of pain and of suffering. it's next the search for belief and a reason for doing so. It culminates with a search for the next coming of the deity variously referred to as Zebra, VALIS (which is an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System), and eventually the reincarnation of St. Sophia (and thus Christ) with a computer for a brain (although she's only referred to as Sophia, this second coming, or whatever coming she is).

Sophia, a two year old and product of immaculate conception, is the daughter of Eric and Linda Lampton, filmmakers responsible for the theatrical version of "VALIS" -- a movie which tells a tale of a dark world in which an evil ruler holds sway, Ferris F. Fremount (referenced as a stand-in for Richard Nixon). VALIS undoes Fremount's reign in the film, as it did in real life, or so is what's claimed by the Lamptons and Sophia. The Lamptons also claim to be immortals, members of the "Friends of God" Society, which is meant literally. They are immortal friends of him/her/it, God. There's also the deteriorating Mini, a man who is dying a slow death (of multiple myeloma) as a result of his experiments with lasers that are meant to reveal to him VALIS in its true form. Mini explains to Fat and Philip (who by the time in this story when the Friends of God Society is revealed is a functioning character in the story) that VALIS is living information. [I TOLD YOU THIS STORY IS CRAZY!] Ultimately revealed by Mini is that VALIS is our savior, meant to free us from our unreal maze world that's inherently irrational, or poisonous, toxic to humankind. This is at least partly because humankind did not originate on earth but on Albemuth, and VALIS is an artifact sent by those left behind to beam to us rational instruction . . . obviously. VALIS apparently looks like an old satellite. It's all very interesting.

Most of the "Friends of God" saga reads to the outsider, the reader, as the way in which people become immersed in a cult. It happens slowly, by subtle indoctrination, as with Scientology. Scientology doesn't reveal all the crazy truths that make up its origin story when at first you join, but slowly as you become more and more entrenched in the church's dogma. After that, Xenu makes a lot more sense, but I apologize for this digression; it's just one of the things I observed over the course of "VALIS."

There's also moments earlier in the story when it's revealed time and space are constructs of sorts (mechanisms of separation) and that all existence is happening simultaneously. That's not as strange as the cross-consciousness that results from it, i.e. Horselover Fat's thoughts begin to be penetrated by the thoughts of a man named Thomas, who is living in ancient Rome and who Fat says is smarter than himself, Fat. It leads to a lot of Ancient Rome's being superimposed over 1974's California. That would be kind of a mind fuck. I might parse this episode further but it's sort of exhausting just rehashing this much.

In fact, this might be a good place to stop. I feel as though "VALIS" is the kind of novel that begs for follow up reads, and follow up analysis, and follow up perplexity. I encourage you to check out other PKD before giving this one a go. It's less for the uninitiated, or rather it's worth waiting for.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Few Items: bibliographing and Bartleby Snopes

Firstly, Nicole has responded to my literary challenge with a post of her own on bibliographing. so I think you ought go over there and see what she had to say about Patrick Somerville and his very good book of interwoven stories.

I also have a news story up, "An Interrogation." It's readable at Bartleby Snopes. CLICK HERE TO READ IT! (along with the other stories of March). It's actually a section from a longer novel I wrote some time ago. Let me know what you think!

Have a great day!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"The bibliographing Reading Challenge" Challenger Reads Patrick Somerville

Take that Nicole of bibliographing, and that and that! Words and more words. These are what I throw at you in challenge, reading-wise. Of course I'm referring to "the bibliographing reading challenge." Nicole and I are dead set against one another, reading two contemporary authors' latest short story collections. The first, you ask? Well, it's Patrick Somerville and his, "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature."

Honestly, this book is so good I'd say it reads itself if I were one of those people who found reading to be a tedious bore (e.g. the greater multitude of public high school students, perhaps?). But seriously, Patrick Somerville is no longer up-and-coming. The term simply doesn't apply. He's here and now. If he needed anything to cement that fact, "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature" more than does so. It's chock full of the kind of whimsy and humor that is guaranteed to get my approval.


The eponymous (and if you haven't noticed by now, I love that word) story, "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature" does much to live up to its being an eponym (boy, I hope that makes sense). It begins as a tale of three friends, art students so-called, working in the muddy waters of a program whose name reminds me of The School of the Art Institute or Columbia College in Chicago, The School of Surreal Thought and Design (SSTD) (also the school's acronym is one letter off from STD, #obviousobservations #horriblediseasescausedbysex).

[inescapable spoilers forthcoming]
The protagonist, a girl named Rosie, is working diligently on scale models of a father and son's working on a scale model of the universe in miniature -- hence the repetition, the universe in miniature in miniature (which I think is hilarious, also: both the project itself and the name). It's all for the purpose of graduation, which as Rosie puts it, the requirement is this, "All we have to do, to graduate, is complete our final projects. Our projects are whatever we want them to be."

There are quite a few humorous notes to the story, for example the school in question's campus is located beneath Lake Michigan in "East Chicago." It's accessible through a bakery whose proprietor seems just the right mixture of surly and accommodating.

Then for all its humor, it's touchingly sad. It centers on one of Rosie's friends and fellow art students, Lucy, and her final project. Her final project involves observing (via many secretly installed hidden cameras) the degradation of a young man, up and coming in his employ as a lawyer, who was rendered permanently brain damaged after a slip and a fall.

The weird thing is this story and this project don't start off touchingly. One gets the visible picture that Lucy is studying the young man, Ryan Conrad, for exploitative reasons. In part because, as a Rosie who's our first person narrator also, says, "Her project is to observe the wholesale collapse of a family following major trauma." Rosie thinks at the story's beginning that Lucy might be evil. We learn from Rosie, as the story progresses, that Lucy once dated Ryan Conrad. You're sort of asked to relax on certainty of Lucy's evil as time wears on. The opposite is the case with Dylan, Lucy's boyfriend and the third member of the trio, who starts off seeming somewhat benevolent and sheepish, and in general at the mercy of the domineering Lucy.

Slowly, though, Dylan's motivations seem less innocent. He's working on a novel for his final project, a sci-fi piece about scientists who turn earth's water supply into soda pop. It ends up being a ludicrously lucrative expenditure of his time (which is not in itself evil or bad or anything). I wouldn't call Dylan evil or bad, as I don't think the story offers the opportunity to paint with that broad a brush. What it does do is modify our preconceived notions of each character: Dylan begins to seem less honest, Lucy less driven by her final project's nefarious ends. Rosie is caught in the middle of this, totally uncertain of what she should do and who she should be. The triumvirate is a good one, one that changes fluidly, without willfulness.

And that leads to what ultimately happens, which telling you about would be more than I think a review should offer. This is the teacher in me speaking, I think.


The thread that ties all the stories of the collection together is a combination of the randomness of any so-called order, here on earth or up in space, and the way perception is altered by a slightly new viewing angle. These stories repeatedly have within them -- very literally -- the depiction of a random stabbing, which is told through many different perspectives, and is often confused by the fact that in certain cases the victim dies and in certain cases the victim is possibly alive and well. The perpetrator is sometimes regarded as crazy and sometimes as a complete unknown. (All of this depends on the source of the information.)

In the first several versions of this anecdote the story seems to come from or to secondhand sources, a man who is just hearing about it by word of mouth or a mother who is being told by the hospital staff that her son is dead. In that way it reads like a news item or a tragic occurrence that has befallen a friend of the family, a friend of a friend of the family, on and on. Never are we the victim, not until the story comes firsthand from the victim.

Further challenged, Nicole, eh? Feeling the literary challenge heat, as they say?


Well, here, if you're desirous of more. . .

Another interesting idea that floats through a number of stories (at least two) in "TUIMIM" is what Somerville calls, "The Machine of Understanding Other People." It appears first, as a supposed idea Dylan has, in the short story "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature." (We later learn of the possibility that Dylan stole the idea from Lucy, as she claims he did.) We see it again in the -- gasp -- eponymously named "The Machine of Understanding Other People." This latter tale is the kind of story I wish I'd written (but didn't / can't), because it so perfectly encapsulates all those ideas of contemporary pluralism and social equity of modern liberalism, and the realistic challenges of actually understanding someone else from their point of view.

The machine Somerville offers up to his characters and the reader is both the greatest and most destructive invention in the history of mankind. It allows one to feel exactly as the subject they're viewing, done so by aiming a weird wand attached to a helmet that resembles something you'd wear deep-sea diving (like something out of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea").

But you, who wears it, (the two main characters in the story being Tom, an American and a middle-aged, broken-souled alcoholic and Eliza, a Briton and a relatively young, world-weary optimist given to flights of whimsy), are forced to see things through the eyes of the person at whom you point the wand. This, meanwhile, creates all new problems, as it doesn't swing open the gates of solipsism. You're still an occluded consciousness as you bring all your experiences with you to the experience of "understanding" another person. The difference is that you know what that person now feels and has felt throughout life, what's stuck. The baggage. You feel it, too, through your purview.

Tom and Eliza come into massive inheritances, although each one of them is different. The pair was brought together by the chance happening of an outlying eccentric uncle, who was born out of wedlock, the product of Tom's grandfather and Eliza's grandmother's brief affair. The uncle, Herman, went on to accrue some wealth and a very peculiar kind of machine, "of Understanding Other People." His mother, Eliza's grandmother, Beatrice, was some kind of genius and invented it during the second world war, the result of prompting from the British government to produce some kind of new weapon. By his own unstated means, Herman was able to keep tabs on and took an interest in Tom and Eliza, and upon his death, Herman willed away his monetary wealth to Eliza and his machine to Tom. Eliza, as a do-gooding idealist, has plans to create a university of free-thinking and invention at which whimsy and imagination are, above all else, encouraged. It's called Pangea University. It ends up creating quite a stir, worldwide. I will say no more. Read it!

The point is, "The Machine of Understanding Other People" is spell-bindingly layered, layered not only in plot points but in actual written structure -- at times reminiscent of The New Yorker journalism's unusual bends and folds in their articles. Narratives are strategically left behind and then returned to like so much parabola. Other stories of the collection are again referenced, even the murderer who stabs makes a cameo appearance (we get a fuller explanation of what is happening with him and that, also).

It's just all so much good!


But enough, this pugilist of the literary variety needs rest. I have made my literary challenge. It is your move, Nicole!