Monday, July 19, 2010
I Think I am Philip K. Dick - book review
A most interesting book came to me in the mail, along with a request to review it:
I Think I am Philip K. Dick
by Laurence A. Rickels
I looked forward to reading this book, but now I am sorry that I accepted a review copy from the publisher. I am forced to give it a mostly negative review.
Disclaimer: I must admit some bias, since I married Philip K. Dick and spent ten years with him (until his untimely death in 1982). However, time and distance have allowed me to take a more objective stance toward the man and his work. I no longer mourn his passing; I celebrate my own life and my living relatives.
Philip K. Dick was perhaps the greatest science fiction writer of the 20th century, and most critics consider his novels the work of a genius, despite their flaws. Struggling under the pressure of finances and deadlines, Philip K. Dick produced more than 35 novels and 150 short stories in his career, which was cut short when he suddenly died of a stroke at the age of 53. Better known authors, including Isaac Asimov (I, Robot, The Foundation) and Robert A. Heinlein (The Puppet Masters, Starship Troopers), admired Dick's work and considered it superior to their own.
Despite the title, this book really is not about Philip K. Dick. It is about the author, Laurence A. Rickels.
Moreover, he often writes entire paragraphs that say nothing, including sentences with internal contradictions. And he employs seven-syllable words and mile-long sentences to accomplish those feats.
For example, from the Introduction, which he calls "Introspection":
"On second thought, however, I recall Schreber's 'basic' notion of tested souls (a notion, in other words, of unpurified, unredeemed ghosts), which, among many other moments in Schreber's delusional system and alongside Freud's analysis of the anxieties involved in being tested, seem to give funereal foundation to the connection between Benjamin and Freud."
Note: The above quotation is one single sentence.
Although not strictly an academic thesis, this book is an academic work by a professor, published by a university press. It covers most of Philip K. Dick's novels, at least in terms of chapter titles, but Rickels is primarily concerned with validating his own work through Dick's. He is particularly interested in validating the Faustian element of his own writing, by finding it as a source of inspiration for Dick's novels.
He begins by telling us that he avoided reading Dick's works while students kept recommending them, telling him how much his own writing was similar to Dick's in terms of ideas.
Perhaps the tale of Rickels' personal journey through the novels of Philip K. Dick would have been more interesting than what he has given us. This book is a dull, dry work too heavy with quoted material and devoid of novelty.
Dry, dull writing, with copious copying
Rickels covers ground that others have already explored in more interesting ways. He includes copious quotations from interviews that other authors conducted, most notably Gregg Rickman, as well as various experts in psychology, and Dick's own writing. He spends a bit too much space on the final interviews, which Gwen Lee and Doris Sauter published as What If Our World Is Their Heaven? In fact, his copying of long passages from the work of others borders on plagiarism and is mitigated only by the gaps between the quoted passages.
If you are waiting for Rickels to quit talking about himself, then you will be disappointed. If you want to read Rickels' personal experience with Dick's work, you will also be disappointed.
This book is really about the greatness of Rickels' own body of work, in light of its similarity to the work of Dick, whom Rickels portrays as a gifted madman who was lucky enough to have the idiot-savant talent for words.
For example, from the "Introspection":
"Dick's footing with psychosis allowed him to immerse himself in the legacy of melancholia or narcissism, the deep end of mankind's traditions/transmissions in all talk of life (and death)."
Biography or literary criticism?
Much of this book focuses on Philip K. Dick's early childhood, even though it purports to be about Dick's science fiction.
In fact, aside from long quoted passages, Rickels spends precious little space on analysis of Dick's work. For example the chapter titled "Indexical Layer", which purports analyze Dick's novel Deus Irae (co-authored with Roger Zelazny), summarizes the entire novel, drawing upon Lawrence Sutin's biographical work Divine Invasions for some semblance of analysis.
The next chapter, "Ilse", bears no relation to the subject at hand. It recounts the story of a woman who wrote a memoir about her experience of psychosis. Rickels' asserts that Dick read Ilse's story in a psychiatric case book, and he concludes that Dick spent his entire career following the same path of "striking up that balancing act between Shakespeare and Goethe"(page 169), as if one psychiatric case study had inspired a life's work of literary genius. In fact, most of Rickels' book asserts that all of Dick's work is Germanic, specifically Faustian. This seems to reflect Rickels' quest to define the devil in his own writing, a task that he admits to having put off for many years. Rickels obsesses about Faust, so he assumes that Dick also did.
The final chapter, "Das Hund", explores Dick's novel UBIK, which explored the possibility of communication with the dead. Unfortunately, this novel belongs to the middle of Dick's career, not the end. Rather than representing the culmination of Dick's philosophy and work, it marks only one of the questions that he asked along the way to his final novels, which have been published as the VALIS trilogy.
Ultimately Dick's work affirms life, love and salvation. Rickels wants it to affirm death, damnation and the devil.
Although I do not like this book, and I find it seriously flawed, I am forced to recommend it for the quotations from other authors, especially the work of Gregg Rickman and that of Doris Sauter and Gwen Lee.
This book provides easy access to excerpts from works that might be difficult to find in their original form.
Thank you so much for reading my review!