Sunday, September 6, 2020

Ursula and Phil: A Tale of Two Berkeleys


I recently learned the house in Berkeley where Ursula Le Guin grew up is on the market. I also discovered it's basically the most beautiful house I've ever seen. If you've got four million sitting around, I suggest you snatch this property up. I mean, seriously, check out these digs (more pics at the link)






Le Guin grew up in the house with her famous anthropologist parents, A.L. Kroeber who helped form the anthropology department at Cal Berkeley after receiving the very first PhD in Anthropology awarded from Columbia University, and his second wife, Ursula's mom, Theodora Kracaw Brown, one of his students. 

Seeing this house for the first time, I was struck by the very different Berkeleys that Phil and Ursula inhabited at precisely the same moment in history. I guess I always imagined Le Guin's family was slightly offbeat, eccentric, and bohemian. I didn't imagine them as materially wealthy or as particularly prominent in the community. But then I seem to perpetually be encountering my own naivety. 

While I think it's wrong to equate this four million dollar house with a kind of Daddy Warbucks-level of childhood affluence, I think it's really interesting to compare Le Guin and Dick's homes while they were both attending Berkeley high in the mid-40s. 

Phil and his mother lived in a much more modest bungalow a little less than two miles down from Ursula. Both Le Guin and Dick's families worked on the UC Campus, Kroeber as a respected prof, and Phil's mom Dorothy as a clerk for the forestry service on campus. 

Dick's house at 1711 Allston Way is down in the flatter part of Berkeley, down from the hills where Le Guin lived in sight of the bay. The 1.7 mile distance is both geographical and economic. 


The point of this post is not some Marxist class analysis of these two writers and their place in the class struggle of dialectical materialism, but isn't weird that this dimension is a bit hard to escape once it's been illuminated in full color real estate pics? 

What's interesting here is how different these two writers' lives were, even as they seemed to emerge from a single point in history, both graduating Berkeley High in 1947. But while Dick was raised by a frail single mother, suffering a painful kidney condition, and struggling as a member of the working class, Le Guin was nurtured in comparative safety and luxury. 

Their trajectories seem set at the end of high school. Le Guin, who'd been skipped ahead a grade, was off to Radcliffe College, the all-woman's counterpart to Harvard, and she would graduate with honors in just four years, then go on to work on a Masters at Columbia and win a Fulbright Scholarship to study in France. I would guess that even in high school, Le Guin was already well-traveled, and the family often hosted famous friends, including Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb. 

Dick eked out a living working in record and tv appliance stores, attending Cal Berkeley sporadically before dropping out. Dick lived with the fringiest of Berkeley beats, homosexual poets Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer. Phil, after meeting his wife Kleo, did some road tripping around the west coast, but nothing to compare to Le Guin's academic galavanting. 

I think Phil would be extremely proud to be remembered as a working class writer.  I also think he secretly yearned for the kind of academic acculturation that Le Guin grew up in. Le Guin had an endless stream of visiting scholars and thinkers, and Dick had his Encyclopedia Brittanica. And that's kind of obvious when you look back at their work, in really kind of beautiful and cool ways.

I think ultimately Le Guin will be seen as the more influential writer of the two. Don't @ me. But one of the things I like about Phil Dick is his humble origin story, the very same humble beginning that likely provided much of the temptation to leave Kleo and take up residence as a "country squire" in Point Reyes with Anne. The difficulty of Dick's life has its own influence in his work, just as Le Guin's resources (and the sexual discrimination she endured) bear their mark in her oeuvre. Dick's got an 'irv.' 

I'm glad that Phil and Ursula were friends. I wish they could've hung out. It would have done Phil a world of good, I think. But isn't it also interesting that their friendship was challenged by the very real spiritual divide in Berkeley? Dick's mysticism confused and challenged Le Guin's ingrained skepticism. Le Guin's skepticism undercut Dick's mystical experiences. You can still see this in Berkeley, where astrology and astronomy regard each other dubiously while picking up their weed at the local marijuana dispensary.  


UPDATE: The esteemed Frank Hollander takes issue with the label "working class writer" and perhaps rightly so. Both of Dick's parents had some college education, and certainly that route was open to Phil if he could've overcome his agoraphobia, or reassembled the rifle in ROTC, or whatever it was that caused him to drop out. While I was picturing Phil and Kleo as the ultimate Berkeley working class couple (and they were poor, with a dirt floor and rats and everything). But Kleo's dad was a doctor and without Phil, she was probably pretty upwardly mobile. 

So it's probably more accurate to describe PKD as a middle-class writer who struggled to maintain his place in the lower echelon of the middle class. 

Regardless, Le Guin's upbringing would've seemed pretty alien to PKD, was my point. 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Philip K Dick and Play


During the last few weeks of the pandemic I've been holing myself up in my basement laboratory writing screenplays. In other words, I've gone quite mad. 

One of the challenges I gave myself was to create a tv show adaptation of PKD. Many of the best PKD adaptations (The Matrix and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I'm looking at you) don't try to translate specific stories by Dick onto the screen, but instead often just try to catch his "flavor." Maybe the story has a "dream within a dream" motif like Inception, or a false reality like The Truman Show

I was just trying to capture the Dickian vibe, and I very quickly identified an aspect of Dick's writing that hasn't received very much attention: his playfulness. 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines play as an: "Exercise or activity engaged in for enjoyment or recreation rather than for a serious or practical purpose." 

On the one hand, this definition seems not to apply at all: I mean Dick wrote for a paycheck, and he relied on those paychecks to put food on the table. He was not a dilettante or a hobbyist, he was a pro. Ultimately, Dick wrote for the practical purpose of making money.

On the other hand, somehow the word "play" or "playful" seems especially apt to describe his both his approach to writing and to his work, and yet the adjective is not often applied to Dick's stories because they tend to be such intense downers. His work is playful in the sense that he seems to be having fun while he's doing it. 

Want some examples? 

The mutant brother, Chester, who's face is upside down in We Can Build You

The coin-operated door at the beginning of Clans of the Alphane Moon

Setting the Penfield Mood Organ to feel the desire to watch TV, no matter what's on in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 

But those are just jokes, man. He's just being funny. What's playful about it? 

Great question, straw dude!

The difference is that these jokes are light touches that take place around the edges. These feel, at least to me who's read all of his work a couple times, like improvisational additions, stuff that's just flowing out of Dick's head as he's typing. 

The thing that differentiates this from a more traditional notion of "humor" in writing is that I would argue these touches are there because Dick enjoys putting them there more than he anticipates the reader will enjoy finding them. There's a sense throughout Dick's irv that his primary audience is himself. By the way, nowhere is this dynamic more obvious than in his Exegesis, Dick's longest (both in terms of time and output) writing project which was almost entirely composed with himself in mind as the only reader. 


Ever notice when Dick seems to get going down a plot track that threatens to run out of steam, he simply has the character reverse course, or dramatic events intervene to knock the story out of the rut it was falling into. 

A writer with more time and with a different approach to writing would likely go back and cut the wrong turn out of the plot entirely. Dick leaves the whole thing in, complete with a sort of awkward three-point turn in the middle where the action hangs a U-ie. The wrong turn becomes a fun sort of side quest simply to rediscover the story's forward momentum. The best example I can come up with right now is the ersatz police station in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but I think that's too brilliant and significant thematically to be considered a "wrong turn." So I''ll have to look for some of those myself, or you'll have to throw some examples you can think of in the comments.  

It seems to me it is this particular sense of "playfulness" that differentiates him and other New Wave writers from the earlier guard of Asimov, Clark, and Heinlein. Dick famously said of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, "You could roll a joint up in that book and you still wouldn't get off." 

Here are a couple assertions we can debate: 

Dick is less "playful" in his mainstream fiction than in his genre fiction. 

If so, this suggests something about the level of seriousness with which Dick viewed the respective genres. 

Here are a couple questions I have: 

Who are some of Dick's contemporaries and literary antecedents that deployed a similar playfulness? 

Lem comes to mind, as does Spinrad. 

What if the current science fiction market is so selective that this kind of looseness no longer makes it out of the slush piles? 

That would be a bummer. As soon as I identified this aspect of Dick's writing, I realized it was one of the things I like the most about his work. 

How about this quote on interpretation from Derrida that I really wanted to include, but couldn't quite shoehorn in?: 

“There are thus two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of free play. The one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering, a truth or an origin which is free from free play and from the order of the sign, and lives like an exile the necessity of interpretation. The other, which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms free play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism.”

Is Dick also "playful" insofar as his work resists holistic cohesion? It seems to slip out of any attempt at reductive characterization doesn't it? But then, doesn't everything? 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Philip K Dick Can Ogle Them For You Wholesale


Philip K Dick was way into women's breasts. This obsession has long been noted. The old Frolix-8 website, which was big back in the Total Dick-Head heyday  (it seems to have succumbed to kipple in 2015), started a Project to catalog all of the descriptions of breasts in Dick's fiction, and went through 53 different PKD texts in a quest for breasts.  Have you thanked Al Gore for inventing the internet recently? 

Here's one from Gather Yourselves Together (have your cringe on standby for this one):
 
"Her breasts amazed him. They did not jut out and up. They did not swell, pressing forward as the drawings had shown them. They hung down, and when she bent over they fell away from her. They bounced and swung when she picked up her clothes, bending over and reaching down to dress. They were not hard cups at all, but flesh like the rest of her, soft pale flesh. Like wineskins hanging on tent walls in Middle East villages. Sacks, wobbling flesh sacks that must have got in her way every now and then."

From The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

"She had a narrow, erect body, a truly superb carriage...and small, up-jutting breasts with nipples no larger than matched pink peas. Or rather matched, pink pearls..."


“I like her; I could watch her the rest of my life. She has breasts that smile.”


“Her tone was bitter; her breasts pulsed with resentment.”  

Remember the end of this book where the guy drives off between a pair of very breast-like hills? 


Rumor has it there's even a unpublished poem by Dick titled "Boobs." 

Dick's obvious fascination with breasts has always been treated either as a kind of wink-wink joke among many of his male fans,  or as evidence of his deep-seated sexist attitudes. 

Why can't it be both? 

But something occurred to me recently that changed the way I looked at all of this: Philip K Dick's twin sister Jane died in infancy, because his mother failed to produce enough milk to sustain them both. 

Often in Dick's fiction, the unfeeling, apathetic, women characters (the "bitch-wives" as they've been called by mostly male scholars) are depicted as flat chested. Oh yeah, and a lot of these characters are also based, at least in part, on PKD's mom, Dorothy. 

Of course lots of science fiction writers were obsessed with breasts (say that three times). Isaac Asimov I'm looking in your general direction. And Robert Heinlein I see you too. And they didn't have twin sisters that died of starvation, so maybe it's something else. 

Friend of the blog, Ted Hand, offered this insight: "I'd also think of the literary context of imitating the Beat Generation dudes feeling liberated to let out their horny no matter how misogynistic." Adding, "Like you get this new freedom to do something edgy, let's spray paint the secretary's breasts blue."

I think there's something to what Ted is saying. And, in the genre more widely, I think a lot of New Wave authors were pushing the upper age range of science fiction into full-blown puberty and so a little good natured phallo-centric sexual titillation was a selling point. 

We'll never know the precise combination of circumstances that led to Dick's appreciation for breasts, and it's probably better that way. But, personally, I can't stop thinking about PKD as this powerfully tragic figure, and so in my reading of him, almost everything returns to these powerful traumas that resonated through his life. 

Sorry I was away for a bit. I wrote a SEINFELD script about Coronavirus, because reasons. 






Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Philip K Dick on Writing


I had a former student and Dick-head reader ask me recently if Philip K Dick ever offered any advice on writing. At first I drew a blank. Dick is not especially appreciated for his craft, but I remembered a letter that he wrote to an aspiring science fiction writer named Sandra Miesel (sorry I can't provide the date, I'm away from my PKD collection. I think it's in one of the final volumes, if anyone can find it, and scan the entire letter for us that'd be great). Dick's advice is to avoid flowery, purple prose.  Here's the part I quote for my students in the course reader:

"A citizen runs to the fire department yelling that he's spotted a roaring blaze from his car.
'Where is it?' the fire department asks, pen ready.
'It rises like some brooding, glaring trail of cosmic fury from..'
"WHERE? WHERE?"
"Oh. Well, it blazes up from a crimson-sheathed visage brooding darkly over haunted towers of impudent indignity, which, like melons hovering unhappily over the lifetime of empty meaning, which..."
'THE ADDRESS!'
'Oh. Oh I didn't notice. But look for a brooding, glaring trail of cosmic fury rising from a crimson-sheathed visage...' 
They lead him off, back to his car, and send him on."

Dick makes his point implicitly by creating a scenario in which the listener desperately needs information, which is obfuscated by the purple prose. Obviously, Dick sees his readers like members of the fire department: clearly interested in what's happening, rather than the prose used to describe it. I think this is good writing advice for any genre, but particularly science fiction, where the focus is rarely on the prose style (William Gibson and Samuel Delaney are excused from this generalization). "Melons hovering..." Seems like another one of Dick's patented breast references™I'm gonna write a post on that soon. 

The other piece of writing advice just recently surfaced thanks to the gumshoe work of Randall Radin who located a letter Dick wrote to Ron Goulart in 1965. If memory serves, it was one of the few things he wrote that year, a nadir in Dick's personal life, as he had just left Anne and relocated to East Gak-Ville from beautiful Point Reyes.

The letter offers what amounts to Dick's "formula" for novel writing. As he explains in the letter's final paragraph: "I an not saying this is how to write a book. I am saying this is how I write a book." (Dick uses the <> for emphasis which does something weird to the html in Blogger. Please to accept the italics instead.)

I've met many Dick fans who refuse to accept that Dick used any kind of formula when writing his novels. They prefer to imagine Dick as John Coltrane, improvising a plot by the seat of his pants. But once you read through this letter you will be able to spot this formula (which is very detailed) in almost any of his books. One of my favorite rules in the formula is that the low status character introduced in the first chapter has to have a single syllable last name. "Al Glunch" is the name Dick offers, writing, "or some other unlikely, short type name. What in reality the phone book is full of ...and for good reason; this is the other half of the world."

Submit your best PKD chapter one character name in the comments. I like Dan Shlurt. 


Hey, that's the two-syllable name guy from chapter two! 

If you want to read a really good book on writing, you just have to check out Ursula LeGuin's book Steering the Craft. It's fantastic. Did you know that Dick's Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said beat LeGuin's The Dispossessed for the John W Campbell award in 1975? I know we're all Dick fans here, but I hope we can agree that LeGuin was robbed. 



Ok, now I really want to plot out a novel using this formula. Who's with me. Here's the formula in its entirety (though we don't know whether there was ever a cover page for this letter): 

Click to embiggen




Saturday, July 25, 2020

Philip K Dick's House in Point Reyes


I took my kids up to the North Bay last week and on the way home I checked out the "break-in" house in Santa Venetia. But the whole trip was a little weird. In heading up to Lagunitas, I found myself retracing the old route I used to take to visit Anne Dick in Point Reyes. It's probably been a dozen years since I was up there to see her. 

Anne Dick died in 2017. Here's her obituary from The New York Times (sorry about the paywall).  I liked Anne a lot; you may already know that I wrote the intro to her memoir. Last I heard that book had recently been translated into Turkish. I really respected Anne's opinion. She was a force of nature, and I considered her a friend (she considered me a variety of things, some good, some bad, but somewhere in there I think she considered me a friend too). 


So while I was driving my kids through Point Reyes on our way to a cloudy, cold, and crowded parking lot at Limantour Beach, I decided to drive by Anne's old place. 

It's still there, though it doesn't appear to be a bed and breakfast anymore. The house sold in 2018. I wonder if it was advertised as "the house where The Man in the High Castle was written" - cuz it was. It was also the locus for Martian Time-Slip, We Can Build You, Dr Bloodmoney, Now Wait for Last Year, The Simulacra, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, to name just a few. 

In my opinion Dick's time there (1959-1964) was his first real masterpiece era, when he seemed to come into his own and blossom as a writer, putting out one fantastic book after another (with only a couple of stinkers in there). If I could get into a time machine and go back and interview PKD at any point in his life, I would set the controls for 1962 or 63, and head up to Pt Reyes to meet "Country Squire" Phil. 

Of course Anne and Phil's marriage was famously rocky, and littered with unpleasantness of all varieties. But there were good times. I still remember Anne telling me about this vernal pond that appeared on the property every winter through spring. The family would take blankets out and eat fudge and listen to the frogs. That really struck me, and the mental image stayed with me. 

See the lupin in the center of the field? 

I couldn't help but notice, in the field of dry, dead grass next to the house, a small patch of lupin where I think the vernal pond usually formed. I talk a lot about simile and metaphor in my classes, and I think my mind is especially wired to obsess on symbols. So this patch of lupin kind of got me in the feels. What a nice metaphor for the good times that live on in some way.

I've never been able to pinpoint the location of the little shack on the far side of the field from the house where Phil wrote, which he endearingly referred to as "the hovel." Can you imagine if that was still there? This old wooden shack, covered in spiderwebs, falling apart at the final stages of the entropic process, and you could stand in there, and there was a desk or a counter or something where you know Phil had his hi-fi and his typewriter set up, where he sat for hours, everyday, plodding away at some of the deepest science novels ever written. Who knows, maybe it'd just be a gross shed that couldn't hold my attention for more than five minutes. 

I don't really know how to engage with this stuff anymore. I'm not sure it's a good idea for a fan/scholar/critic/whatever-I-am to be engaging with this subject matter emotionally. 

But one thing I've learned from Dick's books is the idea that our emotional engagement with the world is always realer than our intellectual one. 

So I'll just note that all this makes me a little sad. The good news is that I no longer feel the need to go all the way down the rabbit hole. 

It's also possible that's not the location of the vernal pond at all, that I've just built myself a little fantasy because it satisfies the poetics of my narrative. Phil Dick also taught me how to check myself. 

 

Friday, July 24, 2020

Philip K. Dick's House in Santa Venetia


It's hard to believe that even after living in the Bay Area for more than twenty years, and having scouted out almost every one of PKD's houses, I had never been to the infamous "break-in house" near San Rafael, California. That is until today. 


Thanks to Waze, my kids sat in the car as I snapped shots of the house from the street, wearing my covid mask. I'm sure the sight of masked dude taking pictures of the house with a handheld computer really freaked Phil's presence out in his timeless haunting of his old haunts.  

Like all of the previous PKD homes I've been to, there is something underwhelming about the experience. These locations never seem to hold any residual magic that I can pick up on. They're just houses. 

In this case, I was struck by just how much the neighborhood embodied the California suburbs. They don't have sharp, ninety degree angle curbs; they have the rounded edge that you could ride on your bicycle or skateboard like it was a tiny little wave breaking on the beach. The asphalt has gaps in it where yards and houses are planted. 


According to Sutin's bio, PKD's mother Dorothy and her husband Joseph purchased this house in their name because of Dick's poor credit. PKD, wife Nancy, and daughter Isa, moved in in June of 1968 (40 years ago). Sutin writes:

"...it was a suburban tract house with a lawn and a garden that did not thrive under new ownership. Grania Davis, who visited with her husband in 1969, received a Phildickian tour of the garden: "He took us around saying, 'This is the dead lemon tree, this is the dead rosebush, this is the dead lawn. The Unwelcome Wagon is coming to pick me up next week'"" (158)

Anne Dick describes the house (in remarkably similar language) in her memoir The Search for Philip K Dick which she wrote before Sutin wrote his bio of PKD:

"When Grania and Steve Davis came over to see Phil, he took them on a tour of his house. He told them, "This is my dead lawn. Do you want to see my garden? " He took them across the lawn and said "This is my dead tree." He took them to another spot in the yard, "This is my dead bush. I'm afraid pretty soon the unwelcome wagon is coming for me.""

In November of 1971 the break-in happened, and PKD's large wall safe was blown open with explosive charges. Read all about it in Paul Williams' article The Most Brilliant Sci-Fi Mind on Any Planet.

PKD left the house sometime around February 1972 (the month and year I was born), headed for a SF Convention in Vancouver, where as Sutin writes, "Phil tried his hardest to die."

The house as photographed in 2008

If I'm reading the real estate website correctly, the house hasn't been sold since 1972. My guess is that that would be right after Dick moved out. Can someone with more real estate savvy confirm? 

Here's a super grainy shot of the house from the ancient "Philip K Dick Slept Here" website -- what happens to websites when they die? 


I also spent some time in Point Reyes yesterday and will post my pictures of Anne Dick's house there tomorrow. 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

"Put a Dick On It" in Portland-ia



Back in the golden age of this blog -- like 2009 -- this PKD sighting would have made a perfect post. Dick sightings in the public mainstream were rare (or strictly movie related) and social media was not yet aggregating all of our various passions for us, so this blog would have been one of the few places Dick-heads could catch one of these rare sightings.

I like this Seth Myers bit, and his explanation that if you're not familiar with PKD's work, comparisons between our realities and his dystopias is generally a bad sign. But maybe in some other universe, one that falls apart a few days later, there is a Philip K Dick novel titled, "The Robots Took Over and Gave Us Candy."

Nowadays (this word is always a serious red flag when it begins student essays, especially when written "Now a days") all you Dick-heads have probably already seen this, re-posted it, liked it, and made three memes out of it, thanks to your endless foraging on social media. So I'm not sure this kind of content still has the same relevance that it used to. But here we are.




Actually (another bad sign when it precedes some sentence emanated by a man) there seem to be two different PKD threads going on. The first is that these anonymous, black and camo-clad agents in Portland seem like the secret police from a PKD novel (Radio Free Albemuth, for instance).

The other is that the head of the Department of Homeland Security recently said that some of the arrests being made by the camo/black ops cops are being down in anticipation of future crimes. Which leads me to wonder where they are keeping the bald chicks in goo.

Why do I remember her as bald, and The Berenstein Bears?
So yeah, we're living in a Philip K Dick dystopia (which contributions on setting from JG Ballard and characters from Robert Heinlein). Yay us. I'll talk a little more about why Trump's current ascendancy is especially resonant with Dick's work. The real problem with living in a PKD world is that he wasn't very good at endings.

Tip of the hat to David Agranoff of the DickHeads Podcast for the Myers clip. More about all this new fangled Dick content soon!