Sunday, May 27, 2007
Has PKD Become Too "Legit"?
After proudly calling Dick's fiction "expired" less than a year ago, Wired Magazine has an article about the Library of America release titled "Philip K Dick Goes Legit With Library of America Canon" by Frank Rose, who from the title seems to misunderstand the word 'canon' with one N. It's not a big gun you can go legit with Frank, it's an agreed-upon collection of writers deemed serious by a bunch of academics who are themselves trying to have their lofty ideas about literature set in stone for generations to come.
Rose's article is really more of an interview with the volume's editor and resident chief Dick-head Jonathan Lethem in which Frank Rose asks questions like:
"Wired: What was it that made [Dick's] early works so bad?"
Is the answer "an idiot who doesn't bother reading them" too snarky?
Lethem's response is slightly more civil:
Lethem: He was expending his energies on these unpublished realist novels. What happened with The Man in the High Castle was that he invigorated his science fiction with all the ambition he'd been reserving for his mainstream efforts. Suddenly, he vaulted up to this other level.
Lethem's response is interesting. In a recent review of 'Voices From the Street' Gabriel McKee argued that Dick didn't always crave mainstream success, and he's right. What makes Dick so unique was his inspiration to embed highbrow literary elements in his science fiction. It's a bit reductive to imagine that Dick would have given up sf completely if his mainstream novels had begun selling (but then again, perhaps he would've). It is more accurate to say that Dick was the first author to inhabit what is now a very heavily-populated region in the shadow lands between idea-driven science fiction and character-driven realism. The first novel that demonstrates the power of this recipe is the 1958 masterpiece "Time Out of Joint" which Dick wrote four years before "The Man in the High Castle."
If I had a time machine and could go back and interview PKD at just one point in his life it would be 1958, the year Dick wrote "Time Out of Joint" and "Confessions of a Crap Artist" and in so doing created a blueprint for almost all of his greatest fiction.
Rose's interview concludes with this exchange:
Wired: Do you think Dick would have been better received if he were writing today?
Lethem: It's easy to say he'd be Don DeLillo, but he's so deeply of his time. And I don't think it's an accident that he was so marginal. There was something about him that was deeply fugitive. It's hard to believe in a Dick who's been domesticated into a life of literary prestige the way we are currently domesticating him.
It's amazing how consistently these articles use the same hook: Dick's canonization is remarkable because nobody saw it coming; after all Dick's always been just a science fiction writer, but Dick's brilliance is not news to any of us. What's amazing to us is that people overlooked Dick as long as they did. I guess that's why these stories seem so flat to me: it's all old news.