Friday, June 22, 2007

Has The Empire Finally Ended?


Finally, an article about the Philip K Dick Library of America release that doesn't suck! Dave Itzkoff writes a damn good summation of the ridiculous media hoopla surrounding this release for Friday's New York Times that begins with this:

[what follows is the article, in it's entirety, with my commentary. For the fullest experience I recommend you read the article here before polluting your mind with my many opinions]

"Somehow the discovery that your personal heroes are, in fact, everyone’s idols is less comforting than it is traumatic. When you realize that the portable sages whose revelations seemed addressed only to you are the same promiscuous scriveners whose dog-eared manifestos lurk deep within countless backpacks, lockers, night stands and bedroom closets, you may feel a sense of belonging to something greater, or, more likely, you may feel a pang of betrayal. Where you once feared that these unheralded masters might never be appreciated, now you worry that they will receive their rightful acclaim for all the wrong reasons."

I'm listening (but I'm slightly ticked that you're such a good writer).

Itzkoff continues:

"I bring this up as a Philip K. Dick anthology, FOUR NOVELS OF THE 1960s (Library of America, $35), takes its well-earned place in the Library of America, joining the oeuvres of Poe, Fenimore Cooper and Chandler (not to mention Melville, Faulkner and Steinbeck). For all the critical surveys that have been written about Dick’s work, I’ve never read one that paid his great writing — the parts of his prodigious output that were truly great — proper tribute."

Sold! Oh wait, there's more?:

"Most portraits of Dick (who died in 1982 at the age of 53) want to force him into one of several prefabricated categories: the all-purpose visionary who anticipated everything from the Internet to the Tiananmen Square massacre; the five-times-married hedonist whose appetite for drugs led to confrontational therapies and debilitating surgeries; the grizzled shaman whose later life was consumed by mystic hallucinations; the workhorse who never saw his dime-store pulp adapted into multimillion-dollar vehicles for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise."

OK, now this is a getting spooky -- I agree with you. Where were you when Charles McGrath was pedantically pontificating on a host of ridiculous claims like Dick wasn't a good prognosticator? Or, as you point out in the article, forcing Dick into prefabricated categories?

"Even a recent essay about him by the novelist Jonathan Lethem, the editor of the Library of America volume and the most passionate, well-intentioned Philip K. Dick advocate alive, skims the surface; it tells us Dick is a bit like Dostoyevsky, a bit like Robert Altman, a bit like Bob Dylan. Trying to discern him among these patchwork assessments is like trying to look at someone wearing the scramble suit from Dick’s novel “A Scanner Darkly”: all one sees is a shifting set of characteristics that add up to a vague blur. But as the man wrote, Let’s hear it for the vague blur"

Indeed, Dave Itzkoff, you're one hell of a vague blur.
Itzkoff then proceeds to describe each of the four books included in the volume:

"Published in 1962, the novel takes place in an alternate reality where the Axis powers have won World War II. Instead of focusing on the machinations of the new Nazi regime, “The Man in the High Castle” is more interested in a handful of unremarkable Americans — an antiques store owner, a wayward judo instructor — whose lives would most likely be as mundane and lonely had the Allies been victorious. All these characters suspect that history was not meant to unfold this way, and cannot bring themselves to engage in a world where time’s arrow consistently points to their insignificance. “Why struggle, then?” Dick writes. “Why choose? If all alternatives are the same. ...”"

Yep, that pretty much sums it up, oh yeah, The Man in the High Castle is also impeccably researched and I don't think Dick was being as cruel to his characters as you do:

"He teases and torments his characters with intimations of an artificial America where superficial appearances say nothing about the underlying truth of a thing, or a person; where a Swedish plastics salesman is really a German spy; where a Mickey Mouse watch is really a priceless artifact; and where “the word ‘fake’ meant nothing really, since the word ‘authentic’ meant nothing really.” And when guilt cannot be eradicated from the human soul, it can be channeled into new and better forms — even items as modest as pieces of jewelry one character calls “the new life of my country.”

In my mind Dick is using multiple characters' viewpoints to show how pervasive the sense of wrongness has become (and of course how subjective reality is); everybody seems to be suffering under the malaise this feeling of insignificance evokes. But whatever, keep spinning your magic Dave:

"Some characters appear to wonder if they’re actually participating in a work of science fiction, but Dick is way ahead of them; he seems to know he has written one of America’s enduring expressionist novels of alienation and disillusionment, whose environs are no more far-fetched than the West Egg mansion of an ersatz millionaire or the newspaper offices of a wretched advice columnist with a Jesus complex."

Well said. Now blow me away with your brilliant literary connections to The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch:

"The spirit of “Miss Lonelyhearts” also hovers above Dick’s 1965 novel “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.” With its psychic “precogs,” Martian colonies and a hallucinatory drug called Can-D that can transport you into the body of a doll named Perky Pat, the book can reasonably be classified as sci-fi. But beneath its zanier trappings, the real story here is of two rival would-be messiahs who both lack the will to be adequate saviors."

More! More! More!:

"The first, Palmer Eldritch, is an entrepreneurial huckster — imagine Donald Trump with metal teeth [note: I like to picture Palmer Eldritch as Rupert Murdoch but this comparison works] — who has found a drug superior to Can-D, an unholy sacrament that traps its user inside an illusory world that Eldritch can control, but just barely. The other, Barney Mayerson, is a clairvoyant who foresees that he may be able to halt Eldritch’s scheme, but only if he sacrifices his own life."

Go on:

"Instead, Mayerson flees his destiny and takes refuge among a group of Can-D addicts on Mars, leaving humanity susceptible to “the evil, negative trinity of alienation, blurred reality and despair.” While he wrestles with notions of a God who cannot redeem man and a man who may not merit redemption, the Philip K. Dick we see here is much less hopeful than the author of “The Man in the High Castle”; whereas one of the main figures in that novel boldly declares, “I must go on,” the characters in “Palmer Eldritch” can only echo Barney Mayerson’s sigh of resignation, “It is this or the void.”

Itzkoff has some criticisms of the remaining two books (I suppose it's his perogative, but I don't think these criticisms are as well thought out as his compliments):

"If we are to honor Dick’s principles — if the word “authentic” is to have any meaning — then we must acknowledge that the last two books of “Four Novels” are merely good and not great. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1968), whose rusted, acid-scarred atmosphere you may confuse with Ridley Scott’s film adaptation, “Blade Runner,” gives us the intriguing tale of a bounty hunter who stalks androids that believe they’re human. But it self-plagiarizes from “Palmer Eldritch” the idea of a false messiah propagated through technology, and as it races against an unseen stopwatch to tell its story, it rarely pauses long enough to make any lasting observations. “Ubik,” from 1969, also repeats elements from “Palmer Eldritch” and “Counter-Clock World,” an earlier Dick novel, and it feels as if even less is at stake."

The papers I get each and every semester in which even non-English majors (and sometimes even non-native speakers) brilliantly plumb the depths of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? seem to indicate otherwise, but hey, I know there's pressure for critics to have ideas:

"You don’t have to be a precog to sense a predictability surrounding the books selected for “Four Novels”: “The Man in the High Castle” and “Palmer Eldritch” make the cut on literary merit, “Electric Sheep” provided the source material for the most memorable movie based on Dick’s work, and “Ubik” sneaks in because — well, why not? The anthology might have presented a more complete picture of Dick by including a less celebrated sleeper like “The Simulacra,” one of four of his novels published in 1964 alone, or any of his late-period, semiautobiographical works, like “Valis,” though this would have violated the 1960s conceit and left nothing for the inevitable second volume."

And some critics are also armchair editors with their own selections for the volume:

"Though it breaks the rules, I might have liked to see the anthology rounded out with “A Scanner Darkly,” Dick’s drug-fueled 1977 suburban phantasmagoria, which ends with a dedication to his many friends who lost their bodies, minds and lives to substance abuse. Taken together with “The Man in the High Castle” and “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch,” it could have stood as a final testament to the true cost of being a hero to the disaffected, one written before R. Crumb and Richard Linklater could turn his work into cartoons, and before a robotics lab could build an android in his likeness (and then lose its head). Now that Philip K. Dick belongs to the ages, may future generations take better care of him than he took of himself, and may they tend to his legacy more vigilantly than we have."

Thank God he's put this one to bed. Now I can't wait for those Blade Runner: Director's Cut 2 articles to start flowing. In fact here's a long tribute article to Blade Runner penned by Mythbuster Adam Savage.

Stay tuned for a longer essay on the release I am currently drafting with quotes from Jonathan Lethem! I will have the final word.

3 comments:

Old Nick said...

It seems to me that the aspect of Dick's work that is so often left out in these reviews/ commentaries that are written of him is the humanity that he portrayed. There is a recurring theme in his work of raising the question of what it means to be human. To me this, more than his exploration of reality, is what separates him as a great writer.

MDK said...

Whoa! An article the totaldickhead is impressed with. I had to blalk on over there and read per your suggestion, Dave. Your right, it was refreshing to hear something about the LOA release that was a cut above the rest. Your commentary was fun to follow, as well. Keep up the good work! Looking forward to reading your essay.

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