Friday, August 31, 2007
I Say End Your Gopnik-Hating Days, And Merely Dislike Him
Sorry to be away so long, but I just finished the first week of the semester with four new classes. My second-year literature students will be starting The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch next week. I can't believe how long it's taking to blog that book. I guess I should have envisioned it as a long-term project.
But on to Gopnik's piece in The New Yorker.
Almost all serious Dick-heads are decrying the recent PKD article in The New Yorker (a magazine PKD dreamed of appearing and being taken seriously in) titled "Blows to the Empire" so let's take a look at some of the harsher criticism Gopnik levels at Dick:
"The trouble is that, much as one would like to place Dick above or alongside Pynchon and Vonnegut—or, for that matter, Chesterton or Tolkien—as a poet of the fantastic parable he was a pretty bad writer. Though his imagination is at least the equal of theirs, he had, as he ruefully knew, a hack’s habits, too, and he never really got over them. He has three, at most four, characters, whom he shuffles from hand to hand and novel to novel like a magician with the same mangy rabbits. There is the sexy young stoned girl; the wise or shrewish wife; the ordinary schlub who is his Everyman; and the Mad Engineer who is usually the Designated Explainer. He flogs these types into semi-life by means of Ellery Queen devices, including the depressing one of funny names. Then, there is the narrative falsely propelled by the one-sentence paragraph, the internal monologue that really isn’t, and sometimes both together"
I notice in the comments section here at TDH that many Dick-heads enjoy finding these recurring characters in Dick's books: Is Mrs Hnatt/Mayerson the dark-haired girl? Are 'Donna' and 'Angel Archer' the same character? Is 'Angel' just an older 'Donna'? So obviously we don't mind Dick's 'mangy rabbits' -- And by the way, I don't think Horselover Fats is a 'mangy rabbit' at all.
What else you got Gopnik?:
"The trouble isn’t that Dick suffers by some school-marmish standard of fine writing. It’s that the absence of any life within the writing on the page ends up robbing the books of the vital force that pushes you past pages. As an adult reader coming back to Dick, you start off in a state of renewed wonder and then find yourself thumbing ahead to see how much farther you are going to have to go. At the end of a Dick marathon, you end up admiring every one of his conceits and not a single one of his sentences."
Well that's harsh, but you know what? My friends and family who have read PKD at my insistence and didn't like it say this expresses exactly how they felt. Various literature appeals to various tastes; we don't all have to like Hemingway, or Dickens, or Pynchon, or Goethe. Different strokes for different folks.
What about some of the good stuff Gopnik said?:
"What is moving in Dick’s madness is his insistence that the surest sign of the madness of the world outside him is the violence that we accept as normal."
Of course it should read "What is moving in Dick's work is his insistence that surest sign of the madness of the world outside him is the violence we accept as normal" but who cares? It's still one of the most succinct summations of Dick's moral vision I have ever heard. Almost as good as "sometimes the only sane response to an insane world is insanity" -- by the way Mulder says that in an episode of the X-Files.
I'd like to think that if Dick were alive to read Gopnik's piece he would focus on the beauty and accuracy of that one line and forget about the other stuff. I think he would be so moved by the serious treatment Gopnik gives him he might forgive him for some of his criticism.
Bottom line, Dick's stature as an artist is changing. He's stepped onto the field with Faulkner, Hemingway, Joyce, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and people in general are incredibly harsh with their judgments of those kinds of authors. I've heard students say, "I can't stand Hemingway; I absolutely loathe him! Woman-hating drunk!"
In a recent email Jonathan Lethem wrote:
"Superficial and pigeon-holing impressions ("Wasn't Robert Lowell a schizophrenic? Faulkner a drunk?" etc.) go part-and-parcel with the level of recognition PKD has now attained. His strengths and weaknesses, paradoxes and inconsistencies, the whole wealth of everything he represented and had to offer -- it belongs to everyone now."
But not everybody's going to get it - thankfully. Frankly, I might worry about a middle-America that is reading PKD as widely as they they read, say, The Great Gatsby. Part of Dick's charge comes from his counter-culture perspective, his opportunity to write against the grain. I think Dick must exist in opposition to mainstream thought, while at the same time appealing to it. That's how satire works.
Aren't you glad that the real appreciation of Philip K Dick, the kind that takes a nuanced view of his life and his "sanity," will still be predominately a cult activity? I am.
While Gopnik quotes a few PKD paragraphs to support his allegation of bad writing, he doesn't ever bother to show us any good Dick paragraphs -- which might lead one to the false impression that there are no well-written paragraphs in any of Dick's work. Here's one, from the end of A Scanner Darkly:
"This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed -- run over, maimed, destroyed -- but they continued to play anyhow. We really all were very happy for a while, sitting around not toiling but just bullshitting and playing... There is no moral in this novel; it is not bourgeois; it does not say they were wrong to play when they should have toiled; it just tells what the consequences were.... If there was any "sin," it was that these people wanted to keep on having fun forever. [...] In Memoriam. These were comrades whom I had; there are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven. The "enemy" was their mistake in playing. Let them all play again, in some other way, and let them be happy."
It seems like the obvious, yet missing, paragraph in Gopnik's piece might have started something like this: 'So with all these strikes against him as a writer why is Philip K Dick in the Library of America?' But that's what's missing. Gopnik never really offers a satisfying explanation for Dick's growing reputation and that makes me think perhaps Gopnik is a snob who believes that the Library of America has lost its way, that Lovercraft's and Dick's LoA releases are a blight on the venerable arbiter of the American canon. And if that's his opinion, I'll throw my cold, dry martini in his face at one of those fancy cocktail parties. I'll put on my Thurston Howell III voice and say, 'Say Gopnik wasn't it Balzac who said...' and then BAM! Drink in the face! Who am I kidding? I'll never get invited to that party.