Friday, March 30, 2007

"Voices From the Street" Reviewed

My friend Pesco posted this review I wrote over at

Philip K Dick is in the midst of a cultural ascendancy. The science fiction writer long-championed by devoted genre fans, freaks, and druggies is finally being recognized as a serious literary talent. This May, four of Dick’s best science fiction novels from the 1960s will be released in a single volume by the Library of America. While Dick’s SF is finally getting the critical attention it so deeply deserves, only serious Dick-heads know that the Bay Area author spent his lifetime hoping for literary success outside of science fiction. In the 1950s, Dick wrote one mainstream novel every year or so (all except the truly remarkable “Confessions of a Crap Artist” were thoroughly rejected by publishers during his lifetime). In January Dick’s last unpublished novel, Voices From the Street, written in 1956, was released by Tor.

This mainstream novel, which chronicles the unfulfilling life of Oakland resident and radio electronics salesman Stuart Hadley as he searches for significance in the spiritually bankrupt wasteland of post-war, middle-class suburbia, once again reveals that Dick’s literary success owes more to his considerable ability to depict realistic characters than to his use of space-age gadgetry.

Philip K. Dick said of his writing in 1978, “I don’t write beautifully – I just write reports about our condition.” Indeed, it is Dick’s profound ability to chronicle the humanness of his characters (especially his androids) that pulls me into his books over and over again and this novel is no different. Stuart Hadley is immediately identifiable as a Dick character, wounded by the isolation and narcissism of society. In much of Dick’s science fiction, reality breaks down because his characters want it to, because they feel so defeated in many cases that waking up in a world where nobody knows them at least gives them a reason to get out of bed. Hadley is no different; he has made a good life for himself: he’s got a successful business, a beautiful wife, but he feels empty inside. Dick writes, “A dull, numbing tiredness crept through Hadley’s bones. Lazily, the miasma drifted up like grey cigarette smoke, into all parts of his body.”

In this novel, Dick masterfully portrays the paradox of the American dream: that the selfish drive for personal gain ultimately leaves people feeling isolated and unfulfilled. What Hadley learns over the course of the novel is that the peculiarly American tradition of desperately searching for meaning or significance (otherwise known as a mid-life crisis) is often undertaken out of a selfish desire for fulfillment and is therefore doomed to fail.

If this book is so good – which it is – why couldn’t Dick get it published? Dick’s simple, no-nonsense prose style is a bit understated for many serious readers’ literary tastes but his simple narrative voice efficiently conveys his character’s crushing existential angst. With common words and uncomplicated grammar Dick creates complicated worlds and deep characters who struggle in his fiction for meaning and significance. It may very well have been Dick’s simple style that failed to grab mainstream editors’ attention, but it is precisely this simple voice that Dick harnesses so brilliantly to capture a simple life in search of complication.


Henri said...

I posted a link to your review on my site.

Unknown said...


(found you through Google)

Great review! I've just read "Voices from the street" recently, and with the possible exception of "Valis" or "The mand in the high castle", I believe it was the best K. Dick book I've read. I'm looking forward to reading his other mainstream fiction work, such as "Confessions of a crap artist" or "Mary and the giant".

kid said...

I'd read VFTS not too long ago, and a few parts did and do still resonate glimpses into PKD the Rug-Pulling Cosmogonist, even this early in his career, even though this was a bleak "mainstream book". The lecture at the religious revival in particular, where the cult leader tells of a heaven not where but when, is in hindsight, a precocious aside to what would later consume his best efforts.

I enjoyed this book and I enjoy this site. Keep it going!

Pianoman said...

You said:

If this book is so good – which it is – why couldn’t Dick get it published?

I just finished reading it, and although I'm a PDK fan, I didn't think it was that good. I can understand why it wouldn't be published.

This book strikes me as a self-psychiatric work more than anything else. PDK puts himself in his books ("Valis"), and this is no exception, IMHO. Wikipedia states that it's a literary attempt to cope with his first marriage, and I think I agree.

There's nothing wrong with doing that, as long as you make the narrative believable and interesting. I just didn't buy Hadley's descent into madness -- it seemed too forced to me.

However, the setting is excellent, and I think PDK had assembled all of the elements for a good literary story. For example, Theodore Beckheim (who isn't far removed from the early Dianetics lectures) is a terrific character, but is ultimately wasted and unused. Martha is a mysterious character, but she, too, was unused other than as a rape victim.

It seems to me what PDK has done here is to mix equal parts of himself and Willy Loman. Hadley IS an interesting character, in an interesting setting. But his journey into crazy and his emergence out the other side just isn't effective or believable.

It's interesting to read non-SF from SF authors, particularly from early in their careers. And it's not a horrible book by any means. I'm just not surprised that this was published posthumously.