Thursday, December 08, 2005

I Am Alive and You Are Dead - a speculative biography

Second hand bookstores had the most subversive influence on my young life. They conceal, in full view, devastating thought-bombs; hidden in musty pages, behind gaudy covers, a negligible cost pencilled on the title page to reassure you that you are actually buying an object, whereas this is in fact a smoke screen - you are exchanging ignorance for awareness, and you can never tell who's getting the better deal. I’ve never felt the same shameful tingle of discovery browsing through a library, or in Waterstones, as I felt when exploring the dark, narrow passageways of the second hand store on my way home from school. I shouldn't have been there, but there I was, again.

From the Belgariad to The Glass Bead Game, by way of The Brentford Triangle and Mythago Wood, second hand books, randomly selected and carried home in secret, have shaped my life.

It was above the newsagents I used to deliver papers for that I lost my innocence, aged fourteen. In one afternoon, seduced by their dark pulpy covers, I picked up Dr Bloodmoney, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Now Wait for Last Year, A Maze of Death, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I was never the same again. And all for three quid. Phil Dick changed my world.

Until that day, I had read books featuring kindly narrators, genial storytellers who were on the side of their protagonists. Suddenly I was reading about isolation, madness, betrayal and damnation as inescapable facts of life, the best we can hope for. Glen Runciter finds a coin imprinted with Jo Chip’s profile, and suddenly no longer knows if he is alive in the world, or dead, trapped in the mind of a teenaged psychopath, and that’s practically a happy ending, yes?

This Dick guy was fucked up. And he was addictive. I wanted to know more about him. I wanted to know what kind of a man could write such stories. Now, almost twenty (yikes) years later, along comes a book which, as befits my status in adult life, I have been able to purchase new, and in hardback. Golly.

Subtitled A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick, I Am Alive and You Are Dead is not your ordinary biography, not a work of scholarship, of pouring over birth records, school reports, correspondence, interview transcripts - the primary evidence that gives shape to a man’s life in this objective reality. Carrere is not concerned with such minutia, and if you are the sort of reader who obsesses over such bagatelles, I suggest you look at Lawrence Sutin’s far more sympathetic, traditional biography, Divine Invasions. Sutin is as big a fan of Dick as Carrere, but both have radically different approaches to telling the story of his life, and both ought to be read to experience a full account of Dick’s madness/genius. One will tell you of the traces Phil Dick left in the world, the other attempts the more thankless task of telling you how he experienced it.

Not everyone gets there is a difference.

I've read reviews of this terrific book bemoaning the lack of an index, angry that there are too few citations, gypped there is no bibliography, no objectivity or way to tell if the author is presenting facts or supposition. Sad, really. The central questions of Dick's life's work were what is human? what is real? and it's fitting that this book should invite the reader to ask the same questions on every page. Is this an accurate portrait? Was Dick's idios kosmos really as skewed as the koinos kosmos presented in his books? Is this biography or fiction? I tend more towards reading this as a novel. A psychological thriller about a sci-fi author who suffers a nervous breakdown and comes to believe his stories are true.

It’s a pretty terrifying tale, which, like its subject, may have only the barest of relationships with objective reality. It's the story of Dick's life seen through his own eyes - a blameless man, persecuted by his government, harassed by a succession of castrating, shrewish wives, a target for secret KGB psychic experiments, prone to debilitating visions revealing the truth about our universe, his greatest fear that he is merely one of the many simulacra he portrays so movingly.

Carrere, too, often writes very movingly about Dick’s obsessions and paranoia, most beautifully in the chapter dealing with the genesis of Ubik, but also later, recounting Phil's stay in Canada, and later still, watching over his subject’s mad scribbling of his Exegesis, the eight thousand page paperweight no-one has ever been brave enough to read.

Despite both the fine writing (translation supplied by Timothy Bent) and Carrere’s undoubted affection for Phil, one can't help coming away from this book with the total, consuming impression that Dick was, well, a dick. Selfish, needy, insecure, untrustworthy and paranoid, he seemed to spend his life demanding more and more of people while offering less and less of himself. Impossible to live with, terrified of being alone; parts of the book are almost painfully uncomfortable to read, particularly when detailing the way he treated his wives. One keeps reading, both unable to tear away from this train-wreck of a life, and vainly hoping for some kind of redemption at the end of it. No such luck. Sadly, it seems, the man was an ass.

But is any of it true? Is any biography? Is the truth of a man's life to be found in records of his actions - where he lived, who he married, what he said; or in the artifacts of his imagination - 150 short stories and 50 novels; or in the analysis of his fears and nightmares? And if Phil Dick himself were merely a creation of someone elses' mind, if he died aged six months and what we think of as his life was the imagining of twin sister, Jane, what can that tell us? What does the world Dick lived in tell us about her? About us?

Whoever, whatever, Dick truly was, his tragic attempt to find truth was positively, nobly, Quixotic. In his constant search for answers to the questions of what is human? and what is real? Dick produced some of the most challenging and influential literature of the twentieth century. Sure, he was never a great prose stylist (to put it kindly), and given his abuse of every type of prescription drug under the sun (and then some), a certain lack of consistency in his work is to be expected. But the man left us with a legacy that includes The Man in the High Castle, Martian Time Slip, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Ubik, A Scanner Darkly and VALIS. He left me, aged fourteen, with a completely rewired brain.

Then again, if we take I Am Alive and You Are Dead at its word, then Dick's books were real, and Phil Dick himself was Palmer Eldritch. Carrere’s book is either Ubik or Chew-Z; innoculation, or the ultimate bad trip, abandoning the reader to Dick’s malign influence. Certainly, by the time he dies, at the end of this remarkable “biography,” I felt only relief that, finally, I was free of his malevolent world-view, the trip was over and I could go back to my own, mundane, life.

And yet now, every coin I spend bears the imprint of his features.

Category: Books and Comics

1 comment:

  1. Great minds -- or Great Twisted Minds -- think alike. I, too, am a devoted Dickian from way back. And you've now given me one more book to add to my already towering pile of on-deck reading matter...