You are sitting on the train, or walking in the park, or perhaps you open your front door to an unexpected knock, when a stranger tells you: "I have had a divine revelation! God spoke to me! I have seen through the veil of illusion to the truth! Let me tell you about it!" What's your reaction?
I daresay for most people it would be negative (a heartsinking, an inward "oh no!"), not primarily from fear of physical harm—although of course there is cultural pressure to regard nutters as actively dangerous—but from fear of boredom. This is the great secret of madness, one obscured by the doctrine of "creative madness": its banality. For every Tasso, Christopher Smart, or William Blake, whose madness generates art of visionary beauty and power, there are countless thousands whose madness generates screeds of barren verbiage, monotonous regurgitations of leaden "spiritual" or paranoiac fantasies that lack for us precisely the one thing—the shine of genuine transcendence—that make them so compelling to the sufferer.
To say so is to fly in the face of one of the most persistent of post-Romantic aesthetic notions; not only that true art requires a Rimbaudian derangement of bourgeois sensibilities but more specifically that insanity provides the clearest and most direct mechanism of achieving this derangement. The bald truth, though, is otherwise. Religious mania is a case in point. We are not frightened of doorstopping Jehovah's Witnesses, earnest Mormons, or stare-eyed Moonies, so much as we are wearied by them. The internet has made this state of affairs more acute. There are so many thousands of websites set up by individuals in the grip of incontinent Biblical hermeneutimania, or giving substance to frothing projection of personal moral crotchets onto the world outside. Of course SF owns a mansion overlooking this Niagara of hysteria—David Icke's very SFnal alien lizard conspiracy theory is as much a spiritual insanity as it is anything else. There aren't enough bookshelves in the world to accommodate all the books published on Atlantis, UFOs, alien-gods, and other SFnal collages of cod-religious musing. Nor is this necessarily mere harmless eccentricity; think of Marshall Herff Applewhite and his "Heavens Gate" UFO cult.
Of course, there is the possibility that you will greet the stranger on the train, or the knocker at the door, with an open heart. Perhaps you share their view that the real world is a trembling skein of illusion. You say to yourself: "Who knows, maybe they're not David Eyck; maybe they actually are a new Daniel or Isaiah." Which is to say, perhaps you believe even the crankiest crank deserves the benefit of the doubt. But that phrase doesn't fit this context very well. Doubt is not the currency of pavement prophets and lithium visionaries. Even Philip K. Dick, the God-Emperor of uncertainty, knocked his metaphorical skull against the bullying force of the loony mystic vision. Hs revelations came into conflict with his art, and this was because his genius as a writer (and genius is not too strong a word) actually depended upon his apprehension of the world as fundamentally dubitable. This is not to say that he ever acquired certainty as to the world's precise meaning, even after he became a "visionary," but it is to suggest that his visionary period diluted the alienation, corroded his dubiety. He was never able to determine what it all meant; but he came to believe, at the end of his career, that it all meant.
The something-that-happened to Philip K. Dick that had so profound an impact on him, and his art, began in early 1974. Although religion had played a complex and sometimes hectic role in his imaginative (and actual) life before this, 1974 represented a step-change for his highly strung sensibility. Let's avail ourselves of those wonderfully useful orthographic hooks, scare quotes, and say that "God" began speaking to him in a beam of pink light, and also out of the Beatles' song "Strawberry Fields." Amongst many other things "God" told him that first century Rome and twentieth century California existed in a supratemporal superposition, that Dick himself was actually the apostle Simon, or perhaps Thomas (a first century Christian, or else a thought-control device implanted by the CIA), or a spirit entity called "Firebright," or Buddha; told him his kid had a hernia; and told him that the FBI and the Moscow KGB (the latter via a long-distance telepathic ray) were persecuting him. These messages, he believed, emanated from a "Vast Active Living Intelligence System" located in outer space. Dick, who before he was anything—even before he was a new messiah—was a writer, responded to this circumstance in the first instance precisely by writing. He scribbled half a million words of account, analysis, and interpretation; a document known as the Exegesis (only small selections of this have been published, posthumously). He also cast the material in fictional, or autobiographically semi-fictional form, in a late burst of creative writing—most notably the VALIS trilogy: VALIS (1981), The Divine Invasion (1980), The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982).
Library of America's new edition of this trilogy (together with an earlier but similarly religious-themed novel, 1970's A Maze of Death) follows their two very successful previous anthologies of Dickian fiction, both, like this, edited by the estimable Jonathan Lethem. The first (Four Novels of the 1960s) appeared in 2007, and was reviewed in Strange Horizons here; the second (Five Novels of the 1960s and 1970s) in 2008. VALIS and Later Novels is as handsome a piece of book-production as the previous two: neatly printed on onionskinny paper ("acid-free lightweight opaque") and bound in cloth boards: both durable and readable. It's not flawless, mind. Unusually for LoA the text contains uncorrected typos ("isreally" for "is really," p. 188; "arc" for "are," p. 209) and Lethem's annotation is a little eccentrically applied. He gives us hundreds and hundreds of words, and several pages, of gloss on a throwaway reference to "the T34 tank and the battle of Kursk" (p. 198), but no footnote at all to explain references such as—to pick a few examples from VALIS—"Hermes Trismegistus" (p. 451), "splenolus" (p. 479), "Bialik" (p. 482), "amicus curae" (p. 511), or many others. But you might think that such eccentricity suits the volume. Certainly, if you have more than a passing interest in PKD, these are the editions you will want to own.
As with the earlier volumes, LoA house-style means no introduction or preface, although a detailed 15-page chronology fills in some of the necessary biographical background. Here's Lethem's account of the events of 1974:
In February, after oral surgery for an impacted wisdom tooth, during which he is given sodium pentothal, [PKD] experiences the first of a sequence of overwhelming visions that will last through and intensify during March, then taper intermittently throughout the year. Interpretation of these revelations, which are variously ascribed to benign and malign influences both religious and political (including but not limited to God, Gnostic Christians, the Roman Empire, Bishop Pike [a friend of Dick's who had died in 1969], and the KGB), will preoccupy Dick for much of his remaining life. "It hasn't spoken a word to me since I wrote The Divine Invasion. The voice is identified as Ruah, which is the Old Testament word for the Spirit of God. It speaks in a feminine voice and tends to express statements regarding the messianic expectation. It guided me for a while. It has spoken to me sporadically since I was in high school. I expect that if a crisis arises it will say something again . . . " He begins writing speculative commentary on what he comes to call "2-3-74." (pp. 833-34)
VALIS gives a detailed account of all this, skewed only minimally into fictional form. The book's deuteragonists are "Philip Dick" and an alter ego named, in a piece of rather tiresome etymological whimsy (via the Greek of PKD's first name, and the Deutsch of his surname) "Horselover Fat." I suppose we can be thankful it wasn't Equinophile Thick. This schizoid conceit is leavened by some metafictional play, such that the details of "Philip Dick's" life (unmarried and childless) do not map onto those of the actual Philip K. Dick; "Horselover Fat," at one point, ceases to exist. In the novel Fat is the one who has the revelation from God; and he, together with Dick and a couple of other friends, try to make sense of it. They finds clues buried in a commercial motion picture, called Valis, made by a rock star "Eric Lampton," and his wife Linda—based upon Bowie's The Man Who Fell to Earth. In the novel, though, Fat, Dick and friends visit Lampton and meet a preternaturally eloquent young girl called "Sophia" (that is: "wisdom"). It seems that the messiah is actually in the world; but then Sophia dies, and Fat goes off around the world to uncover the "fifth" saviour.
Some critics think very highly of VALIS. I must demur. When I first read it, last century, I found it sticky and rather baffling. Re-reading it in this edition I think I've identified what the problem is. It is massively boring. The reader must become as fascinated with the scattershot minutiae of Dick's mania or else she will find herself abandoned in a wilderness of barren assertion and speculation. To be precise, there is an interesting novel struggling somewhere under this crush of unpalatable horseflesh—a novel that does for 1970s California religious excess what A Scanner Darkly does for 1970s West Coast drug culture. But its ankles are broken, and its heart gives out, trying to transport Dick's dead-weight "Exegesis," undigested chunks of which, some very lengthy, litter the text. What's so indigestible about this material is its beady-eyed seriousness: "The Sybil of Cumae protected the Roman Republic," we are told: "in the first century C.E. she foresaw the murders of the Kennedy brothers, Dr King and Bishop Pike." To which the likeliest response is, "no, she didn't." The worst of it is von Däniken lite:
The primordial source of all our religions lies with the ancestors of the Dogon tribe, who got their cosmogony directly from the three eyed invaders who visited long ago. The three eyed invaders are mute and deaf and telepathic, could not breathe our atmosphere, had the elongated misshapen skull of Ikhnaton, and emanated from a planet in the star-system Sirius. (pp. 396-7)
But a good deal of it is Dick's own mystic-mumbo-jumbo cosmic narrative; "Two realms there are, upper and lower. The upper, derived from hyperuniverse I or Yang, Form I of Parmenides, is sentient and volitional. The lower realm, or Yin, Form II of Parmenides, is mechanical, driven by blind, efficient cause" (p. 283); "the psyche of hyperuniverse I sent a micro-form of itself into hyperuniverse II to attempt to heal it. The microform was apparent in our universe as Jesus Christ" (p. 255); "Real time ceased in 70 C.E. with the fall of the temple at Jerusalem. It began again in 1974 C.E. The intervening period was a perfectly spurious interpolation aping the creation of the Mind" (p. 322). Archaic syntax ("two realms there are") recurs like a nervous tic; as do liberal sprinklings of Latin (pretentiously, PKD subtitles his "Exegesis" Tractates Cryptica Scriptura), both symptomatic of autodidact unselfconfidence, a kind of overcompensation. It backfires—these things don't actually lend gravitas or a sense of timelessness, they just look nervily pretentious. Quite apart from anything else, timelessness and gravitas are not the currency of Dick's visions: "He came across a part of the Book of Daniel which he believed depicted Nixon. 'In the last days of those kingdoms,/When their sin is at its heart,/A king shall appear, harsh and grim, a master of stratagem'" (p. 319). Little dates so rapidly, and catastrophically, as politically specific interpretations of Biblical prophecy.
It is true that VALIS considers multiple possible explanations for 2-3-74, including the idea that Dick (or "Fat") is simply insane; but the book rejects this on the counter-intuitive grounds that such a diagnosis would be "reassuring." The focus here is whether 2-3-74 is a function of one consciousness, or of the nature of reality itself, and we're left in no doubt that Dick considers the latter the right explanation. "It didn't matter what the explanation was," says Dick; "what had now been established was that Fat's March 1974 experience was real" (p. 318). He qualifies himself immediately ("Okay; it mattered what the explanation was") but refuses to give up the reality: "at least one thing had been proved: Fat might be clinically crazy but he was locked into reality—a reality of some kind, although certainly not the normal one" (p. 318). This is demoralizing stuff for any true Dick-head. The sense that what in earlier PKD had been a brilliant, intuitive deconstruction of the conventional model of "illusion-and-reality" (that, in a nutshell, it really is turtles all the way down) has here been decanted back into old Gnostic bottles. Though our reality is false there is a true reality just behind the veil. "It had now been proved . . . " is a little startling, too, suggesting as it does not only that Dick has a looser sense of "proof" than most people, but that he rated "proof," in that sense, at all.
In sum, VALIS is a novel of prodigious, almost heroic tedium. To say so, actually, is not entirely to dismiss it. On the contrary, we might want to argue that this actually grounds the book's distinctiveness. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, probably the best critic ever to write on PKD, puts it very well:
For Dick the connections amongst religious gnosis, ethical double-blinds and mental disturbances were drawn ever tighter as his career progressed. In this he shared one of the cherished beliefs of his beloved German Romantics. But Dick's gods are not remote, magnificent aliens; they work on the most prosaic level conceivable. There is no sublime in Dick's fiction. Nature has all but disappeared. For Dick, banality is as much an aspect of our fallen state as death is. (Csicsery-Ronay, review of Philip K. Dick: Contemporary Critical Interpretations by Samuel J. Umland; Science Fiction Studies, 22:3 , p. 431)
It's difficult to think of another writer, or theologian, who gives us this insight into precisely the ordinariness of religious revelation—a thrilling banality perhaps, but a banality nonetheless. The overwhelming majority of the world's population have religious beliefs of one sort or another, after all. Divine revelation is, in fact, the most ordinary human thing of all. VALIS's scrambled narrative, littered with facts from Dick's free-associative reading, formally embodies a kind of messiness of revelation, one that tugs sharply against his putative urge towards oppressive pantheist unity ("One Mind there is . . . the Immortal One whom we worship without knowing his name"). In the mess, and at the prosaic level, are those portions of the novel it is easier to love: some deft characterization differentiating Dick/Fat's friends; some natty dialogue, some leavening humour. But they are the parts furthest away from the bindweed of 2-3-74 and its elaboration, and the latter chokes the novel.
But a shift of balance of the treatment of exactly the same material only a little, the elevation of contingency to the level of plot and the downplaying of the bullying interpretive instinct, makes The Divine Invasions a much more effective novel. Conceived by Dick as a sequel to VALIS, it recasts the Exegetical material as a more palatably distanced sciencefictional narrative. Herb Asher, a Dick-figure, lives in an individual dome on the planet CY30 II . In the next dome along is Rybys Ronmey. She, although suffering from cancer and, despite being a virgin, is pregnant with the new messiah. The prophet Elija informs the two of them that they must smuggle the child to Earth; but this is no easy task. Earth is governed by a combined Communist party/Christian church organisation, the followers of whom mistakenly worship the wicked demiurge instead of the true god. Global governance is effected via "Big Noodle," a sort of sentient Internet. Herb and Rybys fly to Earth and get past customs, but their air-taxi crashes, killing Rybys and putting Herb in a coma, in which he relives his former life on CY30 II. The child, though, is transferred to a synthetic womb; it is born, named Emmanuel, and goes to school. The authorities think it suffered brain damage as a result of the accident, although actually it is God that has deliberately forgotten its divinity.
This all works better because it is able to dramatise the ordinariness of its messianic premise, a dramatically compelling sense of divine contingency and precariousness. It's still a fairly ropey novel, mind you: the Marxist-theological world government material is never very believable, and its storyline (conspiracy and plotting) poorly integrated into the plot; and the shape of the story, which shoves the novel into a showdown conclusion, rather undersells the sly comedy and existential slapstick of the first half. But the book's uniquely Dickian associative leaps more often than not redeem its imaginarium from conventionality. The wicked god-of-this-world, Belial, appears conventionally enough as a bestial goat-creature—but then, neatly, Dick reimagines him as an enormous, broken, luminous kite. Most of all, it does not bore the reader.
Timothy Archer, a "mainstream" novel rather than an SF text, is also very far from boring, although it is rather unlike the other two VALIS trilogy novels, covering rather different ground in a considerably more rational and controlled tone. Archer is based on Dick's friend, the Episcopalian bishop of California James Pike, who had died in the Middle East in 1969, searching for historical evidence of Christ's life. The novel is narrated by Archer's daughter-in-law Angel; and her voice inoculates the novel against the contagion of the virulent boredom of the 2-3-74 matter. It still informs the book, but in a much less oppressive way than is the case for VALIS. It is, like that earlier book, littered with intellectual lumber, orts and scraps of literature, philosophy, and theology picked up by Dick in his omnivorous reading; but here the intellectual superstructure does not overbalance the characters or the story.
The real theme of the book is the effect the dead have upon the lives, and souls, of the living; and the replacement of SF elements with more sociologically observed spiritual components—prayer, séance, ghostly possession—is, whilst not wholly free of the taint of the loonies, much more fictively effective. The low level anguish of Archer's existence—his affair with one of Angel's friends, his alienation from his church, the suicide of his son—comes over as compelling precisely because Dick avoids the grandiose idiom of VALIS. By the same token, and unlike Divine Invasion, the novel cannot quite stir up the antic, peculiar, creative turbulence that characterizes Dick at his best. It would be nice to call this novel, the last Dick published, his 2-3-74 masterpiece, not least because, in contrast to the consciously or unconsciously poisonous female characters of the other books it has, in Angel, a properly rounded woman. But it fails to come alight.
A Maze of Death is perhaps a strange choice for a fourth text to include in this compendium (Flow My Tears or A Scanner Darkly would have been a better fit if they hadn't already been included in Lethem's 2008 volume; but wouldn't Radio Free Albemuth or Lies, Inc. have made more sense here?) Not that its republication is unwelcome. Written and published long before 2-3-74, it is wonderfully ramshackle stuff, with the genuine, animating Dickian tang. Characters living in a universe where God is a scientific fact, accessibly through a real and material "intercessor," gather on a dead-end planet called Delmak-O; they are supposed to be settlers, but actually spend their time bickering amongst themselves whilst, one by one, members of the group are murdered. Trying to get to the bottom of this unpleasant turn of events, they journey into the jungle and find a strange motile city which each of them perceives differently. They ask an oracular native form of life various questions about their predicament and get undigested chunks of the I Ching in reply. One character, Seth Morley, comes to believe that Delmak-O is a sham, and that they are actually on Earth. This appears more and more likely, until the moment Dick pulls an ill-judged "it was all a dream!" twist-ending out of the hat: the characters discover that they are trapped on a marooned spacecraft, passing the time in an immersive virtual reality.
It sounds odd to say it, but the novel's best feature is precisely its clumsiness, or perhaps it would be better to say its artlessness. Given that God is a real presence in this cosmos, it's striking how rubbish everything is. The characters exist in a quaintly dated-even-by-1970s-standards future—Seth dissects a miniature robotic device using a microscope and discovers "resistors, condensers, valves" —full of shonky kit (like disposable spaceships designed for one-way travel), incompetence, and amateurism. Much of the novel has an endearingly fumbling, made-up-on-the-spot vibe, and compared to the post 2-3-74 novels its theology is deceptively simple. Rather sweetly, Dick adds a po-faced preface:
The theology of this novel is not an analog of any known religion. It stems from an attempt made by William Sarill and myself to develop an abstract, logical system of religious thought based on the arbitrary postulate that God exists.
Since the theology of the novel, as a fictional gloss on Episcopalian Christianity, could hardly be more conventional—between God and Man stands an intercessor motivated by love and ready to offer forgiveness to those who approach him—I take this to be ironic. In point of fact nothing in this novel is "abstract, logical, and systematic." It would hardly be so wonderful if it were. (I believe in the Flying Spaghetti monster, but I shall put my belief aside and erect an abstract, logical system of religious thought rigorously derived from the arbitrary postulate that God exists. Well, since there's a God s/he must be fundamental, hence superstrings, hence spaghetti. And since s/he intervenes in the universe s/he must have a means of doing so, hence a noodly appendage. And violà, purely by disinterested logic I have arrived back where I started.) It may be jerry-built, but at least this novel escapes the curse of "One Mind there is" 2-3-74ism.
There remains a taboo in Philip K. Dick scholarship about using the "m" word. Here's Gregg Rickman:
I do not think Phil Dick was mad, or crazy, or any of those lovely labels some are anxious to apply. Anxious to apply as then he would be explained away; and then the power of his visions, the piercing clarity of his writing, at its finest, the way his best works demonstrates that it is our time which is out of joint: then he will be dismissable. (To the High Castle: Philip K. Dick, a life, 1928-1962 , p. xxiii)
The clumsy sarcasm in "lovely" aside, this follows Dick's Exegetical lead that explaining 2-3-74 in terms of "madness" would be in some sense "reassuring" or "too convenient." I confess I don't see that it would. "Mad" has no more dismissive or explanatory power as a word, than does—say—visionary. Besides, "visionary" (the blurb on the back of this volume calls Dick "an irreplaceable American visionary") doesn't seem to me to characterize Dick's later books very well. For one thing he is simply not a writer who foregrounds the visual; and for another, his emphasis is rarely on the transcendent moment itself. He is much more interested in the ancillary, belated conversational and discursive attempts to make sense of peculiar experience.
It is a mistake to think that "madness" has anything in common with "nonsensical." On the contrary, a too-strenuous effort precisely to make sense is most characteristic of madness. Certainly that intellectually fidgety, remorseless, tedious process governs these later books. Calling Dick "mad" is neither to explain away nor dismiss his work, because the madness, or otherwise, of the author is really besides the point. It is the effectiveness of the art that matters here. My problem with Dick's post 2-3-74 writing is that, irrespective of the state of mind of the author, it lacks the metaphorical clarity of Dick's best 1960s writing. Indeed, the VALIS trilogy positively revels in opacity. There are, I daresay, readers who find in these novels' explosion of chaff an eloquent articulation of a genuinely divine cloud of unknowing. I don't.
Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.