LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS… The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick

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on the career of Philip K. Dick,
up to and including The Exegesis.


Philip K. Dick © Chuck Hodi http://etsy.me/w3JoRt

Philip K. Dick
The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick

Eds. Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, November 2011. 944 pp.

_____. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
1964. Mariner, October 2011. 240 pp.

_____. Ubik
1969. Mariner, April 2012. 240 pp.

_____. VALIS
1981. Mariner, October 2011. 288 pp.

_____. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer
1982. Mariner, October 2011. 256 pp.

When Philip K. Dick died in 1982 of a series of strokes brought on by years of overwork and amphetamine abuse, he was seen within the science fiction genre as a cult author of idiosyncratic works treating themes of synthetic selfhood and near-future dystopia, an intriguing if essentially second-rank talent. At the time, he was more popular in France and Japan, which have always had a taste for America’s pop culture detritus, than he was in his native country. Thirty years later, Dick — known to his most avid fans simply by his initials “PKD” — has developed a reputation as, among other things: a baleful chronicler of Bay Area working-class angst, thanks to a series of previously unpublished realist works written during the 1950s and early 1960s, such as Humpty Dumpty in Oakland; a postmodernist avant la lettre, due to his delirious explorations of deliquescent mindscapes in novels like Eye in the Sky and Martian Time-Slip, which Vintage began reprinting in imposing trade paperback editions in 1991; a godfather of cyberpunk via Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, adapted from Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; and a kind of Gnostic magus gifted with quasi-divine revelations that came to inform his final novels, beginning with VALIS in 1981. During the last decade of his life, Dick produced an 8,000-page opus of theological speculation known simply as the Exegesis, which struggled to come to grips with what seemed to be mystical experiences, and which editors Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem have now culled into Houghton Mifflin’s massive doorstop of a book.

A more appropriate metaphor might be “kitchen sink of a book,” since Dick, an omnivorous autodidact, threw all of his intellectual resources at the problem of deciphering the events he referred to simply as “2-3-74” — because the sequence of hallucinatory revelations commenced in February and March of that fateful year. For those given to psycho-biographical explanations, 1974 was the culmination for Dick of a decade of counterculture paranoia spawned by a hermetic hippie lifestyle and punctuated by occasional flirtations with antiwar protest. Always suspicious of lurking authority, Dick became convinced, during the early 1970s, that he was the focus of a loose-knit, evolving conspiracy linking the IRS, the FBI, Soviet agents, left wing American academics, and the hated Nixon administration. Recovering from oral surgery in February 1974, pumped full of Darvon, lithium, and massive quantities of megavitamins, he began experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations initially sparked by a Christian girl’s fish-icon necklace but eventually taking the form of a pink laser shooting highly coded information into his opened mind during a series of hypnogogic visitations. Over time, the intrepid author developed an elaborate vocabulary to describe the transfiguring effects of these extraterrestrial dispatches. According to this private argot, on 2-3-74 Dick underwent a powerful anamnesis, stimulated by mystical contact with “VALIS” (“Vast Active Living Intelligence System,” sometimes also called “Zebra” or, more simply, “God”), that unshackled his genetic memory, permitting him to see through the “Black Iron Prison” of our world into the “macrometasomacosmos,” the “morphological realm” of the Platonic Eidos, in the process revealing himself to be a “homoplasmate,” an incarnation of the Gnostic Logos subsisting in “orthogonal time.”

I won’t attempt to translate this complex mash of Greek, Latin, and Phildickian terminology, instead referring curious readers to Jackson and Lethem’s helpful glossary at the end of the book and the excellent annotations coordinated by Erik Davis, as well as to the balanced and compassionate discussion in Lawrence Sutin’s superb 1989 biography, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick. In 1991, Sutin shepherded an earlier version of the Exegesis into print as In Pursuit of VALIS: Selections from the Exegesis, which sifted Dick’s mountain of soul-searching meditations into a modest pile of fragments one quarter the length of the current tome. Published by small-press imprint Underwood Miller, that book’s schizophrenic assembly wavered between scholarly precision and New Age special pleading, with Sutin’s foreword and Jay Kinney’s introduction meticulously tracing connections between the author’s life and the history of Gnostic theology, while Terrence McKenna’s loopy (and shamelessly self-promoting) afterword hailed the text as an emanation of godhood. This New Age connection was not entirely inappropriate: Dick himself, in his 1982 novel The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, flirted with McKenna’s theory that psilocybin mushrooms had been seeded on earth to trigger the psychic evolution of mankind; and one way to view the Exegesis is as a painful testament to the transition of the communal counterculture of the 1960s into the solipsistic ethos of grandiose self-invention characteristic of the 1970s, especially in Dick’s native California.

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  1. memri reblogged this from crematedadolescent and added:
    I walk past this book at Powell’s every day, and gave my friend a 20% discount on it just the other day.
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  10. feathernotdot reblogged this from lareviewofbooks and added:
    This was amazing to read. Great insight to PKD
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    LA review of books has been killing it this week.
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