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by James Sallis

I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick, by Emmanuel Carrère, translated by Timothy Bent, Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2004, $26.

IN HIS controversial landmark essay "Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans," Stanislaw Lem remarked that "Philip Dick does not lead his critics an easy life, since he does not so much play the part of a guide through his phantasmagoric worlds as he gives the impression of one lost in their labyrinth."

The biographer fares no better. There have been three previous biographies: Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick by Lawrence Sutin, Only Apparently Real by Paul Williams, and To the High Castle: Philip K. Dick: A Life by Gregg Rickman. This latest, ably translated from the French by Timothy Bent, may be by far the best, living up, I think, to its subtitle, "A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick." Emmanuel Carrère, author of three fine novels, The Mustache, Class Trip, and Gothic Romance, and an equally compelling nonfiction book, The Adversary, for the most part eschews criticism, focusing on the man behind the books; of the work, there are only brief synopses and cross-references.

And what is one—as reader, or as biographer—to make of that man?

One day in November of 1963 he looks up to see a gigantic, robotic face full of malice staring down at him from the sky. Shaken and unable to throw off the vision, believing that "the inner psychic mechanism whose function it was to filter reality had shut down," he consults a psychiatrist, to whom he relates a John Collier story. The universe, Collier wrote, is a pint of beer and the galaxies nothing but rising bubbles. A few people living in one of the bubbles happen to see the guy pouring the beer, and for them nothing will ever be the same again.

Another image: Phil Dick as the consummate hack, churning out work for low-end publishers, typing The End and immediately rolling another page onto the platen, lighting one novel (as he put it) off the smoldering end of the last.

Or the soon-to-be counterculture hero of Paul Williams's 1974 Rolling Stone article, holding forth on conspiracies, break-ins, dopers, Russian assassins, John Birchers, and federal agents.

Dark angel of science fiction. Breakdancer upside down on reality's floor. Tortured artist strip-mined by Hollywood for blockbuster movie plots.

So many images of Phil Dick.

And even those images of self he carried in his own mind (alongside, it must be said, an occasional passenger or two, one of whom professed to speak an ancient Greek dialect) cohabited in uneasy alliance, discrete and out of synch, like a 3D movie watched without glasses.

"Phil was not quite the detached intellectual that he would have liked to appear," Carrère writes; he was also a conscience-ridden believer who trembled at the thought of hell and believed God spoke to him, if not directly, then obliquely. "Within him was a man inspired by God, who had chosen him to carry His word to late-twentieth-century America. But there was another man in him as well, a man who never tired of denouncing the illusions that the other man, the Inspired One, was all too willing to succumb to."

He was also the man who in the fifties, in a matter of years, turned out a dozen or so mainstream novels, nine science fiction books, and at least seventy stories. (Weeks after winning the Hugo for The Man in the High Castle, he received all those mainstream novels from his agent, who had been unable to place them and declined to represent him henceforth on anything but science fiction.)

The man who at one point in the sixties was ingesting a thousand tablets of Methedrine and forty milligrams of Stelazine a day.

Who in 1972, following a blank two weeks after attendance at a science fiction convention, came to himself in a psychiatric hospital and began to weave the wind-tossed strands back together, to repair "the program called Philip K. Dick."

And who, two years later, underwent the experience that was to haunt him the rest of his life: a pink light going off like a flash in his head, a visitation. This prompted eight years of study and note-taking, of which notes at least eight thousand pages remain, and served as inspiration and impetus for the final novels: We Can Build You, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, A Scanner Darkly, Valisystem A (Radio Free Albemuth), and what is often referred to as the VALIS trilogy, comprising VALIS, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.

Phil Dick had by this time, Carrère informs us, lived a previous life in A.D. 70, helped run Nixon the anti-Christ out of the White House, diagnosed his son's hernia when doctors could not, been singled out by Russian mind-controllers as a target and by God as a messenger. He had experienced sudden, blinding flashes of insight and a vastation to equal Tolstoy's.

What, then, was left out there? And so Phil Dick turned inward, to that center toward which everything, as to a drain, circles, taking Whitman's admonition

To me the converging objects of
the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must
get what the writing means
perhaps too literally. Interpretation of the myriad arcane patterns about him became his grail. Lights climbing a dark wall, passing comments on radio programs, the lyrics of pop songs: nothing swam into his ken at random, it all connected, it all signified. And if so seemingly innocent an object as the fish-shaped necklace worn by a door-to-door solicitor fairly creaked with its load of meaning, then his life too, the whole pattern of his life, must bear a similar insensible weight. It was left to him only to divine the code.

Altogether too much discussion of Phil Dick's life begins and ends there, and it is to Carrère's credit that he does not give the pink light and its sequelae undue emphasis, seeing it not as a fulcrum point, a breakwater, but as simply another station on the line of a life filled with odd perceptions and cognitions.

Had Phil Dick been visited by a vast, active, living, and intelligent system, as he sometimes claimed? Was the pink light another message from God, or the avatar of a new visitor like Thomas, who had lived with Dick side-by-side in his head for three full months in the sixties? Had he, like his character Horselover Fat from VALIS, "totally lost touch with reality"? Or was this nothing more than Dick's compulsive storytelling and mythologizing shifting into high gear?

"People are crazy," Robertson Davies wrote, "for some sort of assurance that the visible world is not the only world, which is an almost intolerable state of mind."

Perhaps Phil believed all the explanations he spun out in ensuing years, or rather at different moments maybe he believed first one, then the other. Does it matter, finally? Phil Dick acted as he did, wrote what he did. He had always been capable of astonishing feats of negative capability, able to hold at one and the same time any number of conflicting notions and to believe them all, like the juggler who, rushing back and forth between wobbling sticks, keeps a dozen plates spinning. Now he was in the business for keeps.

Out on the edge is where Phil Dick always wound up, out there on the border, in the badlands where outer and inner—the individual who is a world to himself, and the world of everything else—meet.

Stanislaw Lem observed that in Dick's work the deepest levels of meaning are "not so much overtly present in as summoned up by the text," and that Dick presented us not with finished accomplishments but with "fascinating promises." Phil Dick, it seems, began to feel the same way about his life. It was a promise, a message, a text to be read.

In his afterword to a recent edition of VALIS, Kim Stanley Robinson remarks that "his writing from 1970 on is more and more concerned with self-understanding, which in Dick was, perhaps, always most lucid in the fiction itself…each novel of the 1970s and '80s represents an experiment, a new start, a new struggle for a method that would properly express the tumultuous life within." VALIS, Robinson writes, is the record of "a mind that had pulled itself back together, after struggling on the brink."

Tim Powers and K. W. Jeter were friends of Phil's in those late years.

Powers: "The changes he underwent during his last ten years were gradual, and in a good direction. Right from when I met him in March or April of '72, he was very funny and good-natured.… He was the same guy after those 1974 experiences as he had been before—but with a specific direction now in his philosophical and religious speculations."

Speculations, Jeter insists, being the operative word here: "I feel that the 'changes' in Phil stemming from 1974 are more mythologizing, much of it Phil's own.… People mistake Phil's voluminous musings about what might have happened in 1974 with Phil's conclusions about what actually did happen in 1974; on one hand, Phil indulged to the max his proclivities as a writer of fantastic fiction, while on the other hand he maintained a pretty healthy skepticism about those events, if they happened at all."

It's altogether possible that some readers will feel too much of Carrère's biography to be speculative—freewheeling conjecture of a novelistic sort. For he does write as a novelist, delivering the reader directly to the shifting physical and mental textures of Phil Dick's life. Others may believe the religious element overdone, the lineaments of religiosity in Dick's personal and creative life too starkly drawn, as in this sad, late commentary, which also well represents the book's general tenor:

God spoke to him no more. He had almost no more visions, and he dreamed less, too. Depending on how he felt, he saw this abandonment either as a new test of faith on the road to his salvation, as a sign of the Adversary's final victory, or as a return to lucidity after a long bout of delirium.

Philip K. Dick's achievements are beyond question, as is the oddness of his mind. He created a corpus of work the like of which the world will not see again, fiercely original, shot with brilliance, storming forever the barricades of the ordinary and throwing into question every last thing we think we know. Emmanuel Carrère's achievement is in representing that mind in all its brilliance, all its strangeness, all its vagaries, deflections, and uncertainties. That is not simply good biography; it is writing of the finest, most enduring sort.

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