Sunday, November 7, 2010

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick by Lawrence Sutin

“This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them killed — but they continued to play anyhow.”

The quote above is actually from A Scanner Darkly, not Divine Invasions (not be confused with The Divine Invasion, a novel by Dick), but it seems like such an appropriate summation of PKD’s life story that I couldn’t leave it out. As the title indicates, Divine Invasions is a biography, unauthorized, of one Philip K. Dick, author, counterculture hero, drug addict, schizophrenic, possible misogynist, hypochondriac, possible genius. But for those who don’t read past the first paragraph, here’s my summation of Divine Invasions: You can learn nearly as much about PKD from his novels as you can from this book, and the man who emerges is both fantastical and sort of terrible.

I try to avoid personal anecdotes in these reviews, but it seems appropriate to place myself somewhere in the pantheon of PKD fandom. I’ve read two of his novels, A Scanner Darkly and VALIS, seen one movie based on his work, Minority Report, and few short stories. I wouldn’t say I was the target audience for this book, but after reading VALIS, I was curious about the man behind it.

PKD was born in Chicago in 1928, along with a twin sister, Jane, who died six weeks later. Dick’s father, Edgar, left his mother when he was young, and thoughout the rest of his life, PKD’s contact with his father was minimal. His relationship with his mother was strained, running hot and cold. He began writing fiction while still in middle school, and by the time he was in his late 20s, he was working full time as a writer, barely eking out a living in the newborn gutter of science fiction. After several marriages, a lot of drugs, and a volume of work that makes the aspiring author shrink to think of it, he died of a stroke in 1982.

Biographies are tough to review because it’s hard to condense someone’s life down to the bare bones without sounding like an obit, but I’d like to focus on what was both the most fascinating aspect of PKD, the man, and the dullest of Divine Invasions: the visions. In my review of VALIS, I go into some detail concerning the imaginary cosmology of Horselover Fat, the novel’s protagonist who is also PKD. I didn’t realize, however, that Fat’s visions in VALIS were not fictionalized at all. They were taken whole cloth from Dick’s largest (unpublished) work Exegesis, which was over 3000 pages long at the time of his death, and was, in my opinion, the chronicle of a man slowly losing his grip on reality.

Divine Invasions goes into some detail on the content of the Exegesis—the final 3rd of the book is mostly dedicated to it--and while it’s interesting in theory, after a while, it gets to be a bit of a slog. Sutin will quote a section, explain how it related to PKD’s life, and speculate on whether or not Dick was actually learning about the ultimate truth or if he was just crazy. Perhaps an interesting book could be made out of this. Unfortunately, Divine Invasions is not it. The last 3rd starts well, but gets bogged down in this repetitive pattern it never really breaks out of. It’s interesting to read about the bizarre things that happened in PKD’s life; it’s less interesting to read about how he thought he caused it while possessed by the spirit of the prophet Elijah.

The other issue I have with Divine Invasions is one of tone. Sutin is clearly a huge fan of PKD’s work, and he makes this clear from the beginning. As a result, portions of the book read almost like a hagiography, with Sutin using Dick’s fixation of his sister’s death, his volatile relationship with his mother, et al. to justify, in part, some of the stupid or just plain malicious PKD did, like beating at least two of his wives. This might be ok, except Sutin seems to want to have his cake and eat it too—although he admits Dick might be crazy, and therefore not entirely to blame for his less forgivable episodes, he also wants to attribute some amount of veracity to Dick’s ever-changing visions. Brief consideration near the end of the novel, where Sutin mentions possible mental conditions that could have caused Dick’s visions, don’t counterbalance the suggestion throughout the rest of the work that PKD was more than a troubled soul—he was some sort of sci-fi prophet.

Divine Invasions isn’t terrible. It’s well-written and Dick’s life was certainly interesting. Ultimately though, it seems a little pointless—you can read about PKD’s crazy life on Wikipedia, his visions in VALIS, and his drug addiction in A Scanner Darkly, and probably enjoy yourself more. Why not get the information from the man himself? It’s not like he tried to hide who he was.

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