Tuesday, December 25, 2012

VALIS by Philip K. Dick

The distinction between sanity and insanity is narrower than the razor's edge, sharper than a hound's tooth, more agile than a mule deer.  It is more elusive than the merest phantom.  Perhaps it does not even exist; perhaps it is a phantom.

VALIS is simultaneously the most bizarre and the least fantastical book of Philip K. Dick's I've ever read.  It is bizarre because it is about a man, Horselover Fat, who has prophetic visions implanted in him by a benign force through a pink beam of light.  It is not fantastical because it is, almost to the letter, completely autobiographical.

Dick makes no effort to conceal the fact that Fat is himself; he announces it in the first couple of pages.  "Horselover" is a translation of the Greek word Philippos, and dick is the German word for "fat."  And yet in his capacity as narrator, Dick speaks to the man he lovingly calls "Horse," interacts with him, tries to guide him through a long series of griefs that include the suicide and cancer deaths of friends, divorce and alienation.  When Dick says, "I am Horselover Fat, and I am writing this in the third person to gain much-needed objectivity," we are in the uncomfortable space between the canny tricks of an accomplished writer and the neurosis of a madman.

But that's one of the most interesting questions VALIS tackles: what separates sanity from insanity?  If Dick admits that he, as Fat, has become unhinged, does that somehow make him less unhinged?  The pink beam that hits Fat reveals to him, piecemeal, a religious cosmogony that he records as a massive exegesis, like Dick did in his own life.  It is a semi-Christian, explicitly Gnostic theology that says that the years between 103 and 1974 AD were imaginary and that the times of the Roman Empire still continue behind the illusory 20th century.  But it also says that the world is inherently irrational, created by an irrational God (this is a quintessential Gnostic tenet) and that the pink light, beamed in by what Dick calls "God," "Zebra," and "VALIS" in turn, is a rational source breaking in through the irrationality.  This source is not divine but human, transmitted by a group of our beneficent kin who never let themselves slip into the mad, unreal world in which we live.

I do not think, as Dick did, that he received information from three-eyed humans residing near the star Fomalhaut.  But there are ideas in here that are compelling, that cannot be dismissed as one man's quackery, and that seem to me to be genuine and heartfelt responses to deep suffering.  I have immense sympathy for anyone who has come to believe that the universe is essentially irrational.  What is most remarkable to me is Dick's ambivalence about whether his/Horselover Fat's cosmogony is sense or sheer senselessness, and the nakedness with which he seems to confess that the fictionalization of his experiences, and perhaps his entire  career as a science fiction writer, represent a desperate attempt to corral the world into sense:

You can understand why Fat no longer knew the difference between fantasy and divine revelation--assuming there is a difference, which has never been established.  He imagiend that Zebra came from a planet in the star-system Sirius, had overthrown the Nixon tyranny in August 1974, and would eventually set up a just and peaceful kingdom on Earth where there would be no sickness, no pain, no loneliness, and the animals would dance with joy.

It is the highest praise I can give the novel that, while I was reading it--and perhaps even now--I couldn't differentiate between fantasy and divine revelation.  The second highest praise I can give it is that, though it serves mostly as a frame for the presentation of Dick's cosmogony, it remains a highly entertaining and deeply moving novel.  The mixture of grief and humor Dick applies to Fat's life is some of his best satire.  Here's Fat's suicide attempt:

What had saved his life initially emanated from a defect in the choke of his car; the choke hadn't opened properly as the engine warmed, and finally the engine had stalled.  Fat had made his way unsteadily back to the house and lain down on his bed to die.  The next morning he woke up, still alive, and begun to vomit up the digitalis.  That was the second thing which saved him.  The third thing came in teh form of all the paramedics in the world removing the glass and aluminum sliding door at the rear of Fat's house.  Fat had phoned his pharmacy somewhere along the line to get a refill on his Librium prescription; he had taken thirty Librium just before taking the digitalis.  The pharmacist had contact the paramedics.  A lot can be said for the infinite mercies of God, but the smarts of a good pharmacist, when you get down to it, is worth more.

I particularly liked the cynicism of Fat's skeptical friend Kevin, and the incredibly dark humor of Sherri, the awful, parasitic cancer patient that repays Fat's kindness with utter cruelty.  The book's second half, which becomes more clearly fictional (and includes plot elements lifted from Dick's first attempt to fictionalize his exegesis, Radio Free Albemuth), is unpredictable and absorbing: Fat and his friends make contact with a two-year old girl, Sophia, who seems to be the earthly avatar of VALIS who commissions them as her emissaries on Earth.

Certainly Dick felt that way--did he, or did he believe, that he had met someone like Sophia?  Or is the book's latter half merely a madman's rationalization his mad philosophy?  The book ends in an unsettlingly ambiguous place, and that its ambiguity speaks for Dick's rationality and reflectiveness makes it no less difficult to evaluate.  As we rev up for "a national discussion on mental illness," I value VALIS, as I do One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, for its urgent reminder that mental illness and mental health are not clear opposites, and that prophets and geniuses are not always easily indistinguishable from madmen.

Brent also reviewed this book in 2010.

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