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I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick by Emmanuel Carrère (Trans. Timothy Bent)

This is, as the author himself puts it, “a very peculiar book,”  but for me, it was an unusually quick read, I think partly because of its very oddness.

First, the good: I found it fascinating. I found it fascinating how Carrère sketches out what he understands to be the relationship between Dick’s life and his writing, a pattern that immediately brought to mind Rudy Rucker’s notion of transreal fiction — fiction that is essentially SFnalized autobiography — as he discusses it in this essay. Well, and as I mentioned recently, Wikipedia claims Rucker came up with the idea after reading Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly. Of course, I think Rucker’s transreal fiction involves a pretty strong degree of SFnalization. To take Carrère’s suggestion at something like face value, Dick’s work is much closer to Dick’s experience than anything transrealist that Rucker has written–or, that’s the impression on gets.

Which is, of course, one of the problems with the book — for the biography of a dead man, Carrère spends a lot of time inside his head. While he is quite honest about the fact he is speculating in parts, the lack of any kind of annotation to any of the claims raises the question of how much of the story is Carrère’s invention, as opposed to documented reality, or at least claims made by people who were, as they say, there to see it with their own eyes. I think a list of sources and chapter-by-chapter notes highlighting how and where they were used — not with numbered endnotes, mind, just a kind of free-flowing account of sources major and minor — would have been appropriate — just to get a sense of who said or wrote what where and when, to whom.

One wonders, of course, how reliably we can take the word of some of the individuals Carrère talked to or read at certain points, though. For the period of the 1960s, when most of the people Dick was around were, like Dick himself, high as kites, it’s hard to take any testimony as objective. This does not detract from how interesting they were, of course: the supporting cast ranges from the pathetic to the bizarre —  just like PKD himself — and they were one of the charms of the narrative. From Kleo, his first wife, to the group of writers Dick hung out with near the end — Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter — these minor players in his life are painted vividly by Carrère, who is after all a novelist.

And the novelistic nature of this book of course raises questions, specifically about Carrère’s depiction of Dick and his relationship to his work. The conflation of his writing and his actual thinking bespeaks an interesting and problematic place for SF in society, as well as in Dick’s life. To what degree is this conflation of his life and his writing creditable? To what degree was his writing a straightforwardly prismatic reillumination of his life and experiences? Having read some PKD novels, but far from what I’d call many of them, I can say that there do seem to be themes that recur, types of characters we see repeatedly. But then, this happens with plenty of authors, Shakespeare being a prominent example.

Ultimately, I think Carrère’s book seeks to illustrate PKD as a kind of schizophrenic savant of SF, and the questions this raises about his attitude towards both PKD and to the genre of SF are somewhat uncomfortable. Dick is, after all, now (and sadly, posthumously) one of the most popular SF authors around; the film versions of many of his books and stories have cultivated an interest in his work so huge that, for example, at my local English bookstore in Seoul, a large number of his work is kept in stock, on the shelf, because, one imagines, the owner knows it will sell often enough to warrant being stocked. (There is no other SF author whose work is that well represented in the shop, by the way.)

If the most famous works of one of today’s most popular SF authors are simply the encapsulations of that man’s symptoms of schizophrenic madness, of his deluded obsession with religion, with drugs, with conspiracies and his own paranoid delusions, what does that say about us? PKD did write sloppily, sometimes; of course, held up in contrast to some other SF authors of the 50s and 60s, the sloppiness is endearing, as it has the reek of the human, of the passionate, of the wild-eyed hopeful. There is a mysticism there that beguiles, and Carrère has infused his imagined PKD with the same mixture of madness and charm, but at the same time, the awkward question remains: what does all of this say about us, the readers of SF?

I’m not sure, but I do know that whatever Carrère’s intentions, his relentless recitations of the plots of a number of novels I’ve heard about, but haven’t yet read, didn’t bother me… but then I’m little bothered by spoilers (little of SF surprises me, plot-wise) and two hundred pages into the book, I was, as you may have guessed above, picking out a couple of PKD novels (and a volume of his nonfiction) when I had occasion to stop by the same bookstore mentioned above. So whatever Carrère is saying about SF and its readers, it didn’t bother me so much as to put me off either his book, or Dick’s work. (And I think that should be borne in mind: I don’t believe Carrère is trying to put down SF… but there is an implicit, and awkward, question buried deep in what I think I agree is best described, as one reviewer somewhere online put it, as “a nonfiction novel of PKD’s life.”

I intend, eventually, to read Lawrence Sutin’s biography of PKD, but for the moment, this serves. For all the uneasiness I’ve expressed above regarding the reliability of this book, though of course all biography is slippery, as it is all representation and narrative construction on some level.

One thing I’m curious about is the French original. I doubt I could read it, maybe I could slog through a chapter or so, but I’m more interested in the oddity of a book about Dick having been penned originally en français… especially in the impression it reinforces for me that France seems to love the same weird, outcast literary figures from America that end up being most celebrated in the long run: Poe, Lovecraft, and Dick form a kind of weird, unholy trinity, though I’m not sure exactly how popular Dick remains in France. (Certainly enough for this book to have been published there, but that might or might not be saying much.) I wonder, too, at what form some of the relentlessly American lingo took in Carrère’s original French text.

I think, also, an index would have been nice. But then, perhaps in a novelistic biography, such a thing, like references, might be too much of a pretense. I’m not sure.

In any case, I found the book not just worth the time, but I found it also reignited my interest in PKD’s work. Unlike certain people, I found his later works kind of turned me off — especially VALIS, or was it The Divine Invasion I couldn’t finish? — but I’m eager to dig into earlier work and see what I never got around to looking at. And while I may kick myself for not getting at it sooner, like back in high school when the weird-but-cool guys who listened to the Pixies and the Smiths and attended lectures by Jello Biafra and once showed me the Pink Floyd film The Wall one Friday night were recommending PKD to me on the highest of terms, insisting I should read it… well, I probably should have, but the library didn’t have copies and I didn’t have money and hey, envy me: I’m diving into some of these novels for the first time…

I think this book, then, is probably good for someone in my position: having read, say, five or eight of Dick’s novels, some short stories, but not sure where to go from there.

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