During February and March 1974, science fiction writer Philip K. Dick experienced a series of strange and exhilarating visions. Almost exactly ten years earlier, Dick had first taken LSD, and his perceptions while tripping on acid prefigured this later mystical mid-life crisis. In a 1965 letter to a friend, he enthused about the "joyous coloration, especially pinks and reds, very luminous" and the "great insights into myself" induced by hallucinogenics. A decade later, now apparently without the aid of illegal drugs, Dick was again overwhelmed by an intense pink light, and believed that it was transferring information to him at blazing download speeds. "It seized me entirely," he later explained "lifting me from the limitations of the space-time matrix."
Others might look on this incident as the incipient sign of acute mental dis- order, but Dick had the exact opposite interpretation. "I experienced an invasion of my mind by a transcend- entally rational mind, as if I had been insane all my life and suddenly I had become sane," he later told science fiction writer Charles Platt. Even more striking —or ridiculous, depending on your perspective— Dick was convinced that he had experienced an extraordinary epiphany, rich with theological implications. He had encountered God, or something roughly fitting the description, the deity as data overload. Dick started scribbling down jumbled notes and journal entries in an attempt to decipher the 'wisdom' handed on to him, and the resulting manuscript, which he called the Exegesis, eventually amounted to some 8,000 pages.
Inevitably, this life-changing experience impacted Dick's science fiction writing, most notably in his autobiographical 1981 novel VALIS—the title an acronym for "Vast Active Living Intelligence System." Sci-fi novels are rarely autobiographical, but VALIS is not your typical sci-fi book. Indeed, it is the strangest work of genre fiction I've ever read. Even if you're familiar with Dick's other major books, nothing in them prepares you for this one.
Dick appears as two separate characters in VALIS. He is both Philip K. Dick, a noted science fiction writer, and Horselover Fat, a wreck of a fellow who has attempted suicide and been institutionalized for psychiatric evaluation…after having experienced strange visions in March 1974. But are they really two separate protagonists? At one point in VALIS, another character points out that "'Philip' means 'Horselover' in Greek" and "'Fat' is the German translation of 'Dick'." Thus Horselover Fat equals Philip Dick. At moments in VALIS, Horselover Fat even disappears back into the psyche of Philip K. Dick, a development that the author's friends treat as a sign of Dick's return to sanity. But these interludes do not last for long, and Dick's mental disintegration soon manifests itself again as two separate individuals. The result is an unnerving new take on the old meme of the "unreliable narrator"—or what we might call, in this instance, the "multiple-personality unreliable narrator(s)."
Despite all the strangeness, Dick's familiar themes come to the forefront again and again in this book, the same concepts he had been pursuing in his writings during the previous three decades. In fact, some surprising convergences can be found between VALIS and Dick's long unpublished first novel Gather Yourselves Together, which he had started writing in the late 1940s —the character Carl Fitter in the latter work even keeps a journal akin to Dick's Exegesis. (And the title of that early work could serve as an admonition to the late- stage Mr. Dick with his troubling multiple personalities.) Over the course of around 40 books, Dick had contrived many stories and characters, but his chief recurring obsession could be summed in a simple idea, a concept that is at the heart of VALIS—and all his other major works—namely that reality isn't really very real.
The number of variations that Dick worked on this theme is impressive. Things are never what they seem in a Philip K. Dick story. And I don’t mean that the butler turns out to be the killer or any of those other plot twists, predictable even in their surprises, that genre fiction has long employed. In Dick's universe, the very fabric of the universe is prone to give away at any moment. The characters themselves hardly change, but their context is as likely to tear asunder as a wet paper bag soaking in a parking lot puddle.
Sometimes Dick provides a technological reason for these radical reformulations of reality, but often he just lets them occur unexplained in his stories. For a writer who devoted his career to the sci-fi field, Dick seemed almost perversely unconcerned with explaining the disjunctions that send his characters reeling in confusion into an alternative universe. As a result, his tales often come across more like applied metaphysics than science fiction. And this explains much of the appeal of Dick's storytelling: where other sci-fi authors would blame everything on aliens or weapons, Mr. Dick describes similar plot twists in terms of transcendent events and personal crises. As a result, he has more in common with existential novelists such as Walker Percy or Albert Camus than with space opera authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein.
But in VALIS, Dick reveals a very different attitude. He is no longer content to accept these tears in the fabric of reality; he now wants to understand them. With almost desperate intensity he seeks for reasons, and the result is something we never expected from Philip K. Dick: a novel of ideas. Sometimes crazy ideas, usually implausible ideas, but ideas nonetheless. Many of these are taken verbatim from the Exegesis, and Dick even includes an appendix that features a selection of these journal entries. They are like a distortion of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, as encountered in a nightmare.
During the course of this novel, the narrator explores almost every possible explanation for a universe in which different planes of reality exist. He looks to the pre-Socratic philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides for explanations. He considers Jung's theory of archetypes. Or does the Buddhist critique of reality hold the answer? He explores the connection between the split in reality and the Yin and Yang of Taoism. He draws on hermetic alchemists, Apollonius of Tyana, Gnosticism, Asklepios, Richard Wagner, the story of the Grail. He looks to Elijah. He looks to Christ. He looks everywhere, with intensity and anxiety.
But our narrator also stares into the television set, searching for coded messages from a higher power amidst commercials and cartoons. One day, a friend takes him to a motion picture that seems to present images connected to Horselover Fat's visions, and this opens up new theories and possibilities. When Dick, Fat and their friends meet up with the rock star who made the movie, they believe that they have finally arrived at the brink of an explanation—indeed, at the explanation to end all explanations. Or maybe they've just finally met people even crazier than Philip K. Dick.
Eventually Dick offers possible sci-fi solutions to his enigma. The visions may have come from aliens. Or maybe from a new microwave technology that zaps your brain instead of the baked potato you plan on eating for dinner. But the reader can see that Dick is hardly satisfied with these options. He’s not looking for aliens; he's looking for the meaning of life.
There are many strange things about VALIS, but one of the strangest is the new-found brilliance to Dick's prose. For all his creativity, Dick often wrote in a cartoonish, pulp-fiction manner—his biographer Lawrence Sutin describes it as a "slapdash quality" and notes that it prevents many critics from considering Dick in the same category as Kafka, Calvino and other writers who dealt with similar themes. Even Dick's most famous works from the 1960s and 1970s are filled with clumsy passages that seem churned out to meet a deadline, not lay the groundwork for a posthumous literary reputation. As a result, you typically read this author for his imaginative daring not stylish descriptions or clever dialogue or poetic metaphors. But in VALIS, Dick actually starts writing at a dazzlingly high level. The coarse pulp-fiction author disappears completely from view and instead we have an edgy prose stylist whose work can stand comparison with Pynchon and Heller and Vonnegut and Kesey and all those other renegade who redefined American fiction in the 1960s and 1970s.
So, if I can borrow Jonathan Lethem's pun, you really don't know dick about Dick until you've read VALIS. I believe it is his finest novel, and the starting point for any reader who wants to see how close sci-fi can get to avant-garde fiction. But the fact that Dick wasn't trying to conduct an experiment in writing, but was grappling with his own demons and—this is no glib exaggeration —the very meaning of his own life, gives these pages a pathos and power that few other avant-garde novels possess. In short, it all comes together here although, sad to say, it had to come apart for Mr. Dick in order for that to happen.