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VALIS by Philip K. Dick

Vintage VALISPeople who were keeping up with Dick as his books came out read VALIS before Radio Free Albemuth, even though they were written in the opposite order. I read them in composition order rather than publication order, and I have to say that VALIS suffered in the process. Both novels are attempts to fictionalize the "pink beam" event that Dick experienced in 1974, which he came to believe was a contact from some kind of divine alien entity that he called the Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS). Radio Free Albemuth sets the experience in an alternate history where America has been taken over by a fascist dictator, and while Phil Dick himself is a character in the novel, the pink beam experience happens to another character named Nicholas Brady. VALIS seems to be set in the contemporary world, and the pink beam experience happens to a character named Horselover Fat who is gradually revealed to be a depressed, suicidal projection of Philip Dick. (Philip is a Greek word for "horse-lover", and Dick is German for "fat".)

I thought Radio Free Albemuth was a fascinating work of metafiction, but I really struggled with VALIS. To call it a novel is something of a misnomer, as for much of its length it feels more like an autobiography mashed together with extracts from the Exegesis that Dick wrote in an attempt to understand his religious epiphanies of 1974. We get lots of descriptions of Fat's struggles to understand why two women he loved died in horrible ways, his stint in a psychiatric ward after trying to kill himself, and then these completely bonkers bits of Gnostic speculation and assertions that the Roman Empire is still happening right now and three-eyed aliens live among us, the Immortal One is still amongst us and is about to return -- rinse, wash, repeat, rinse, wash, repeat. Then about halfway through Fat and three of his friends (including, by this point, Phil Dick, who has gradually dissociated himself from Fat into a separate personality) go to see a movie called VALIS, which appears to be set in the alternate history of Radio Free Albemuth. Things get more interesting at that point, as they go to meet the makers of the film and discover a cult dedicated to VALIS and the whole mad Gnostic secret history implicated therein. But are they really what they seem? Is anything whatsoever really what it seems?

A.E. van Vogt, in his early career, used a technique whereby he introduced a new idea into the story every 800 words. This famously produced narratives that swerved drunkenly from one damned thing to another, sense be damned. Dick was an acolyte of van Vogt (the debt Solar Lottery owes to the Null-A novels is pretty obvious, I think), and in VALIS it feels as though he's using that 800 word technique, with new explanations being thrown out one after another, each one seeming to finally reach the truth only to be tossed aside when the next explanation comes down the pike. One thing that makes VALIS feel so incoherent is that it keeps circling back to older explanations that have already been discarded, so that everything begins to feel true and false at the same time. As a evocation of madness, this may be completely accurate. The possibility that the contents of the book are crazy is something the character Dick is constantly weighing:

If Kevin were here he'd say, "Deedle-deedle queep," which is what he says to Fat when Fat reads aloud from his exegesis. Kevin has no use for the Profound. He's right. All I am doing is going, "Deedle-deedle queep" over and over again in my attempts to understand how Horselover Fat is going to heal -- save -- Horselover Fat. Because Fat cannot be saved. Healing Sherri was going to make up for losing Gloria; but Sherri died. The death of Gloria caused Fat to take forty-nine tablets of poison and now we are hoping that upon Sherri's death he will go forth, find the Savior (what Savior?) and be healed -- healed of a wound that prior to Sherri's death was virtually terminal for him. Now there is no Horselover Fat; only the wound remains.

Which is VALIS in a nutshell, except that for "deedle-deedle queep" Dick fills in page after page of incoherent (to me) Gnostic speculation. Not really my cup of tea, I must say. Aspects of it were fascinating, in a deranged way, but as a novel it suffers in comparison to the relatively lucid Radio Free Albemuth, which expresses many of the same ideas in a more focused (although equally slippery) way. On the other hand, VALIS ends with Horselover Fat in Micronesia, where the voice in his head (which he thinks is an AI) has sent him to seek further revelation, so I guess on a personal level I can relate, even if I'm skeptical that he'll find any healing there.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 26th, 2014 08:49 pm (UTC)
I'd agree that VALIS hardly qualifies as a novel in the normal sense. However, I love it anyway. It's the most precision-cut mind-blowing reading experiences I've ever had.
May. 27th, 2014 03:05 pm (UTC)
Over on Facebook people were expressing a fair amount of ambivalence about the book, but one old college friend said it was her favorite book by Dick and Guy Lillian praised it as an experimental autobiography that discovers light in the Slough of Despond. Meanwhile I'm 50 pages into The Divine Invasion and finding it a breath of fresh air. Maybe I don't like experimental.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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