Thursday, July 4, 2013

Book Review: Valis (1981)

Philip K. Dick's Valis is an exploration into the densities of mental imbalance. About two-thirds of the way, I did a head-tilt of confusion as I began to detect hints of author self-insertion. But by then it was too late -- I was invested in the characters and their bizarre story.

The novel plunges readers into the quiet chaos of an unraveling mind. The protagonist, Horselover Fat, tries to prevent a friend from ending her life. His failure eventually sends him to a hospital. There, he begins to write his exegesis, or his analysis of the divine revelations that he apparently received one day in the course of eight hours. He scribbles down wild thoughts about the nature of the universe, information, the "homoplasmate," irrationality, genesis, and more. The novel continues in this vein until even his friends find connections between Horselover Fat's visions and the real world. Together, they set out to discover the meaning of VALIS.

This is the first Philip K. Dick novel I've read. I've seen about half of the movies based on his short stories, like the classic, Blade Runner ("Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"); the original, pretty good Total Recall ("We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"); the brilliant Minority Report ("The Minority Report"); the fascinating A Scanner Darkly ("A Scanner Darkly"); and the eye roll-inducing The Adjustment Bureau ("The Adjustment Bureau"). I would be interested in seeing a film version of Valis, which contains an interesting sci-fi idea: [SPOILERS! SPOILERS!] aliens built our planet but became trapped there and went insane, and Valis, or Vast Active Living Intelligence System, is a sort of satellite that the aliens launched from their home planet to inoculate the ones on earth with information that saves them. Valis reveals that time and space do not actually exist, and immortals walk the world. I mean, cool, right?

Dick incorporates Latin, gnostic Christian tracts, Wagnerian opera, ancient archaeological sites, and the bifurcated man trope into what turns out to be his own story. Wikipedia says he had a breakdown in the seventies, as Horselover Fat does in Valis. And the name Philip means "horse lover," in Greek, and Dick is German for "fat." So this is the author's account of his own breakdown. If that's the case, that makes the novel all the more impressive as a work of science fiction. It speaks to his urge to create and document the strange and otherworldly. Dick died shortly after Valis was published.

The main lesson I learned here is that doing drugs helps artists become prolific and extraordinarily creative. Fragrant Husband refuses to support any habit I may want to form -- you know, for art -- so I guess sensory deprivation is my best shot if I want to write a novel. That, or a ton of discipline, research, dedication, and hard work. Huh. Well then.

Happy Fourth of July!

Summer Book Recommendations