I Loved Dick, I Just Didn't Know it Yet
Dear Phantom Reader,
Have you ever fallen in love with the work of a writer when you least expected it even if you sometimes feel like throwing their books against the wall?
That writer is Philip K. Dick. I wrote the following piece around three years ago and since then have read around ten of his books. A few, like Ubik, Valis, Martian Time Slip and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, have definitely found their way to my list of all-time favorite books. (I’m also writing a novella inspired by Dick in a round-about way, but more on that later).
Dick was a deeply flawed guy in a lot of ways, and women don’t always fair so well in his books (the stories/novels that rank every female character according to her fuckability are the ones that tend to awaken that throw-this-book-against-the-wall impulse in me). But I forgive him because of his brilliance and because in a lot of ways he reminds me of my father (like Dick, my father was an eccentric and endearing, but also volatile and infuriating human being), and because, well, for lack of a better word, I consider him something of a kindred spirit. Funny how these things go.
Hope you enjoy this piece. If you have a similar writer whose work you fell in love with by chance, please do share. Discovering new books from unexpected places, there’s nothing better than that!
When I was 15, I had a dirty little secret, and that secret was Arnold Schwarznegger.
On many a Saturday afternoon, my father pulled VHS cassettes out of their paper dust jackets—Conan, Red Sonja, Predator, Total Recall—and popped them into the VCR, with me on the couch, my legs crossed and shoulders hunched forward, my brother sitting next to me, taking two bites of Yoplait Custard style yogurt, forgetting it on the coffee table and taking a new one from the fridge a half an hour later (was that a boy thing or a Dean thing?), my father sitting next to us in his underwear (my father found wearing pants at home a nearly impossible restriction) yelling “goddamn machine!” whenever the tracking went out.
I loved Arnie’s movies, but I would have never admitted this at school because a) I was a girl, b) I was a snobby, arty/literary kid and c) did I mention I was a girl? So I watched them on the sly, my mother and my sister both rolling their eyes and saying, How can you watch that crap?
Of course, I knew the Conan movies and Red Sonja were pretty bad, but that was also the fun of them. I’m not really sure why I liked Predator.
But Total Recall, that Arnie flick was different. The thin line between the real and the unreal, the shift between reality, illusion and delusion, and never really knowing which is which although you’re sure you do. Yeah, I’d say those are my Themen.
Several years ago, I wrote an essay called “With Love From a Berkeley Girl,” which I may or may not post here at some point. A large part of the piece is about the impact, both funny and meaningful Jonathan Lethem (before he was famous writer Jonathan Lethem) had on me during my Telegraph Avenue teens.
When I was writing the essay—and it took a while to write—I definitely had Lethem on the brain. I read The Fortress of Solitude and loved it, read other stuff by him and about him online, watched interviews on YouTube, etc.
Oh Internet, thank you for making it so easy to secretly and randomly stalk someone on the Internet (she says as she googles an estranged ex-lover: Why won’t he update his blog?? Come on now, it’s been months!)
Anyway, if you Internet stalk Jonathan Lethem for more than two minutes, you’ll discover his writing is strongly influenced by the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. Since I’m always curious about the influences of people I’m curious about, I did a Wikipedia link click and found out both Total Recall and Blade Runner were based on stories by Philip K. Dick. And get this: the guy also has a Berkeley/Telegraph Avenue connection.
How did I not know this? Or did I know and just forget I know? (2020 answer to the question: Probably a little of both since I know now PKD has been kosher in literary land for quite some time now, largely thanks to Lethem’s enthusiastic endorsement and Hollywood’s appetite for turning his work into major motion pictures).
Either way, my interest was piqued. So I ordered a book of Dick’s short stories. When the book arrived from England, I unpacked it, put it on my bookshelf, and immediately forgot it existed (if you read my piece about Richard Brautigan, you’ll see this is a bit of a pattern for me).
Anyway, a year or two later I was reading something on the Internet and Philip K.Dick’s name came up and I thought, Wait, don’t have a book by him?
Yes, indeed I did.
So I dug the books of short stories out of the pile and started reading.
First, a little criticism: some of Dick’s stories could use a bit of editing. He goes overboard with the adverbs at times and the dialogue is sometimes stilted. I’m five stories in, and so far his female characters tend towards shrill she-beasts, clingy creatures, devouring whores, and other classic negative anima fare (and guess what boys? If you actually are a woman, this get tedious.) But hey, the guy was writing in the 60s and 70s. I can cut him a little slack on that.
But here’s the other thing: wow!
So far, reading Dick isn’t like reading a story someone wrote, it’s like entering a mind meld with a brain that has a touch of madness; it’s like seeping down into the paranoid netherworld of the id, where things morph and shift so strangely and quickly but also so organically you immediately accept them.
There’s an essence in his writing that’s close to the what I’ve always wanted to reach in my own writing, only I didn’t know it except I always have.
Does that make sense? Either way, I’m fucking digging it.
Now here’s the other other thing:
In 1999, a few months before I moved to Berlin, I fell in love with someone. The affair was intense and he was also a writer and we wrote together and performed sometimes at poetry slams. If I had stayed in the Bay Area it might have turned into something serious but I had to leave.
For many years we tried to stay friends, but it never worked, not really. Since 2007, we’ve been estranged.
But now it’s 2006 and I’m sitting with my soon-to-be-estranged ex-lover at a taqueria in the Mission and we’re going to become estranged because I’m pregnant and will marry the father of my unborn child at the end of next year and my ex-lover will tell me he needs to break off contact because he can’t handle it, because things were never over between us, not really, and he’ll say it in a good way and I will understand and things will be ok.
But today we’re sitting outside the taqueria at a dirty wooden table, a couple of pigeons pecking at the rice on an abandoned plate left on the table next to ours, and I open my purse and out falls a book: “Eight Million Ways to Die” by Lawrence Block.
I know my ex-lover is a literary snob, but I’m still shocked when he scoffs and says, “Well, that’s disappointing.”
What I should say is, “Fuck you, you haven’t even read it. And what? I’m supposed to only read books you approve of?”
But what I say instead is, “I know, the picture on the cover is cheesy and sometimes the book is a little formulaic, but Matthew Scudder is an interesting character and the book has great dialogue and the descriptions of New York are amazing and, really, it’s better than you’d think.”
Me, acting like a goddamn wuss, like I had something to apologize for because I’d dared to stoop to the world of genre fiction.
What’s wrong with us humans?
It’s like we’re all working on an assembly line, picking up each thing and each idea and each person and putting them in a box labeled good or bad, like or don’t like, mine or not mine. And in each case the decisions we make are nearly instantaneous.
All of us, choosing freely to limit ourselves in what is already a very limited existence.
I do this too, of course I do. But I hard try to question, to re-think, to not assume.
If I didn’t, if I had stayed a literary snob or someone who felt compelled to hide my taste in movies, I would have never discovered I loved Dick, I just didn’t know it yet—and yes, I am enjoying the fact that some people have clicked on this piece expecting very different content.
So let me end this rambling post with two short words: stay open.
If you do, what you’ll love will find you.