Dick, Philip K (Pamela Jackson & Jonathan Letham, eds.)
- The Exegesis of Philip K Dick
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York NY, 2011.
Octavo; hardcover; 944pp., with 8pp. monochrome plates. Dustwrapper. Remainder. New. "Dick never intended The Exegesis for publication, and aside from In Pursuit of VALIS, a tiny selection of extracts from the book that was brought out in 1991, it has remained a thing of legend only. Until last month, however, when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt brought out a huge 900-page volume, co-edited by Jonathan Lethem and Pamela Jackson. It's still only about one tenth of the whole thing, but it's a start. But what, if anything, does this text have to offer people who are not Philip K Dick? Afraid that the answer might be 'not much' I started in on it immediately lest it sit on my shelf unread for 20 years like In Pursuit of VALIS. The first thing I noticed is that Lethem et al assume that anyone reading this book already knows what it is, and will only come to it after deep immersion in PKD's fiction. And indeed, Dick himself begins with a discussion of 2-3-74 through the prism of his novel Ubik, where many of the characters are dead bodies lying in 'cold-pac', while their ex-employer Glen Runciter seeks to communicate with them from the world of the living - maybe. Was the pink laser beam likewise an invasion of a dead world by something alive? That PKD had published Ubik four years earlier was not a problem; he writes as if his book might still have related the truth behind appearances. But Ubik doesn't work, as the world is not visibly rotting around him as it was in the novel. However, Dick immediately conceives of another possibility, and I can't help but wonder what his friend Claudia Bush thought when she received a letter in which Dick speculates that a dead bishop named Jim Pike was invading his mind, before suddenly switching to the theory that it might be an ancient Greek named Asklepios. Asklepios's ignorance of Christ suggests something else: did the world go wrong around 2,000 years ago? Is the goal of this higher intelligence to restore man to a pre-Christian path? A few pages later, however, and Dick confides in Ursula Le Guin that it's the prophet Elijah. Or at least that's what Thomas M Disch (a great SF writer of the 60s and 70s) had suggested. But there is precisely zero possibility that Disch was serious - his take on PKD was that the great man liked to play with his own mental illness. Disch always kept an ironic distance - which is something I miss in the ultra-reverential contemporary introductions to Dick's work written by fanboys with PhDs and MFAs. These ideas rush past and are discarded within the first 40 pages or so. John Denver also pops up. The Exegesis is dizzying, bewildering, exhilarating, and more or less as strange as it sounds. But again, should you read it? It doesn't contain the answers to all things; it doesn't even contain the answer to what happened to Dick. Lethem suggests that the reader must simply 'surrender'. I suspect he's right - but that won't work unless you've read at least 16 of Dick's novels, plus his biography, and love metaphysics. At that point, The Exegesis will bring you extraordinarily close to his unique mind, with its mixture of doubt, wild invention, minuscule detail, grandiose theory and wry humour. Reality collapses and is then remade, over and over again - but what is real? Who cares? That's part of the game. In short: if you want to know what it's like to have your world dissolve, and then try to rebuild it while suffering mental invasions from God, Asklepios or whomever, you should read The Exegesis. Then again, you could always try one of Dick's novels, like Ubik, or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, or even a minor book such as Galactic Pot-Healer.
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