In Defense of a “Crap Artist”
I’ve been struggling to find the right way to start writing about Philip K. Dick. I think this is a good point of departure; it sums up my feelings on what makes him important. My thoughts can come later.
I’m going to riff on a comment I left on David Gill’s inestimable TotalDickHead blog, which is where you should go if you want to read insightful stuff about the man and his work.
Gill talks a lot about what he calls the Philip K. Dick Article Machine, characterized mainly by a few repeated (and usually, to Dickheads, excruciatingly annoying and limited) motifs. In my approximation, these are the primary themes:
1. PKD was mentally ill
2. PKD was a drug addict
3. PKD was really into hallucinogenic drugs, in particular LSD
4. PKD was an untalented pulp-writer
5. PKD wrote crazy, paranoid stories that scarcely make sense.
6. Only his ideas are relevant – not his writing or his books
I’m sure I’m leaving some points out. But essentially, this is what almost all articles on Dick put forth, and it serves to reinforce his identity in popular culture.
Let’s be frank: some of the things on the list are true, at least conditionally, or at certain times in his life. Some of those things might have been true, but are difficult to prove and have many detractors, even within the pool of people who knew him well. Some are half-true in a way that is worse than a lie.
Certainly he did use and abuse amphetamines for many years. But some of his most relevant works were written during a time when he was ostensibly off drugs entirely. Whether or not he used psychedelic drugs at all (subject to much debate and not interesting in my opinion), it was infrequent at most, and certainly did not define his work or world-view.
Most people would agree that on some level he was mentally ill. That’s a broad term though, and without qualification, it doesn’t say much of anything. But that’s all beside the point. The real reason it’s offensive is that Dick’s “mental illness” isn’t called up for the sake of accurately describing his life, or in an attempt to gain insight into how he worked; it’s used to explain things away instead of shedding light on a complex individual. It’s injected to cordon off his work, to determine its limitations – the extreme boundaries of his ideas on one side and his “bad writing” on the other.
It’s a lot like how the drug-use thing is employed – as a way of reassuring the reader that these are the notions of an unclear mind, thoughts only a crazy person or a drug-addict could conjure up. It utterly devalues them. And it strips them of their true power: that they’re oftentimes frighteningly plausible.
This whole phenomenon is an extension of the sort of low-level prejudice we still hold against mental illness, and it rubs me the wrong way. A person can be brilliant and mentally ill, or just unstable; maybe they’re connected, maybe not. But the question isn’t whether they’re connected, or how, or in what ways. The question, when discussing literature, should only be whether there’s brilliance there, or talent, or value. Understanding a man’s work by attempting to understand him is very different from bounding him in by his perceived limitations. And, as Gill pointed out recently, there’s also the way these explanations lack empathy. All the facts about a person’s life won’t give you any insight if you can’t imagine how it felt to be him.
While all those things bother me, the item I take the most issue with is this totally ubiquitous “bad writer” moniker. Yes, sometimes he was a bad writer. But sometimes he was a beautiful writer, with a singular, fully realized voice. Take Valis, or Timothy Archer, or parts of Martian Time-Slip. Take Radio Free Albemuth or Flow My Tears or (for fuck’s sake), Confessions of a Crap Artist.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely agree that Dick was an “idea” writer. And yes, in the end, some of his less eloquent novels can seem to be, at most, vessels for those ideas – ideas stunning and challenging enough that, were he nothing more than the mind which conjured them into being, he would still be of immense value.
But that simply isn’t the case. That’s not where he ends. In fact, he “ends” with three novels (actually, four – Radio Free Albemuth is a central fourth book in the Valis “trilogy”) that are, with minor exceptions, masterpieces: of concept and of style, of the intellectual and of the personal, of idea and of voice. Valis, for all its mind-bending theological speculation, for all its enchanting introductions to esoteric Gnostic sects and three-eyed rock stars, is most important to me because of the way it treats its characters – namely, with a somber, sober, loving honesty, a capacity to question offset by an insistence on empathy.
For an idea writer, Dick could certainly write about people. And for all the flat characters in some earlier material, for all the diabolical women that taint some otherwise competent works, his hits, when it comes to grasping the human condition, overwhelm his misses, in mass if not in number.
I offer for the defense: The interplay between Phil Dick and Horselover Fat in Valis. The theological implications of a dead cat. Manfred Steiner’s inner hell. Angel Archer’s wandering sense of loss. Mourning the satellite in RFA. Jack Bohlen’s slow disappearance into himself. Jack Isidore in his entirety.
As for writing style, what began as a tin-can pulp writer’s voice, stumbling with varying degrees of efficacy through the run-walk-run pacing of amphetamine abuse, tripping over a clunky wordiness grown from a desire to be both academic and expedient, ended up, in these later books, worldly, eloquent, one-of-a-kind . Fans know this voice well: it’s a big baritone, rough around the edges, with a sort of salvific remorse; its sadness comes from having loved imperfectly.
So much of what makes Phil Dick special is that very arc of change: that he rose above his weaknesses to accomplish a few masterpieces and a handful of near-masterpieces. Leaving out the second half of this story is more than a small omission. It drastically de-contextualizes the man’s life and his work.
A redemption story is a tragedy until the last scene. To miss his successes is to misunderstand him completely.