The Fruitful, Consuming Paranoia of Philip K. Dick

10.24.2004 | Sam Munson | Literature | 2 Comments

I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick, by Emmanuel Carrère. Metropolitan Books, 315 pages, $26.

It’s difficult to imagine a writer who could have appreciated the adaptation
of his works into a series of increasingly bad movies more than Philip
K. Dick. The progression from Blade Runner through Total Recall to
Paycheck has all the hallmarks of one of his stories—black irony,
psychological degradation and the implication of a vast conspiracy
organized to deceive and persecute one man. The young Dick would have
written it as a dark comedy, the older as a bizarre Christian fable.

Dick’s journey from neurotic bohemian to full-blown religious psychotic is as
fascinating a tale as anything he ever wrote. And it has fallen into
capable hands in Emmanuel Carrère’s I Am Alive and You Are Dead. The
title is drawn from one of Dick’s most horrifying novels, Ubik (1969),
in which it appears as a message scrawled on a bathroom wall. Mr.
Carrère, a French novelist, demonstrated his gift for capturing
stranger-than-fiction truth in The Adversary (2001), his book on
Jean-Claude Romand, who murdered his family when he could no longer
maintain the fiction—as he had assiduously done for most of his adult
life—that he was a high-ranking doctor in the World Health
Organization. I Am Alive and You Are Dead is similar in approach to The
Adversary: an attempt to depict the life of a pathological personality
“from the inside,” as Mr. Carrère says in his introduction. Dick, whose
everyday activities seem positively dull when compared to his chaotic
inner life, is a figure peculiarly suited to this sort of biographical

Dick’s biography is spare. He was born in Chicago in 1928. After his parents’
divorce, his mother Dorothy took him first to Washington, D.C., and
then to Berkeley, Calif. Philip was a withdrawn and sensitive child,
subjected to both Freudian and Jungian therapy by the time he was 15.
His anxious, self-dramatizing mother lived, in Mr. Carrère’s phrase, in
a state of excited “bovarysme.” It’s not surprising, given these
circumstances, that Dick turned toward literature, and particularly
toward the fantastic and grotesque.

In his early 20’s, after an adolescence colored by his mother’s subtle
domination and his fears of latent homosexuality, he published his
first science-fiction story and decided he’d found his vocation. From
his beginnings as an unknown and frustrated writer of science fiction,
he became a theological guru and existential mascot to the burgeoning
counterculture, a highly respected author in a small but explosively
broadening field; he finished as a prematurely aged,
functional-but-insane casualty of LSD and scores of other drugs,
writing an interminable religious text called the Exegesis. He died in
1982, after achieving his first substantial material success with the
sale of the movie rights to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the
novel that would become Blade Runner. His reputation survived his
rather sad end, and his cult of fans (of which I am a member) rivals or
exceeds in size and devotion that of any other major contemporary
science-fiction author, from Asimov to Zelazny.

Given the absence of globe-spanning travels (he spent his entire adult life in
Northern California), brilliant conversation or any of the other
staples of the typical literary biography, the fascination Mr.
Carrère’s book exercises on the reader may seem puzzling. The
biographer lavishes on his subject’s internal life great care and
detail, and that’s the source of the book’s power. Dick, after all,
attracted an astonishingly broad readership, from philosophically
inclined hippies to jaded French journalists. The Man in the High
Castle (1962), Dick’s 1963 Hugo-winning alternate history set in an
America conquered by and divided between the Empire of Japan and
Germany, has become a staple of high-school reading lists. The mind
that produced his fiction, unsurprisingly, has a similarly unnerving
and far-reaching appeal.

At least it does when elucidated by Mr. Carrère, who has seized on the fact that
Dick’s books resulted, almost uniformly, from progressively more
serious derangements of his psyche. As Mr. Carrère puts it: “[This
book] is a trip into the brain of a man who regarded even his craziest
books not as works of imagination but as factual reports …. Dick’s life
was as much marked by the fictions he created as those fictions bear
the mark of his lived experiences.”

In a dreamily clinical prose, he proceeds to chronicle these derangements as
carefully as if they were the factual bases of Dick’s “reports.” When,
in 1955, a series of visits by the F.B.I. touched off in Dick a long
and involved paranoiac fantasy (the speculative process that ultimately
led to his 1957 novel Eye in the Sky), Mr. Carrère follows in detail
the convoluted internal argument Dick had with himself, covering nearly
as many pages as he devoted to the first 24 years of Dick’s life.
Dick’s hallucination that the C.I.A. had attempted to steal the
manuscript of his novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974) is
treated with similar seriousness. As Dick grew older, ingested various
drugs in ever-larger quantities, and indulged his compulsive passion
for catastrophic relationships with women, these fantasies grew ever
more bizarre, and ever more insistent on the illusory and adversarial
nature of reality. But Mr. Carrère never wavers: With his concise,
fluent prose and eye for psychological detail, he succeeds in making
Dick’s psychoses not only understandable but even convincing. By the
time Dick, in the last decade of his life, came to the conclusion that
reality as we know it is an illusion used by the Roman Empire to numb
the minds of Christians, the animating idea of his unfinished Exegesis,
the reader feels as simultaneously trapped and enlightened as Dick must
have at the moment of his epiphany. Mr. Carrère, through a remorseless
and clear-eyed accretion of detail, makes this last madness seem both
plausible and inevitable.

Mr. Carrère’s book does not supplant Lawrence Sutin’s authoritative
biography, Divine Invasions (1991). It’s not, one gets the sense, meant
to. Rather, it serves as a complement to Mr. Sutin’s dense and heavily
annotated book. Divine Invasions may be more comprehensive, but I Am
Alive and You Are Dead is more intimate—as one reads it, one feels
uncomfortably at home in Dick’s claustrophobic fantasies. In the end,
it reads almost as if it had been written by its subject. And that is
perhaps the highest possible testament to Emmanuel Carrère’s gift for
telling stories “from the inside.”

After a wonderful lead, this meanders quite badly. There's little information, little point, and little said about either Dick or Carrere. Part of my respect for Dick comes from how diffiult it's proven to say anything insightful about his work, which seems to resist all attempts at analysis almost in spite of itself. What a strange holograph, or, if you like, brain that defied telepathic prediction this Dick had...
10.26.2004 | Lucinda Schoenkopf
r.crumb drew a comic about dick's "religious psychosis" that does a pretty good job. look in "the complete crumb, volume 16"
11.5.2004 | andrew

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