The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


by Steve Gajadhar

As promised last post, here’s my review of VALIS by Philip K. Dick.

Parsifal is one of those corkscrew artifacts of culture in which you get the subjective sense you’ve learned something from it, something valuable or even priceless; but on closer inspection you suddenly begin to scratch your head and say, “Wait a minute. This makes no sense.””

Quoted from page 133 of the Vintage version of VALIS. Substitute VALIS for Parsifal and Dick has explained his own novel: it makes no sense.

VALIS – an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System - centers around Horselover Fat and his quest to find out more about a Gnostic epiphany delivered via a pink laser beam. Sounds strange enough on its own, but VALIS is stranger than that, far stranger. VALIS is also the semi-autobiographical partly fictionalized (if James Frey had written it I could call it a memoir) account of Dick’s own pink laser beam Gnostic epiphany received in 1974. Lawrence Sutin, Dick’s actual biographer, attempted to sort the facts from the fiction in VALIS and failed, quoting a statement from Dick himself: “Oddly, the most bizarre of events in it are true (or rather - and this is a crucial difference - I believe they are true).” If it all seems a little too crazy so far, I should point out that Dick was a heavy drug user in the 60s and 70s, had severe phobias (agoraphobia, reluctance to swallow, vertigo), and dealt with several mental health issues throughout his lifetime.

Early on in the book – I can’t bring myself to call it a novel – Dick writes that he created the Horselover Fat character to allow himself much needed objectivity. The narrator (ostensibly Dick) and Fat start out as separate, distinct entities, they then go on to spend most of the book in a schizophrenic dance of blurring together and coming apart that mirrors the dance of fiction and biography inherent in the content. I believe Dick hints and plays on this dual nature with the name he chose for the main character: Horselover Fat is itself a convoluted pseudonym for Philip Dick. Horselover is English for the Greek word philippos meaning “lover of horses”, and Fat is English for the German word “dick”.

Much of VALIS is clearly biography, as in the opening of the book when Fat’s wife, Beth, leaves him and takes their son with her. Fat – and in real life, Dick – attempts suicide. Two of Fat’s friends, David and Kevin, are based on Dick’s real life friends and fellow SF writers Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter. In the novel Fat helps Sherri, a woman dying of cancer; in the real world Dick helped Doris Sauter, also dying of cancer. In the novel Fat has a theophany that consumes and transforms him, marks him in some way as special – almost the antithesis of a Greek Deus ex Machina, in that it is a Gnostic god that visits and causes problems rather than a god in a chariot swooping in to solve all problems and set everything right. In the real world Dick also experiences a theophany, an event he terms 2-3-74 that sets him writing his Exegesis, a journal that documents his religious and visionary experiences and is found at the end of VALIS. The fiction vs. reality comparisons don’t stop there. Eric Lampton, a fictional character who creates a film about VALIS and his cult like groups’ contact episode with it, is meant to be David Bowie. Brent Mini, the composer of the score for the fictional VALIS film, is loosely based on Brian Eno.

As for plot, there really isn’t one. The book is a novel length exposition on the nature of reality and our place in it. Dick’s vision is clearly a Gnostic one, as dual in its revealed (to him) nature as the dual nature of everything else in the novel. Reality is created in the mind of an irrational deity, and it is this irrationality that causes the injustices of the world as we know it. Somewhere beyond this irrational and omnipotent entity is a second, rational entity trying to break through and free us, and VALIS is its instrument, revealed to be some sort of alien communication array that has always existed. Humanity has lost its way, lost its past knowledge (fallen from grace if you prefer a Christian interpretation) and VALIS is attempting to restore us to a state of gnosis or enlightenment using imagery and the subliminal to facilitate the “loss of amnesia.” The sybmology Dick uses, especially the loss of memory and its relationship to computers and advanced intelligences, could be seen as influences to many of our modern sci-fi hits such as The Matrix trilogy of films. Viewed as a philosophical work, VALIS is a definite predecessor and influence to some of the fringe philosophies on simulated and controlled reality as experienced reality.

The end of the book centers on Fat and his friends’ encounter with Lampton and his cohorts at their commune. They meet a supposed enlightened child named Sophia – Sophia means wisdom in Greek – who answers their questions about life, the universe, and everything (couldn’t resist!). Critically, Sophia could be interpreted as the Lampton clan’s – and to a certain extent Fat’s – MacGuffin, in that she serves as the embodiment of their motivations and actions but has little other significance. Sophia seems like far more to me. She is a Christ figure and Christ symbol, right down to her sacrifice at the hands of her captors (the Lamptons basically kept her imprisoned) and her own promise of rebirth. She is also unexplainable in terms of the dual fictional/real sense of Dick’s book, for she continues to influence the characters after her death. Earlier I mentioned that Dick himself claimed that the most outlandish things in VALIS really happened. Did Sophia happen? We’re Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter actually there in a real life visit? Have they corroborated Dick’s version of the events in VALIS? It seems like I need to read more on this.

VALIS is impossible to properly review because it amazingly indefinable. It is also amazingly fun to read and to think about, so go get it! VALIS isn’t science fiction, it’s Borges and Camus mixed with Huxley and Orwell. It’s great literature and great (maybe insane) thought. It’s also the first book in Dick’s final trilogy before he died of a stroke in 1982. I’ve still got two more to read. And to think I used to turn my nose up at Philip Dick.


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Whew! What a trip of a book. Reading of how closely it tracks Dick's life and his creation of Horselover Fat made me think of Vonnegut and his alter ego Kilgore Trout. I wonder if the two writers knew and/or influenced each other.

I admire you getting through this without a tutorial, Steve. Sounds mighty complex.

Wed Apr 30, 02:51:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Interesting review, when I got to the end and you said it was 'fun' I was surprised. It doesn't sound fun.

I was also surprised to hear there are characters based on Eno and Bowie. That's pretty cool.

Thanks Steve, for reading this for me. I'm not sure I'll be able to do it myself.

Wed Apr 30, 06:13:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Thanks Tricia and Andrew. Check it out if you ever feel like it.

Wed Apr 30, 11:34:00 pm GMT-4  

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