Book Review – VALIS by Philip K. Dick
I fell out of love with VALIS by degrees. When I first read it in 1999, at the age of eighteen, I was entranced. I distinctly recall starting to read it late in the evening and continuing almost until dawn. But over the years, on subsequent readings, I have grown increasingly uneasy with the status of VALIS as one of PKD’s best novels. Now, on perhaps my fifth reading, I cannot say that I share the high opinion many other PKD-philes have of this book.
What is VALIS about? Herein lies one of the problems. The ‘plot’ (what little of it there is) goes something like this: during the 1970s, a man by the name of Horselover Fat has a strange experience, in which he is bombarded by a pink beam of light. Fat spends years trying to work out what has happened to him, spinning outlandish theories with his friends Phil Dick, Kevin and David. During the course of the novel, we are treated to some stories of Phil Dick/Horselover Fat’s unsuccessful attempts to save the suicidal Gloria and terminally ill Sherri, as well as the aftermath of his own suicide attempt. Eventually, the four friends go to see a film called “Valis,” which seems to corroborate much of what Horselover Fat experienced during March 1974. After this, the four friends go to meet the filmmaker, Eric Lampton, and his wife Linda, who claim to be beings from another star. They also claim that their two year-old daughter is a Saviour in a line that includes Elijah, Jesus Christ and a few others. Phil Dick and Horselover Fat realise that they are one individual, not two, and the three friends return to their homes, whereupon they learn that the two year-old Saviour has died. There’s more to it than that, of course, but that’s the bare bones of the actual plot.
In many respects, VALIS picks up where A Scanner Darkly leaves off. Both novels are about the after-effects of the sixties drug subculture, and both address the themes of suicide and despair. Crucially, both books also detail a ‘splitting of personalities:’ whereas in A Scanner Darkly, Bob Arctor ends up narking on himself, in VALIS Philip K. Dick himself splits into two personalities, one rational and the other deranged. In fact, there is a novel that comes between these two in terms of composition: Radio Free Albemuth, which PKD originally called “Valisystem A.” That book (which wasn’t published until 1985) also addresses the theme of split personalities, although it does so in a slightly different way. Thus I find it useful to speak of a ‘split personality trilogy’ – A Scanner Darkly, Radio Free Albemuth and VALIS.
In VALIS , PKD seems to be spinning a metafictional web that appears, in some respects, to take the form of quasi-autobiography. After all, those who know PKD’s life will be aware that he had an incident with a ‘pink beam of light’ in February and March of 1974. Many of the characters in VALIS appear to be based on real people in PKD’s life: Beth is based on PKD’s fifth wife Tess; Kevin is K.W. Jeter; David is based on Tim Powers and so on. But PKD has presented VALIS as fiction, and thus I will read it as fiction. Therefore, I will not make any further attempts to align events in the novel with events in the writer’s life. Crucially, PKD has created the alter-ego of Horselover Fat, whom he uses as a speaker in the third person to gain “much-needed objectivity” (p 11). I’m sure that PKD enjoyed blurring the boundaries between fictional worlds and ‘real’ ones.
The bulk of VALIS basically consists of a series of conversations and interior monologues on the nature of the divine. This is in response to the ‘pink beam of light’ incident. All of this is quite interesting, but it’s not really a novel in the normal sense. What few events there are have taken place in the past, mainly dealing with the consequences of suicide and attempted suicide. It’s not until around 150 pages into the book that we get the first forward movement in time: namely the watching of the film ‘Valis.’ Previous to this we get a number of bizarre and outlandish theories. “Every day he developed a new [theory], more cunning, more exciting and more fucked.” (p 36) Most of VALIS basically consists of extended discussion on these theories, which include but are not limited to: the universe as information; the universe as a hologram; a two deity cosmology in which an inferior creator wreaks havoc on the world while the superior deity tries to fight back; humanity as descended from a race of three-eyed beings from Sirius; two realities interposed – one being Rome circa 70 C.E, and the other the U.S. in 1974; a notion of the universe as a ‘Black Iron Prison’ from which we cannot escape. All of this is very interesting, rather bewildering, and ultimatly (for me anyway) less than enlightening. And I suppose therein lies the crux of my argument against VALIS.
At one stage, there is even mention made of the fact that Horselover Fat’s theories about the universe tie in with PKD’s own primal loss: that of his twin sister Jane, who died at six weeks of age from malnutrition. This is interesting, as it helps to unravel the complexities of PKD’s theories. One strength of the early part of the novel is the juxtaposition of these outlandish theories with the terrible realities of life in the ‘Black Iron Prison.’ There is one moment early on where Fat is drawn back from his world of ideas by a woman trying to retch into a tub in front of him. This is in a psychiatric ward. This juxtaposition of the high and low is further reflected in the relationship between Horselover Fat, the creator of wild fantastical ideas, and Phil Dick, the skeptical science-fiction writer. This is an effective technique and may serve as a kind of ‘self-interrogation’ of PKD’s mind. One might speculate that this inner dialogue might be seen to represent the two hemispheres of the brain: one rational, the other deranged; one grounded in a mundane reality, the other residing in a higher world of ideas. But of course, with PKD, the question always becomes, “How can I tell whether any of this is real?”
What can we take at face value in VALIS? It’s really hard to say, as PKD as an authorial voice never confirms nor denies the truth of what is described. For example, there is an extraordinary conversation between Horselover Fat and Dr Stone, a psychiatrist at the mental ward. This conversation covers a vast number of highly eclectic and intellectual topics relating to the nature of Gnosticism and reality itself. It’s a stunning piece of work, but it places several demands on the reader in terms of ‘suspension of disbelief.’ Are we to believe that this conversation actually took place as written within the world of the novel? Are we to interpret it as the deranged fantasies of Horselover Fat? There is, of course, no way of telling. Herein lies PKD’s greatest strength as a writer and possibly one of the weaknesses of VALIS. We simply don’t know what to believe. Now, a young and very enthusiastic PKD reader, such as I was at the age of eighteen, is inclined to accept even the most outlandish of ideas as feasible, but an older and more tempered PKD reader is given to wonder. What the hell is VALIS about, anyway?
What I am trying to say here is that I now have some reservations both about the usefulness of the ideas presented in VALIS and also about the quality of the novel as work of art. In VALIS , PKD has almost but not quite abandoned the vehicle of fiction itself as a means to present his ideas. Much of what we have here could just as easily be presented in essay form. There’s precious little plot in VALIS , virtually no attempt at characterisation or description of settings etc. Now I know that many PKD acolytes are inclined to claim that PKD was ‘beyond’ the realms of proletarian fiction by this stage of his life and career, but I remain skeptical. PKD wrote this as a novel because that is what he did for a living. As a novel, I’m not sure that VALIS can be deemed a success. As a snapshot of PKD’s mind, however, it is fascinating. This is both an attempt at autobiography and a ‘selection from the exegesis,’ long before Lawrence Sutin’s In Pursuit of Valis.
My sense of unease with VALIS is reflected in my attempt to write about it. Am I stupid to question this book? Am I unable to think on the level required? But the book itself seems to question its own findings: “Fat’s encounter may not have been with God, but it was certainly with something.” (p 120) As proof of the ‘reality’ of VALIS (or God, or Zebra), PKD cites an experience from his own life: his miraculous diagnosis of his infant son’s serious medical condition. We are on uncertain ground here. How much of this is to be believed? Even if we do believe it, we are being asked to consider something beyond the scope of the book itself, i.e. Christopher’s condition and subsequent recovery. This seems perilous to me. The notion of three-eyed invaders from Sirius is particularly difficult to swallow. This reflects nothing if not Kurt Vonnegut’s time-defying Tralfamadorians from his novel Slaughterhouse Five. There’s only one difference: Vonnegut was joking; PKD, apparently, isn’t: “We are talking about Christ. He is an extra-terrestrial life form which came to this planet thousands of years ago.” (p 125)
At long last, the ‘plot’ actually gets going when Horselover Fat, Phil Dick, Kevin and David go to see the film ‘Valis.’ This psychadelic film seems to corroborate much of Fat’s ravings, and suggests that the U.S. circa 1974 is in fact a ‘Black Iron Prison’ which God is trying to reconquer. (As a small aside, the U.S. circa 2008 seems to reflect nothing if not a Black Iron Prison. Most of PKD’s fears have been confirmed.) After the film, the four friends go to see the filmmaker Eric Lampton and his wife. It turns out that they believe they are God-like aliens. Furthermore, their two-year old daughter is in fact a Saviour in a line including Jesus Christ. At least, at this late stage, the novel starts to question the veracity of these wild claims. Horselover Fat and Phil Dick merge back into one entity, and the (now reduced) group of friends retreats back to their homes. Not long after, it transpires that the infant Saviour has died, which seems to cast the entire framework of ideas into doubt. And then Horselover Fat makes a late re-appearance, leaving California to search for the next Saviour around the world. He sends postcards.
I like something that Phil Dick says to Horselover Fat so much that I will transcribe it in entirety here: “‘There is no ‘Zebra’, I said. ‘It’s yourself. Don’t you recognize your own self? It’s you and only you, projecting your unanswered wishes out, unfulfilled desires left over after Gloria did herself in. You couldn’t fill the vacuum with reality so you filled it with fantasy; it was psychological compensation for a fruitless, wasted, empty, pain-filled life and I don’t see why you don’t finally fucking give up.” (p 245) I guess here we are getting down to my beliefs, not PKD’s: I am more inclined to believe this ‘version of events.’ But I suspect that VALIS is as much a book the reader helps to create as any other. You can take or leave anything you find here.
Wow, I’m a little shocked that I’ve done what is essentially a hatchet job on this novel. I hope I haven’t offended anyone. It’s not that I think that PKD had lost his mind, nor had he lost his abilities as a writer. His last novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, serves as a testament to that. The latter novel is beautifully written, sombre, searching and controlled. VALIS, on the other hand, is unruly. The character of Phil Dick himself admits at one stage that the material is starting to get the better of him. It’s this lack of control and lack of shape that troubles me. Well, there it is: I’ve said what I wanted to say about VALIS. I would appreciate your comments, but please be kind. Don’t flame me for daring to doubt the genius of Philip K. Dick.