Friday, May 23, 2008

Philip K. Dick Interlude

By John

Been reading (or mis-reading, as I do all Dick’s work) Philip K. Dick’s novel We Can Build You. Have probably read over half his novels now and many of the short stories. Starting to shape chapters of the book I am writing on his work, but there’s still a long way to go — I need to read everything, and then again and maybe again. I am, by nature, one who needs to read a writer’s whole oeuvre. Before Dick it was Stendhal, right down to his so-called Three Italian Chronicles.

The Dick is particularly interesting in its portrayal of Pris, another of his definitive, affect-testing (of the reader!) and significant female characters. Mental ‘illness’ and the terror/effect/administration/policing of ‘treatment’ resonate through the novel’s anxieties and paranoias (so characteristic of almost all Dick’s work), but the greatest paranoia is to do with gender and role play, and the obsessive distractions of sexuality and its implications for loss of control, and also redemption.

Dick is overtly ‘guilty’ of sexist cliché at times (he always seems to describe how a woman is dressed and what her breasts are like and whether or not she is good-looking; actually, he is breast-obsessive — it’s to do with the trauma between concepts of nubility, ripeness, fertility, and a weird form of body pastoralism versus artificiality: the doll versus the flesh), but this is offset by the sub-genre de-role play of his female characters.

His brilliant so-called ‘mainstream’ novel Mary and the Giant, originally written in the 1950s (and set in California) but unpublished until 1987, years after his death, deconstructs female stereotypes of genre novels to the nth degree. It’s still ‘genre’ in that it writes out of genre methodologies. The same grammar, syntax, sentence structure as his sci-fi writing of the period. It parodies genre and mimics the ‘literary’. Creates something new in the process. Its own limitations of social perceptions are choices made to illustrate the limitations of fiction itself.

I often think Dick is the ultimate fictionalist. Fiction is a ploy, a smoke-screen for the degrees of separation we hide behind. Fiction is closest to reality, in other words. It is as remarkable as Stendhal in its sympathy for the female protagonist (Mary Anne Reynolds). It also deconstructs racial stereotypes and examines nodal points of prejudice that come out of self-protecting primary societal discourses. How ‘whiteness’ is self-protecting, and creates its own hierarchy of oppressions (reaching a crisis of ‘masculinity’ — or maybe self-masculinity — in terms of comparison with perceptions of ‘black’ masculinities) that cross over, overlay, and delete.

It doesn’t equate bigotries as exchangeable, but explores the contact points and sub-narratives of prejudices that encompass creating ‘subaltern’ figures in order to preserve their own privileged status (even though Mary is forty years younger than her oldest — white/middle class/experienced — lover, Schilling, she ultimately and definitely de-loves). A bit like conservative Anglicans in Australia fighting against the ordination of female bishops. But hey, I left the Church when I was sixteen and have never looked back. All are systems of oppression to me.

Tangentially brings to mind again We Can Build You where Louis is telling Pris (whose only friend as a child was her chemistry set, and that was as she seemed to want it) about a young bird having fallen from a nest and his going to pick it up to attempt to return it to the nest, and the bird opening its mouth. Louis sees this as evidence of the bird’s trust, of the ‘mutual love and self-assistance in nature as well as cold awful things’, Pris rejects this, saying it ‘was ignorance on the bird’s part.’ Louis says ‘innocence’, not ‘ignorance’. In there is all ‘God’, in its contradictions, and the system of language serves as well — or better — than the system of control that is organised religion.

Personally, I respect all religions and no religions at once. I certainly respect each individual’s right to spirituality, to choice of belief system, but not to a right to impose this. Obviously. Speaking of Dick’s ‘mainstream’ novels, another favourite of mine is In Milton Lumky Territory, also published long after its writing and set in the 1950s (Reno etc).

Apart from reading Dick, I have been pondering a new short story. These things take so long for me to sort in my head. The hardest genre, I reckon. I have the narrative (which is something more than plot) — derives from a story told by my brother (a shearer) to Tracy and then by Tracy to me. It’s the germ of the idea that will go into various other places. I like stories derived out of stories derived out of stories. The degrees of separation enhance the fictionalism.

Oh, some real progress was made today with the reconstruction of my novel Morpheus. Written when I was seventeen going on eighteen, it has been tracked down in its various locations (it was broken up and chunks lost etc) by Paul Hardacre at Papertiger Media, and with a fair bit of reconstructive writing by me, and detective and editorial work by him is being reconstituted for publication early next year. A bizarre and difficult task! I am sure Paul would more than agree.

Finally, Mary and the Giant brings me to music — music binds the novel together — and class. I am hearing snippets of Tracy’s latest passion (and Tim’s)... an anarchist... Georges Brassens. You’ll get no facts from this entry, just bendings and warpings. Why? you might well ask. Why?

Niall Lucy and I have finished working on 'our' plagiarism book and are now starting work on another on ersatz. Dick again... The Simulacra. American soldiers in Germany. And so on...


Anonymous said...

Hey John, some interesting and insightful comments on PKD. My friend Guy Salvidge is even more obsessed with PKD than I was (and I give up the title quite reluctantly) - he wrote some interesting posts on his relationship with Dick -

I read somewhere that literary readers won't like PKD's 'mainstream' works, just the same as SF readers wouldn't like Ruth Rendell's shot at SF.

I look forward to your book on PKD. If only he were alive to see this late recognition, like Cormac McCarthy.

Anonymous said...

PS: I know your instinct to read an author's entire oeuvre. It's only then you can begin to understand an author.

But what of authors who are so finnicky in what they publish? Eg Joyce. We discover EVEN more by what they didn't publish - eg Stephen Hero. (CF Dick who would have published his proverbial laundry list for a couple of extra cents to get him through another day.)