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Book Review

‘The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick’ edited by Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem

Philip K. Dick.
Philip K. Dick.(Frank Ronan)

Whether to publish a writer’s unfinished work is a question literary estates and heirs face, not always honorably.

Scraps and drafts by authors including Dr. Seuss, Robert Heinlein, Tolkien, Hemingway, and Douglas Adams have been released, posthumously, as books, sometimes ignoring the author’s wishes.

Authors generate endless drafts and chuck 90 percent of it, for good reason. Most is chicken scratch.

In the case of hyper-prolific cult writer Philip K. Dick, we now have the strange collection of scribblings called “The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.’’ Dick likely did not intend these personal notes to be published - and, in fact, the editors point out that Dick’s children weren’t completely comfortable about the book, fearing that it could harm their father’s reputation.

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Dick toiled largely in obscurity. His big break came only after his death, in 1982, when “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’’ was adapted by Ridley Scott as the film “Blade Runner.’’ Since then, his literary star has ascended, along with academic interest in the “Exegesis’’ collection. Several movies, including “Total Recall’’ and “Minority Report,’’ have been based on his work. Prior to “Blade Runner,’’ only sci-fi diehards knew of Dick’s 44 novels and 121 short stories, many infused with paranoia and corporate and governmental oppression, and the flight from that tyranny via transcendent experiences, drugs, and altered states.

Yet the one “real’’ event Dick could not escape became his obsession: what he came to call “2-3-74,’’ his own shorthand for the confounding events of February and March, 1974.

During those two months, Dick was visited by hallucinations and visual psychedelia. He described these visions, variously, as pink light beams; as “hundreds of thousands of absolutely terrific modern art pictures’’; as a “red and gold plasmatic entity’’ ; as “Zebra’’ and “Ubik.’’ For eight years, from 1974 until his death in 1982, the effort to comprehend these visitations consumed him. At night, he’d crank out dozens, sometimes scores, of handwritten or typewritten pages of ideas, theses, lists, letters, drawings, flow charts, all embodying the true meaning of the French word “essay’’: a weighing, a trial, an attempt. These philosophical-spiritual writings have been released as “The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.’’

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A previous, 278-page selection from Dick’s 8,000 page, two-million word “Exegesis’’ writings, “In Pursuit of Valis,’’ appeared in 1991. Now, editors Pamela Jackson (a Dick scholar) and novelist Jonathan Lethem give us much more: an intermittently-footnoted, 944-page doorstopper, arranged in the random order the papers were originally collected from a garage in Sonoma, Calif., shortly after the author’s death.

The result is many things: transfixing, infuriating, boring, repetitive, intriguing, scary, and possibly brilliant. A volume you don’t read cover-to-cover so much as dip into, then step away from, catch your breath, scratch your head, and admire.

We see the visionary trying to figure out his private, troubling voices. “So Zebra is a macro feedback circuit re my micro-conception as expressed in Ubik especially, but not limited to Ubik,’’ Dick writes. Or, more simply: “God is everywhere. In the music. The cat.’’ The fanatical prose is littered with references to Joseph Campbell, Plato, Spinoza, Heidegger, Milton, R. Crumb, and Nixon.

You might ask, was Dick insane? Perhaps. As a teen, he was diagnosed as a schizophrenic; later in life, psychiatrists declared him sane. He suffered from nervous breakdowns, as did his characters.

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“Exegesis’’ seems more about not knowing - and living peacefully with that uncertainty - than any revelation. “A problem in such matters as this is that there is no one to explain it all to me, i.e., a guru. I can’t find anyone I can ask or talk to,’’ Dick writes. “And now I exhaust myself trying to explain.’’


Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at at www.ethangilsdorf.com.