Part 1, in which we
start collapsing our reality tunnels begin P.K.D.’s half-fictional, half auto-biographical scifi novel. Like many of you, I’m completely new to P.K.D.’s mind, having only read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep over a year ago. Secondly, this book is the first of the “VALIS Trilogy” that is made up of The Divine Invasion and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Ideally, we’d love to get a reread for each of these, in time!
A few notes. “Horselover,” is allegedly a pseudonym for Philip, and “Fat” for Dick. So there’s that, off the bat. Like I mentioned, this is all a thinly veiled auto-biography, in which “Phil Dick” becomes a part of, later in the story. But I won’t say anymore about that. For readers who are really interested in diving deep into P.K.D.’s mind, you should know this all surrounded an Exegesis, a real journal of Dick’s attempt to make sense of what was happening, and what had happened to him. It’s a massive tome of a book that’s gone on to inspire a group of dedicated, latter-day PKDickean hermeneutics and annotators: the Zebrapedia.
VALIS has led me to believe that P.K.D. wasn’t only a ‘father’ of modern science fiction, but in many ways the ‘pink light’ that zapped him, and everything that thus unfolded, was integral to the modern-day “consciousness” movement that R.S. finds itself a part of. An eerily perfect blend of resurrected gnosticism, blurred into alien visions, technological magic and time travel.
Without further delay, here is chapter 1.
Chapter 1 – Overview
“Horselover Fat’s nervous breakdown began the day he got the phone call from Gloria asking if he had any Nembutals.”
I always pause at a book’s first sentence. Like a form of bibliomancy, it tells me the scope of the linguistic territory I am about to enter. The next sentence, “He asked her why she wanted them and she said that she intended to kill herself” seemed to set the tone for the novel.
We learn that Gloria is Fat’s friend, and she is set on killing herself in a cool and calculated way that unnerves him. We also learn that Fat has a psychiatrist who has acutely warned him not to try to help people — and also to get off dope. Fat doesn’t have any Nembutals, but he lies to her and tells her he does. That way he’d get a chance to talk her out of suicide. On the first and second pages we begin to see that whoever the narrator is, he is definitely acquainted with Fat. “At the time he didn’t know it, but he had been drawn into an unspeakable psychological game.” The trap is set.
“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”
Gloria drives over. The narrator spends some more time telling us how the events in the present — 1971 — are going to going to result in Fat’s suicide attempt in 1972 while in Vancouver. “Right now he was spared that knowledge,” Dick writes, “One of God’s greatest mercies is that the keeps us perpetually occluded.” In the meanwhile, he was dealing with Gloria, who was… is… “rationally insane.”
Then Dick breaks the fourth wall.
“I am Horselover Fat, and I am writing this in the third person to gain much-needed objectivity.”
He takes a few shots at the 60’s counterculture, chastising Tim Leary’s encouragement on expanding consciousness through dope. “This time in America — 1960 to 1970 — and this place, the Bay Area of Northern California, was totally fucked. I’m sorry to tell you this but that’s the truth.”
We learn that Gloria would eventually kill herself by throughout herself out of a building in Oakland, and that Fat had lost his own wife to mental illness not a year before the events taking place. The chapter is punctuated with the occasional reminder that Horselover Fat is Philip K. Dick, or at least, a character designed to reflect the man behind the curtain: “I am by profession, a science fiction writer. I deal in fantasies. My life is a fantasy.” This will play a major part in the book. More thoughts on that in the comments.
When Gloria visited Fat, she ended up spending time together, even as he failed to convince her. Visiting the beach, Fat discovers the extent of her madness . She reveals to Fat that there is a “they,” and “they” had stole her bank account. Gloria had developed an air-tight conspiracy theory. “As she talked she began to disappear. He watched her go; it was amazing… She is dead now, he realized that day on the beach.”
Fat invites Gloria to move in with him, to no avail. She ends up spending the night. “Far out,” Fat says, and comments that “the counterculture possessed a whole book of phrases which bordered on meaning nothing.” Gloria spends the night but the two of them don’t have sex. We then quickly learn that, just a few days later, Gloria kills herself. Her husband calls Fat up on the phone, “where are you right now?” he asks Fat. This question made perfect sense to me — but in a time before cell phones, it’s clear that it’s a bit odd:
“The question bewildered him; he was at home, where his phone was, in the kitchen.”
We learn that Gloria was at a place called Synanon, what I gather to be a drug rehab center. They practiced a form of behavioral psychology that breaks down the person’s ego with the hope of rebuilding them. It didn’t work for Gloria, who was suicidal to begin with. “They sure didn’t help her very much,” remarked Timothy, a friend of Gloria’s.
The chapter ends with a discussion on madness. Fat compares it to a “Chinese finger trap.”
“You cannot think about it without becoming part of it. By thinking about madness, Horselover Fat slipped by degrees into madness.”
This is a very introductory chapter, but already we have examples of Dick’s marvelous ability to tug the reader into a state of uncertainty. We have a story about Horselover Fat. But, wait a moment, this isn’t just a story. The narrator is Fat. On top of that, if we know anything about the author, P.K.D., we know that it’s not just from a faux-third-person, or even a clever narrative device. Horselover Fat is Philip K. Dick. “I am, by profession, a science fiction writer.” So there we go. Dick is fictionalizing himself. You might be reading his autobiography.
Having read ahead a couple of chapters, the idea of slipping between multiple identities, real vs. fake, or simply shifting into sidereal times and spaces, is a technique that Dick employs throughout the book. He has mastered this, actually, if you have ever read any of his other works (for myself, I’m thinking of how he used this technique in Do Androids Dream in a very disorienting way). For readers who want a good, clean pulp novel whose story is handed to them, VALIS is the furthest thing from.
At the end of chapter one, intentional or not, Dick might be suggesting to us: Yes, you, Dear Reader, are slipping into madness by simply reading my words.
So what do we know for now? Dick is Fat. Gloria is dead. Fat is just about to slip into his own state of madness.
What did you think? Anything stand out? Being a reread, this is all about discussion.
Did I miss anything you thought was important?
That’s all for now. This Monday we hit chapters 2 and 3. Then 3 and 4 next Friday. I think this routine works. If anyone has suggestions on their end, please email me: jeremy (at) evolver (dot) net.
Oh, and one more thing:
I’ve been in talks with Erik Davis, author of TechGnosis, host of Expanding Mind podcast and regular R.S. contributor. He’s interested in coming on to our ReRead as a guest blogger for a Q & A session.
Professor Richard Doyle, host of the Radio Free VALIS class on Synchcast and author of Darwin’s Pharmacy, has expressed interest in participating as well.
This just keeps getting better! Stay tuned for more next week.
Feature artwork by “A Philip K. Dick Moment” is by artist Robert Jimenez.