Documenting some of them himself (in a journal later published as an exegesis), the issues Philip K. Dick was dealing with in his personal life are known. Hallucinations to transcendental visions, suicidal thoughts to drug use, marital troubles to metaphysical doubts, these elements were reflected in Dick’s fiction in direct and indirect form. But they were always integrated in abstract, fictional fashion that made the story to hand, unique. That is, until 1981’s V.A.L.I.S.
The closest Dick got to autobiography in his fiction, VALIS is the personal and spiritual journey of Horselover Fat (‘Philip Dick’ if Greek is used to translate the first name and German the last), told through the eyes of his friend, the writer Philip Dick. Lost in life at the start of the novel, Fat is dealing with a broken marriage, a suicidal friend, and lack of spiritual conviction regarding the reality of reality. Events triggered when the friend eventually kills herself, Fat falls into a downward spiral. Believing he is mad, Fat shares some of his ideas with his friends Philip and Ken, and starts keeping a journal of his thoughts on metaphysics and religion, particularly his belief that he was contacted by an alien god-mind in the form of a strange pink light. In and out of mental institutions, Fat remains lost in life, that is until he learns he may not be the only one who has seen a pink light.
Erudite in the most madcap fashion, VALIS shows off Dick’s vast knowledge of, or at least research into, culture and history. From Buddhist thought to Greek myth, ancient etymology to perennial Chinese philosophy, Zoroastrianism to biblical scholarship, and much more, VALIS is a hodge-podge of ideas and concepts cobbled from the panoply of humanity’s beliefs and philosophies—the final chapter even an appendix documenting the sources.
Thus, beyond the the tale of Fat’s spiritual journey, VALIS is a fascinating view into the mind of an intelligent madman. On the surface Fat appears crazy, deserving of his time in mental institutions. His milieu of ideas initially seems to hold no center, and when that ‘center’ is found, it doesn’t seem to lend any credence to the idea he has found sanity. Yet individually, when compared and contrasted to the reality/ies Fat perceives, there remains a mesmerizing quality. If the reader can suspend their disbelief (like with any novel), there is a brand of craziness on display that at least gives cause to pause and ponder. Not barking mad, Fat’s ideas allow the reader to consider the possibility of transcendental contact from an alien god-mind at a minimum. I doubt it will convert anyone (save those already inclined toward such theories), but as stated, it makes for utterly fascinating reading.
Unlike many, I am not a fan of Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. It is a disjointed, almost incoherent novel that wanders all over the thematic map without ever grounding itself in unified vision. At the outset, particularly with Fat all over the map in terms of Chinese mysticism, alien overlords, Christian beliefs, etc., VALIS would likewise seem to be ‘diverse’ in its intentions. But the novel proves far more cohesive. The opening half of the book does meander a bit, but at the halfway point things begin to cohere, and by the time the novel reaches its conclusion, has arrived at a singular point—heavy emphasis on ‘singular’ given the full-blown synthesis Fat—perhaps Dick himself?—achieves.
Strange to say, but VALIS may be Dick’s best written book from a technique perspective. There is still the odd, awkward sentence and overall feeling Dick may not be in complete control of the narrative. But on a line by line basis, much of the novel shows concise execution. Likely because Dick was writing from personal experience, many of the ideas and situations are expressed in a brevity of words and metaphors that enhance the reader’s understanding of the story. Also, I suppose after a few dozen novels Dick was bound to learn something.
In the end, VALIS must be considered essential PKD. And there are two reasons. First is the obvious autobiographical elements, particularly considering Dick seems to be bearing his soul to the reader regarding the fight he wages within himself regarding the meaning of reality, god, etc. Second, VALIS marks the beginning of what might be termed Dick’s third and final form in his ouevre. I’m sure Dick scholars have a nicer way of wording this, but from his early pulp days in his first to the heights of his metaphysical inquiries in the second, VALIS and the stories and novels which followed present Dick’s spiritual aspect. Not a simple repition of any rote dogma, Dick adds a variety of flavors and colors to any traditional view on religion that makes, as stated, for fascinating reading.