Monday, April 23, 2018

Review of VALIS by Philip K. Dick

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.


  1. Since there is no review of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer yet, I guess you haven't read it yet. It is a very touchign mainstream novel and proves your observation that Dick was bound to gain experience in writing after a few dozen novels. Transmigration may be his best novel concerning his writing and aesthetic.
    I enjoyed VALIS. Personally, I don't dabble in esoteric beliefs, but reading about them can be very entertaining. I wish he would have taken a little more humorous approach, like Robert Anton Wilson in Illuminatus! and Cosmic Trigger.
    Curiously, Dick's style never bothered me. Except for a few early novels of his so-called apprenticeship period, I really enjoyed his writing -- no matter if flawed or masterpiece. But maybe I should add that I worked on (but never finished) a PhD thesis on PKD, so I read his novels of the 1960s at least four times each -- and in that decade alone twenty of his novels were published. But I won't reread VALIS, I guess.
    Cheers again,

    1. Correct, Transmigration sits on my shelf unread. A couple other writers whose opinions I trust (Jonathan Lethem and Michael Bishop) likewise rate Transmigration the best of Dick's so-called 'spiritual' period. But do you think I should read The Divine Invasion first? I know there is no connection between the three novels in terms of storyline or plot, but is there a component of Divine Invasion that sheds light or enhances Transmigration in some fashion?

      Dick's writing style has never bothered me, either. I notice it, but the surrounding ideas are so fascinating that the awkwardness in style is pushed to the background. In fact, I would much rather re-read a Dick novel than a Guy Gavriel Kay novel despite the glaring difference in prose quality.

      I didn't know you'd dug so deeply into Dick's ouevre. What would you consider his best four or five novels?

  2. I did read The Divine Invasion first, but rather because I pushed back reading Transmigration. All those novels share a spiritual theme, but even Dick himself offered contradictory opinions on whether Transmigration was actually what he considered the third installment of the so-called VALIS trilogy (what might actually have been merely a publishing ploy anyway), or whether The Owl in Daylight would have been the third volume. Spiritual overlays aside, Transmigration and Divine Invasion are unconnected and can be read separately.

    I'm not sure if can distinguish objectively between his best novels or my favorites. And if I tried, would I judge by how well executed and/or polished the finished novel is (i.e. did he actually revise the novel as contrasted to his first-draft, cranked-out hack work), or by how much the ideas resonated with me?

    Dr Bloodmoney and Martian Time-Slip are certainly among his best-executed novels. Ubik, Three Stigmata and Do Androids Dream are without a doubt among his masterpieces. I would be remiss if I left out The Man in the High Castle. A Scanner Darkly is great, though exceedingly gloomy. Transmigration is well-written and features Dick's most sympathetic female and lead character, Angel Archer. But I do have a soft spot for some of his lesser work as well -- Penultimate Truth, Clans of the Alphane Moon, The Simulcara. I think sometimes it also has to do with in what circumstances you first read a book. It gives you fond memories of those books, even if they are not as well done as others.