Sunday, October 24, 2021

I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick

"The book you hold in your hands is a very peculiar book. In it I have tried to depict the life of Philip K. Dick from the inside, in other words, with the same freedom and empathy--indeed with the same truth--with which he depicted his own characters."

Emmanuel Carrère's 'biography' of Philip K. Dick came out in French in 1993, thus nine years after Dick's death, and was translated into English by Timothy Bent in 2004. 

Inside the head of Philip K. Dick is a fascinating, but pretty unstable place to be.

It's not a very conventional biography, even though Carrère seems to have done a lot of the work of conventional biography--interviewing friends and lovers, visiting locations, reading letters, reading earlier biographers, and above all, reading the work of Dick himself. But Carrère doesn't footnote or cite, and except for the occasional moment where he mentions talking with one of Dick's friends, it's unclear where he has gotten information. Worse (or different) he's clearly deducing ideas--and says as much--about Dick's life and mental state from the novels. A terrible no-no, of course, but so what? It works.

The facts are there: Philip K. Dick was born in Chicago in December of 1928. He had a twin sister who died young--of hunger. It was the Depression, but the boy survives and the girl dies. It's no wonder Dick was tormented by this his whole life. The family moves to California when he's still a child, but his parents divorce and he's raised by his mother. He goes to Berkeley High School, and then to Cal-Berkeley for a year, but drops out. He works in a record store on Telegraph Avenue. He meets Anthony Boucher and starts writing science fiction stories. He marries--and marries--and marries: five times in all. 

Dick had a reputation as a druggy, which was both true and not: he took LSD once, in 1964, was terrified by it and never did it again. He smoked marijuana occasionally, but mostly socially, and not, it seems that much. But he did both Benzedrine and Valium--prescription drugs--to stimulate his writing, and wind down afterwards. A lot. But then so did W. H. Auden.

He was difficult to live with: needy and clinging, but also a know-it-all. (Well, he really did know a lot.) Bad in social situations, but with deep friendships at times. Pretty seriously agoraphobic. He wrote to (barely) pay his bills, too much and too fast, but still some of the books are pretty great. He may have had some religious experiences, or it may have been the drugs. He never said for sure, and may not have fully decided himself. The drugs (probably) did for him in the end. He died in 1984, after a series of strokes, at the age of 53.

But Carrère's handling of the facts, while seemingly fine, is not what makes the book so interesting.
"One day, a new young woman rode into his life, on the back of a Harley-Davidson driven by a guy covered in tattoos. 'Donna,' like almost everyone else who appears in this chapter, has been extrapolated from a character in A Scanner Darkly...The real Donna had another name--as did others I write of here--which she has asked not to be used in print."
"Another time, Phil became convinced that Donna was a narc. He confronted her. She replied that she understood why he would think that. In their world it was the kind of thing that was entirely possible."
"Another time, sitting down to drink a cup of coffee that someone had made for him, Phil couldn't let go of the idea of how easily it could have been laced with a potent strain of acid that would set an unstoppable film rolling in his head, a film that would last his entire life."
"Another time, Phil convinced himself that the house was under twenty-four hour surveillance. He knew the phone was tapped, and even if it wasn't, basic prudence dictated that one act as though it were."
These cuts are from one chapter and is very much the world of A Scanner Darkly. Is it fair to mix the life with the works? Maybe not entirely and maybe you would want--or want also--a different sort of biography. But this was fascinating, and it is a very phildickian thing to do.

Could you read the book if you didn't already know Philip Dick pretty well? I'm not so sure about that. As a general rule I only read author biographies for authors I've read a substantial amount of the work. That might be an especially good rule here, I suspect.

The books Carrère looks at in depth:

  • Eye in the Sky
  • Time Out Of Joint
  • The Man in the High Castle
  • Martian Time-Slip
  • Now Wait For Last Year
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 
  • Ubik
  • Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said
  • A Scanner Darkly
  • Valis
  • The Transmigration Of Timothy Archer
  • The Exegesis

Of the novels in the list I've read all but Time Out of Joint, and now I want to read that one. It's a good list, and if one wanted to read that many, I might say just go with that. I haven't read the Exegesis, Dick's millions-of-words meditation on the nature of divine experience, nor am I likely to, but I have the volume of selections, and it sits next to Leopardi's Zibaldone, that shelf of things I dip into once in a while when the mood strikes.

I don't know where I first heard of the book. I got hold of it after I read Deus Irae recently, but the library didn't deliver it fast enough for me to use in writing that post. It wouldn't have mattered. Carrère mentions Deus Irae, but in passing and only slightingly, which is probably about all it deserves.

But Carrère is pretty celebrated these days. There's biographies, novels, memoirs. A few days ago it was announced he won this year's Princess of Asturias award for literature. He's been on the list for the Neustadt prize a couple of times. These things are often considered signposts for a trip to Stockholm. Could the biographer of Philip Dick actually win the Nobel prize?

Who knows? Anyway, it was the first Carrère I've read. It was pretty good. It won't be the last.

Are you a fan of Philip Dick? Or Emmanuel Carrère?


  1. P.K., yes... i haven't read the last four but everything else, yeah.,, i loved Ubik for some reason i read it at least three times... i sent away for "Confessions of a Crap Artist" which wasn't all that great for a supposedly autobiographical pseudo-book... all in all he was a big influence at one time, altho it's been years since i indulged: different times, different books, i guess... i've still got 23 of his on a shelf altho some are duplicates... fine stuff, especially for younger persons...

    1. Ubik is pretty great, I think--other than the Deus Irae, that I read the other day, that's the one read most recently. But if you haven't read Valis or Scanner Darkly, I think you'd like them--they hold up pretty well. There was a movie version of A Scanner Darkly not so long ago & I reread it before renting the movie.
      (Of course, just looking now, not so long ago is fifteen years. Ha!)

      Confessions of a Crap Artis--well, yes, not one of his best. Carrère mentions it: it was written while he was married to wife #3 who thought he should write more mainstream books, but it wasn't published until years later...

      There may be a few on the shelves around here...

  2. It says something - I mist admit I'm not sure what - about the relationship of Dick and Literachewer (SF and literature too) that his biographer is a candidate for the Nobel Prize, but Dick never was.

    1. I am also trying to get my head around the idea of Dick's biographer winning the prize when Dick saw himself--and basically everybody else, too--as a 'Crap Artist.' Too weird!

    2. i wonder who gets nominated for the Nobel board...

    3. They tell you on the website ( but only give the nominations for fifty years older or more.

  3. I'm vaguely interested in both but have read little of either. Most of my interest in Carrere is via the NYT book review staff that seems to have passed around copies of his books enthusiastically for a couple of years now, one to the next.

    1. I can't imagine that an author biography is somehow representative of Carrère's other works, but I am now curious.

    2. One of his other books is a biography (of "biography") of Eddie Limonov, a Soviet refusenik author who became a pro-Soviet Russian nationalist when the USSR collapsed.

    3. I was wondering about that one. Have you read it? It sounded in its approach like the Dick biography.

  4. I haven't read Carrere before, but I have read several short stories and a few books by Philip K. Dick, all of which I enjoyed, even though they're sometimes a little strange.

    1. He is pretty strange, but I've definitely enjoyed a bunch of his.

  5. I haven't read any Dick but I've wanted to read his Android's book. But I have the Gormenghast trilogy that I want to read first. That's supposed to be weird as well.

    I love David McCullough because he's very clear where he gets his information so a biographer who doesn't let me know where his information is coming from doesn't get top stars from me. But this book sounds interesting nevertheless. I'll have to read some of Dick's books first though before reading this one!

    1. The best ones by Dick really are pretty good.

      Gormenghast is weird, and also pretty great, but in a very different way. Dick is a much easier read! Dick, especially in the later ones, is very interested in consciousness and religious experience; he's difficult if he is because there's a fair amount of undigested philosophy and/or theology. Peake is difficult when he is because of his vocabulary. He's much more gothic.

      I'm sure I wouldn't want to read a biography like this all the time, but I did feel like this one worked.

  6. What a tragic life! We were at a bookshop yesterday - first time in about a year, and they had a whole shelf of what looked like new editions of his books, as well lots of 25th anniversary copies of Douglas Adam's Hitchhikers set. I haven't read either authors but my daughter bought herself a copy of Adam's collected works.

    1. It's so nice to be able to go into a bookstore again!

      Some of Dick's problems may have been of his own can't take that many bennies and not expect something bad to happen... ;-) But he's still a pretty interesting writer.

      Douglas Adams is pretty fun! Quite different from Dick, and despite the destruction of the planet Earth in the first few pages, much lighter!

  7. I've only read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep and a collection of his short stories, but these were enough to convince me that Dick is a master. I'd love to read more.

  8. Suddenly looking for PKD …read Androids/Sheep but now curious about others … thanks for the motivation….

    1. Oh, I how hate to learn I've added to somebody TBR list... ;-)

  9. I read many of the novels as a college student in the Seventies. The consensus among us reading snobs at the time: Dick was a great idea guy, but was weak on characterization – the protagonist is almost always a sad sack, the females devil or angel. Dick wrote too much, too fast, and probably under a lot of pressure from various sources. Watch the animated version of A Scanner Darkly from 2006, with Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder. I saw it in a nearly empty theater - I can’t believe such a wonderful movie with such an amazing cast lost money. Maybe stuff about the surveillance state cut too close to the knuckle.

    1. A Scanner Darkley was a pretty great movie--not really sure why it did so poorly. Maybe the rotoscoping thing put people off.

      His female characters are generally pretty poor. Kind of goes with the genre at the time I think, but still.

      After finishing the biography I've reread Timothy Archer & Man in the High Castle. Timothy Archer has Angel Archer as the narrator--she's better than a lot of his females, but she is a bit just Dick himself in drag.

      I hadn't read High Castle since the 70s myself. I'd forgotten how good that one is. It avoids his general sloppiness and Juliana Fink is easily 3 cuts above his usual female character.