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VALIS, by Philip K. Dick: A Life-Changing Novel
As a lifelong reader, many books have deeply affected my life and thought, and those books have been both non-fiction and fiction. Many people might wonder how fiction can change a person's life, but often other readers will simply smile and nod knowingly. We all know that a story, a character, or even a passage from a novel can inspire feelings and thoughts so profound that people can spend years re-reading and thinking about them.
Those are the kinds of novels I have assembled into this review. My rule for inclusion was simple: the book had to be one that:
1. I have re-read at various points in my life
2. has directly influenced major choices in my life.
My reason for sharing these novels and my love for them with you is to spread the joy and depth of experience such novels can bring. I hope, if you have not read these before, that you will now, and that they can bring you the same kind of insights and wisdom that they have given me.
VALIS by Philip K. Dick
Many people don't know the authors behind their favorite movies, but fans of science-fiction will readily recognize this unsung genius. His career was prolific, intense, and often tragic, with drugs, financial problems, and failed relationships often leaving him in states of incredible misery. In the midst of this misery, he produced some of the most original, interesting, and intricate stories to grace the page, and his influence on the genre has been profound. Hit movies like Blade Runner, Minority Report, and Total Recall have, even with the added special effects and violence, still managed to address the themes with which Dick was most concerned: empathy, identity, and what it is to be human. The recent film, A Scanner Darkly, arguably the most faithful adaptation of his work yet, further played with the notion of identity, while also addressing the issues of ethics, relationships, and knowledge with which he became most concerned towards the end of his life.
However, there is a concern none of the movie adaptations have addressed, an obsession that fueled Dick's last three novels in both their content and tone. This concern was the divine, and VALIS, the first novel of what is now sometimes called the "VALIS Trilogy" (VALIS, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer) is one of the books that changed my life.
It turns out that in 1974, Philip K. Dick had a mystical experience. The details of this experience are easy to find elsewhere, but the short version is that after having dental surgery, he noticed a necklace the young woman who delivered his pain medication was wearing. It was the now well-known Christian fish symbol, and she explained the symbol and its origin to him. After she left, he had a long and intense experience, during which he claims to have received information directly from a divine mind or god. Some of this information said that Dick's young son was suffering from a congenital birth defect that could kill him at any moment, and told Dick what to tell the doctors. Sure enough, the child was suffering from exactly that defect, the doctors performed surgery, and the child was fine.
For the rest of his life, Dick attempted to come to terms with this experience. His "VALIS Trilogy", as well as the novel "Radio Free Albemuth", is the result of this endless reflection. Again and again, he questions his sanity, his identity, and his notions of knowledge and truth, and is led back again and again to the basic and irrefutable facts of his experiences. Every equilibrium achieved and answer found is but a short respite from his search, and at the end of Dick's life there is no evidence he came to any real conclusions.
VALIS opens with the character Horselover Fat being confronted by a request for pills by Gloria, a friend who intends to kill herself. Fat, who in fact has no pills, attempts to save her life, though his motives are mixed. Gloria eventually kills herself, and this, for Fat, becomes the symbol of all that is sick, mad, and broken in the world, including his own mind. Gloria's death and the sickness it manifests become for Fat a symptom of an essential irrationality in the universe, a madness in the mind of God.
Fat, it turns out, has had an experience identical to that of Philip K. Dick. He was, at some point prior to the beginning of the novel, bombarded with a type of divine pink laser-light that fired knowledge directly into his awareness. The identity between Fat and Dick becomes problematic immediately, however, because the book quickly shifts point of view to "Phil", an analog of Dick himself. He is the true narrator, though his observations are of Fat's life, mind, and thoughts.
This life and thought is plagued with the questions of human history, philosophy, and theology. For Fat, the divine godhead had revealed itself and then maddeningly hidden itself again, and that combined with Gloria's death acting as symbol of evil and suffering has left him desperate. He toys with various conspiracy theories, obsesses on writing down his experiences and analyzing them in an "exegesis" (which Dick himself had done), all the while descending further into desperation and mania. He has had meaning held out to him and then snatched away and replaced with the corpse of a friend, and this is driving him mad.
His search and obsession also takes its toll on his friends, who do everything they can to help him find some peace and understand what has happened to him. Eventually a connection is discovered with an avant-garde movie called "V.A.L.I.S.", which is said to mean "Vast Active Living Intelligent System" (only a description, not an explanation, Fat sadly notes). The movie has images and messages hidden within it which correlate to Fat's experiences, and so the friends and the vindicated Fat first contact, and then journey to visit, the group who put out the movie.
At the group's compound, they discover a child, Sophia. Sophia is supposed to the mouthpiece for VALIS, and so the group goes to speak with her. She says many things, but the overall message is one of peace and hope, though she says that the people who made the movie have misunderstood her and that Fat's group must leave. The play with identity is resolved as we learn that Horselover Fat has never actually existed, and that the group of friends that are the witnesses to the events of the book have been allowing this dual identity as a way of humoring Phil/Horselover. Horselover is a translation of "philippos", the Greek word which is the source of the name Philip, and Fat is the similar translation of the German word "dick". In a flash, the two become one as the dualism between the divine revealed and death manifested introduced in the beginning of the novel is resolved. Sophia's message is one of resolution through transcendence: the almost Gnostic dualism where life and death, the rational and irrational are locked in struggle is revealed to be instead a dynamic system, a rescue mission for humanity rather than a war.
This is the unstable equilibrium which Dick comes to in each of the books of the "VALIS Trilogy". In each, a dualism is presented about existence itself. Dick is consumed with the deep conviction that there is something wrong with reality, that we as humans have become somehow bound up in a prison by evil forces. At various times the prison is spiritual, physical, political, or even temporal, as Dick's theories about his own experiences change. In the different novels, he works out the experience from different points of view. Each of them address the same issues: a broken reality somehow tied to a broken sense of identity, which must be healed through some sort of cosmic resolution, but each approaches a different aspect of the issue for him. In each, different issues are taken to be important. In VALIS, the personal experience of the incident is what he is trying to resolve, while in The Divine Invasion he is interested in the theological problems. Finally, in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, the emotional content of the experience is coped with. In each, his solution is uneasy and unstable; he is aware that his resolution is an act of faith, and this makes him uncomfortable, but it is the only resolution which he can come to.
Why did VALIS, and to a lesser degree the "VALIS Trilogy" change my life? Well, in a way what Philip K. Dick went through was an experiential version of the philosophical "Problem of Evil". For people who are drawn to spirituality, this issue is a deep problem. We want the universe to have meaning, and we hunt for that meaning, and when we see suffering and evil that seems to be built in to the universe, the meaning we find is extremely difficult to live with. We look at the universe and see intent, and that this intent seems to be not loving, not even neutral, but insane and cruel. To lose faith in the ultimate goodness of the divine is far worse than to lose faith in the divine. I went through a period where the "Problem of Evil" caused me so much anguish I was suicidal. I know it might seem strange to some people to become suicidal over an obscure problem of theology, but for me it was very serious. If I could not resolve the problem for myself, I would die, and I knew it. I had read VALIS before and had gotten a lot out of it, but during this period I both read the book repeatedly and listened to the VALIS musical by Tod Machover endlessly. Like Dick, and his alter-ego Fat, I was desperate for meaning that both fit my experiences and resolved the problem. Like Fat, I had been stricken to the core by the world, and it had left its sickness and madness inside me to fester.
Without the aid of VALIS, my own spiritual life would never have been resolved, and if that had not occurred I would have committed suicide. The book's solution is not exactly my own, as no two mystics relate to the world in the same way. Dick's resolution for me was too unstable, and I needed something else, which I may eventually write about, but his solution was necessary to my own. Perhaps, if this book had not existed, some other would have taken its place for me, but there is no way to know that.
I would urge this book upon anyone interested in the issues of identity, meaning, and the divine. It is a difficult novel, and in some ways it is not a craftful book. Characters spin in and out of the storyline with almost no development, and even at the best of times the prose is convoluted. The excerpts from Dick's "Exegesis" often read like pre-Socratic philosophy through the distorted lens of psychedelics. However, the value of this novel is not in its storytelling or its philosophical insights. The value of this novel is in the account it gives of a human's dealings with the divine, and in this sense it should be read meditatively. It must be considered and lived with, not simply reduced to its key concepts or plot-twists. Remember that Dick lived and died for the meaning he found in these experiences, and read it with care, consideration, and reflection.
It might just save your life someday.