A few nights ago I had a chance to watch the Philip K Dick documentary “The penultimate truth.” is quite short at just 89 minutes long. Nevertheless the director has done a good job in including interviews with many of Dick’s friends ex wives and colleagues. Perhaps the most interesting footage is an excerpt from Dick’s speech at the Metz science fiction convention in France. I had not previously known that footage of this speech existed. The whole speech is not shown but nevertheless you can see the audience look rather bemused. Also included is a short interview with Dick’s then girlfriend. She offers a rather negative opinion about the speech, saying that it was actually an embarrassment. It is true that this speech has a notorious position in Dick scholarship. Dick gave the speech a few years after his infamous experiences of 1974. As such it is yet another attempt by him to understands those experiences. Additionally since this was delivered as a science fiction convention Dick obviously no felt no compunction about speculating quite wildly about the origin of those experiences. The filmmaker obviously has some sympathy with Dick’s girlfriends position. She too is shown in the audience, as her interview plays over the footage in which she claims that she was very embarrassed by this talk. The overall effect than is too portrayed Dick as being out of control.
However, a very different view is available to the reader of the novel VALIS. Again, this is a lightly fictionalized account off Dick’s actual experiences. Many of his real life friends appear in the novel, such as KW Jeter, Maurice (his analyst Barry Spatz) and Sherri Solvig (Doris Sauter). Both Spatz and Sauter also appear in the documentary. Most intriguingly, Dick himself appears as a character in his own book. Not only once, but twice; as the narrator, and as a character called Horselover Fat. As a narrator himself points out, ” I am writing this in the third person to gain much needed objectivity”. The narrator (a version of Philip K Dick himself) frequently points at just how crazy horse lover facts appears. The novel was written in 1981, about four years later than the speech at Metz, and perhaps by this time Dick realized that many of his ideas sounded unusual to others. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Dick had a rather good self assessment. Rather than 1/2 crazed out of touch speaker at Metz, we are offered an unsparing self assessment which is filled with Dick’s irrepressible humor. Indeed, it is perhaps this humor which is the most appealing aspect of this very difficult novel. Two sites just capital one instance, we are told off the character Kevin and his dead cat. The Kevin character (who stands in for both Kevin Briggs and KW Jeter to) uses his cat, which ran out into the streets and was hit by a car, as evidence that there is no God. On judgment day says Kevin, he will whip out the cat which by this time would be a stiff as a board and hold it out by the tail like a frying pan.
VALIS is not the best known or the best loved of Dick’s novels. On the other hand, along with the Transmigration of Timothy Archer, it is the one in which Dick’s philosophical musings reach their most profound moments. The fact that even Dick had to split his narrative character into two parts, indicates that he felt it necessary to continually provide a mechanism for self assessment. This, along with the humor that suffuses the novel, make it one of the most important Dick’s canon. Therefore, while I thought that the documentary was often interesting, especially since it manages to interview quite a few of those who knew Dick, the portrayal of him as lacking self-awareness is incredibly off the mark. There can have been few writers who subjected themselves to such merciless and continual assessment as Dick. His whole so-called Exegesis, parts of which are now slated for publication next year, are the result of this examination. It is rather more truthful to see Dick as one who questioned, maybe even over-questioned, his life.
PS this is the first piece I have tried with voice recognition software, so apologies for any misspellings I missed.