Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Divine Invasion

Philip K. Dick The Divine Invasion (1980)

Narrowly read as I may well be, one of my absolute philosophical favourites is found amongst the five Mexican flower-songs translated from the Nahuatl by Thelma D. Sullivan and published in Mexico This Month magazine in 1963, later reprinted in A Scattering of Jades:

Where will I go?
Where will I go?
To the road, to the road
that leads to God.
Are you waiting for us in the Place of the Unfleshed?
Is it within the heavens?
Or is the Place of the Unfleshed only here on Earth?

The point of the song, in case it isn't obvious, is to question basic theological assumptions regarding the nature and even the existence of those Gods the Mexicans generally believed responsible for the creation of their universe: is there an afterlife to which we are assigned when we die, or do we just snuff it and that's your lot?

Most of Philip K. Dick's writing was similarly focused to a greater or lesser extent upon the nature of our existence on the Earth, and these themes became particularly pronounced in those books written after he went a bit bonkers in the wake of a series of peculiar psychological episodes. Well, maybe it's not that VALIS and The Divine Invasion - to name but two of the later works in question - examine our perception of reality with greater conviction than before so much as that Dick gave greater emphasis to theological aspects of the issue in his last years. The Divine Invasion, like VALIS to which it is loosely speaking a sequel, may be seen as tip to the huge iceberg that was Philip K. Dick's 8,000 page Exegesis, the private journal he maintained from 1974 onwards.

The story is, roughly speaking, the second coming of Christ according to Dick, who by then entertained a view of the world as an illusion wherein malign forces had concealed the true paradise created by a God who stepped outside for a smoke and hadn't been seen since. It works on its own terms, and works particularly well during the more traditionally Dickian blue collar passages with protagonist Herb Asher employed at an audio supplies store and becoming fixated on a thinly disguised Linda Ronstadt figure. It's less successful during the more theologically convoluted passages - ontological discussions upon the existence or otherwise of God which, if interesting enough, come to resemble texture rather than anything contributing specifically to the narrative. It works in so much as the detail of a Burroughs novel works, although Burroughs tends to be funnier in his randomly swerving from one side of the story to the other. I have a faint suspicion that it may only be the classical stature of Dick's reference material - the Torah, Plato and so on - which distinguishes this from the subterranean and psychotic ramblings of Richard S. Shaver in terms of composition, with Biblical theory as equivalent to donning a cape and speaking in a booming voice. I suspect this is why writers, in my experience, tend to play the metaphysical card with reference to Greek or Judeo-Christian rather than, for one example, Mexican texts. Some ideas carry authority, others are merely curios of mythology or anthropology, and I'm not sure of the factors distinguishing one from the other being necessarily anything to do with content.

Despite my whining, this is still a great novel and undeniably chewy, but it's some way from Dick's best and in places feels like the work of a broken man; which sadly it sort of was.

1 comment:

  1. In tone and humour,he seemed to be trying to return to his 1960s stuff,particularly I think "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch",and despite the truth of your words,it does appear to be vintage Dick.It's certainly much lighter and more carefree than "Valis",a dense,rather clinical novel on which opinion has varied considerably.It clearly has strings attached to the previous book however,if only by theme and emphasis,and suffers therefore from theological rigour mortis.

    Brian Aldiss definetly got it right in his "Trillion Year Spree",where he said that in the 1960s,religion was just another strand richly woven into his novels,but here it was detrimental to the sf element.A pity it couldn't have been a stand-alone novel,but as you really say,it was written in a period of angst.