Philip K. Dick & Lawrence Sutin (editor)
The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick (1995)
Well, I've read everything else barring some of the short stories presently waiting in collected editions somewhere at the middle of the latest to be read pile, so it seemed like time I tackled a few of the essays and other writings, particularly as I've seen a few of these - notably How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later - referred to elsewhere as significant with some frequency; and although I have still to tackle the 2011 edition of The Exegesis, it's the size of a housebrick and looks terrifying.
Surprisingly, although Shifting Realities is interesting, it's not quite so interesting as I had anticipated. Whilst the background material, Phil's views on other writers or science-fiction as a genre, even two chapters from an unfinished proposed sequel to The Man in the High Castle all serve to justify the occasional raised eyebrow; and his unsuccessful - possible even unsubmitted - pitch for an episode of the television serial Mission: Impossible seems doubly bizarre for being both distinctively Dickian and yet entirely forgettable; a lot of what is said here has been said to more convincing effect in Dick's fiction. I suspect it may simply be the case that the medium of fiction allows for a safety net by which even the most ludicrous ideas may be framed as worthy speculation rather than just the rantings of a nutcase.
On his 1992 spoken word CD Human Butt, Henry Rollins delivers a eulogy for one Crazy Paul also known as Sky King, a homeless Washington resident befriended by himself and Ian MacKaye of the band Fugazi. Amongst Crazy Paul's frequently startling monologues, the following seems to have been fairly typical:
The state department took my teeth. They owe me 340 billion dollars but they need all my money to raise babies at the state department, and as you know it takes a lot of money to raise a baby boy - I'd never hurt you now, I'd never hurt you - mother, father, red, blue, green, black, kingsnakes on top of the mountain. Your mother is being eaten alive by black snakes! I try to stay as high as I can. You got money for a beer?
The appeal of Crazy Paul, as Rollins describes it, was not so much the aggressive surrealism of the guy's routinely schizophrenic announcements as those instances where great poetic truths were unexpectedly washed ashore amongst the tide of non-sequiteurs, notably the one about getting all the world leaders together for a spaghetti dinner at St. Luke's Presbyterian Church, and of course:
I remember there was a wonderful moment when Paul and reality fused for about forty seconds. It was unbelievable and I was there. He was incredible. Paul and I were sitting on a bench, right next to the pet shop, waiting for the pet shop to open and to go in and get into some shit. Waiting to get into the shit there and so we're sitting there early Sunday morning and Paul's awake and he's not drunk because the booze has worn off and the stores aren't open yet. We're just sitting there on the bench. He's kind of muttering to himself. I'm just kind of sitting next to Paul in the smell - I'm used to the smell by now - and he gets up and starts doing this soft-shoe type shuffle and I go, 'Paul, you know you got a pre-tty good step there. That's a pretty awesome dance you've got going there.'
He does this pirouette, has his back to this little fence that lines the outfield of this ballpark, scrapes his boot on the fence, turns around and looks at me and says, 'you know, I always wanted to be a dancer, but I could never get the shit off my shoes.'
I'm sat there just going, 'fuuuck! Paul, that's beautiful.'
I always wanted to be a dancer, but I could never get the shit off my shoes.
How many gas station attendants wanted to be mountain climbers? How many guys working at JCPenney in the girdle department wanted to be Yanomama warriors but could never get the shit off their shoes? How many moments have you had these incredible bursts - forty, sixty, eighty second bursts of total non-judgemental evaluation of yourself? Here I am. I see clearly, and then ugh fuck - the shit's on your shoes again and you're full of shit again; or you leave your house, perfectly wonderful day - Godamn life is nice for once! 364 days of the year it's really hard. It's mean, boring and short, but man - sometimes there's that one day even if it's like twenty seconds long and then - tadaaa! Wow! All right! and then you turn around and there's some guy, a shit dealer just smearing you with shit and I'm back in my own hole again. No matter what you do it seems there's always something or someone, usually yourself, trying to put the shit on your shoes and succeeding, and the shit goes right through your boots, right into your soul and you're full of shit, endlessly full of shit...
To swing back around into a low geostationary orbit of the original point, the above kept coming back to me as I read through Dick's discussion of the nature of reality in the later essays. His ideas work when embedded into some obviously fictional narrative because fiction allows a way in, a means by which we can pick up that sucker and take a look without getting burned. On the other hand, delivered as a rambling testimony in no coherent order by someone who actually appears to believe we're still living in ancient Rome amongst other similarly loopy ideas sprinkled with I'm aware of how crazy that may sound as disclaimer, does no favours to the author; and I like to think of Dick as having qualities beyond the occasional moment of accidental profundity concerning shitty shoes and thwarted balletic ambition.
Philip K. Dick revealed as a nutter makes no difference to the quality of his fiction, nor the worth of the philosophical discourse communicated therein, because little of this material was ever intended for publication, and in any case, his mental state was never a secret. The Shifting Realities affords a glimpse into the thoughts of the author in more detail than I really needed, although at least I feel marginally vindicated in not having bothered to buy any of the collected volumes of his letters. There's some fascinating material here, but thankfully not much which will influence the way he is remembered.