Monday, February 16, 2015

VALIS: a book report

The following is from a work-in-progress entitled Philip K. Dick in Orange County, in which I read each of the novels that acclaimed sci-fi author Philip K. Dick wrote while living in Orange County, and write book reports about them.  This is part of a larger project that will become an art exhibit/zine release in May 2015 at Hibbleton Gallery.

With VALIS, Philip K. Dick began a trilogy of novels that would turn out to be his final work, and arguably his masterpiece—his Divine Comedy, his Brothers Karamazov, his Star Wars.  For this report, I’d like to compare VALIS to those other masterpieces, to (hopefully) shed some light on what he set out to achieve with these, his final (and perhaps greatest) novels.

VALIS and The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy is a three-part epic Italian poem written in the 1300s by a guy named Dante.  The three parts represent the medieval catholic view of the universe.  It is both a work of cosmology (understanding the universe) and a personal quest.  The author himself is the main character.  At the beginning, he finds himself lost, and then descends into hell, where his slow journey of enlightenment begins.  Along the way, he meets a vast array of literary and historical figures who give him insight.

In VALIS, Philip K. Dick (the main character in his novel) begins his journey in the throes of grief, loss, and suffering.  His marriage is ending and he attempts suicide.  At the same time, he has a divine vision which compels him on a journey of understanding and healing.  VALIS, like the Divine Comedy, is a work of cosmology, an attempt to understand the universe.  Dick draws on science, religion, philosophy, and art to form his own understudying of the cosmos, which he calls his “tractate” or “exegesis”.  Along his journey, he “meets” (through reading and discussion) a vast array of literary, philosophical, theological, and artistic figures, which I listed in a PREVIOUS POSTVALIS is also a journey of healing.  PKD is sick, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, existentially.  His journey, like Dante’s, is both personal and cosmic.

VALIS and The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov is a 19th century Russian epic novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  It follows a family of four brothers, each on their own journey to understand themselves and the world.  It is a passionate quest for enlightenment, full of suffering, loss, and occasional grace.  Each of the four Karamazov brothers represents a different philosophical outlook, and each may be seen as aspects of Dostoyevsky himself.  There is Ivan (the atheist), Alyosha (the monk/mystic), Dmitri (the sensualist), and Smerdyakov (the deranged bastard).  Through the interplay of these different perspectives, Dostoyevsky seeks to, in the words of the New Testament, “work out his own salvation with fear and trembling.”

Like The Brothers Karamazov, much of the “action” of VALIS consists of PKD discussing theories of knowledge and the universe with his friends—characters who mirror the four Karamazov brothers in interesting ways.  There is Kevin, the skeptic.  Kevin is always sarcastically making fun of, and picking apart, PKD’s religious theories.  Kevin is Ivan.  There is David, PKD’s catholic friend, who sees the world though the lens of Christian faith.  David is Alyosha.  There is the twin persona of Philip K. Dick and his alter-ego Horselover Fat.  Philip is rational, while Horselover is deranged.  These two could be compared to Dmitri and Smerdyakov.  Dmitri’s quest, like Philip’s, is to overcome/transcend his mentally ill alter ego, to achieve harmony and peace.  Like Dostoyevsky, Philip K. Dick personifies aspects of himself through his characters, to work out his own salvation/enlightenment.

VALIS and Star Wars

Around the same time VALIS was published, another work of science fiction was taking America by storm—Star Wars.  In writing his science fiction epic, George Lucas drew upon the mythological ideas of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which sought to draw lines between archetypes of world mythology.  Lucas used these archetypes to create his own hero's journey—the journey of Luke Skywalker.  Luke begins his journey in ordinary circumstances, but he is ultimately drawn into a vast and ancient cosmic battle between the forces of evil (represented by the Galactic Empire and the dark side of the Force), and the forces of good (represented by the Rebel Alliance and the light side of the Force).  Luke meets guides and companions who help him on his journey.

Like Star Wars, VALIS begins in ordinary circumstances—suburban Orange County.  However, the author eventually learns that there is a vast/ancient cosmic war going on, which he is drawn into.  While living in Fullerton, he has a vision of the ancient Roman Empire superimposed on 1970s southern California.  Repeated throughout the novel is the line “The Empire never ended.”  Philip/Horselover learns that the forces of evil/empire still exist, and are now personified by Richard Nixon and an oppressive American police state.  The author sees himself as part of a small cadre of resistance against this evil empire.

VALIS, being a dense work, full of literary references, welcomes comparisons with many works of literature.  I hope, by making a few of these comparisons myself, I have shed some light on what the author was trying to do with this work.

Stay tuned for my report on the second novel in the VALIS trilogy, The Divine Invasion, in which the ancient cosmic war continues…


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  2. "Valis" was his most experimental novel.It was different to the earlier ones he wrote,which were also daring,including the novelette,"Faith of Our Fathers",which had a similar theme.That one and the other novels of the same decade,that I alluded to,weren't so personal and self conscious as "Valis".