Science Fiction Studies

#53 = Volume 18, Part 1 = March 1991


  • Carl Freedman. In Search of Dick's Boswell (Paul Williams. Only Apparently Real: The World of Philip K. Dick. Gregg Rickman. To the High Castle--Philip K. Dick: A Life, 1928-1962. Daniel J.H. Levack. PKD: A Philip K Dick Bibliography)
  • De Witt Douglas Kilgore. The Blue-and-Not-Yellow Sun (Darko Suvin. Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction)
  • Robert M. Philmus. English-Language Science Fiction Via Italy (Rudyard J. Kipling. Nel Mondo di ABC... ; Edward Everett Hale. La Luna di Mattoni; William Morris. La Terra Cava e altri racconti..)
  • George Slusser. Le Guin and the Future of SF Criticism (Bernard Selinger. Le Guin and Identity in Contemporary Fiction; Elizabeth Cummins. Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin)


Carl Freedman

In Search of Dick's Boswell

Paul Williams. Only Apparently Real: The World of Philip K. Dick. NY: Arbor House, 1986. 184pp. $7.95 paper.

Gregg Rickman. To the High Castle--Philip K. Dick: A Life, 1928-1962. Long Beach, CA: Valentine Press, 1989. 451pp. $19.95 paper.

Daniel J.H. Levack. PKD: A Philip K Dick Bibliography. Westport, CT: Meckler, 1988.156pp. $35.00.

Although, as I have already discussed in the pages of SFS, the years since Philip K. Dick's death in 1982 have witnessed a marked increase in the amount of critical attention devoted to him, there has probably been even more biographical work on Dick in the last eight years or so; and there is the promise of still more to come in the near future. Why has the life of a troubled, often irresponsible man provoked more interest than the body of fiction which I--and by no means I alone--take to be the most fascinating and important produced by any American writer during the second half of the 20th century? One may be tempted to conclude that, as Gore Vidal has often suggested, the regime of celebrity under which we live has simply rendered novelists a good deal more interesting than novels for most people. But there is, I think, a special factor at work in Dick's case. Most biographical writing about Dick has been produced by personal acquaintances, who, whether they knew the author intimately or more casually, seem to have been mightily struck by Dick as a personality. They have, one gathers, accordingly been moved to try to convey to the rest of us some sense of the author's presence; big chunks of Dickian talk are common in Dick biography. An interesting precedent and comparison is suggested by Dr. Samuel Johnson--and Dick, after all, appears to have been (at least in certain moods) a splendidly egoistic talker very much in the Johnsonian tradition. The immense amount of Johnson biography that appeared in the years just after the Doctor's death was motivated less by the importance of Johnson's poetry and prose than by the desire to capture on paper what the great personality and conversationalist had been like in the coffee house and the sitting room. Unfortunately, this task--which may seem straightforward enough--is in fact extremely difficult, and Johnson biography typically offers little more than tentative glimpses of the presence that dazzled (and intimidated) contemporaries. The exception, of course, is Boswell, and Boswell's rare success has often caused him to be canonized as the greatest of all biographers.

Dick has yet to find his Boswell. Nor has he yet found that more dispassionate sort of biographer--I think of Sartre on Flaubert, Isaac Deutscher on Trotsky, Richard Ellmann on Joyce, or Erik Erikson on Luther, to pick a few diverse examples--capable of synthesizing erudite scholarship, critical analysis, and Esthetic power into a biography which is first-class both as a work of science and of art. All this is merely to say that Dick has not yet found the biographer, whether of Boswellian or more academic type, that he deserves; and given the odds (great biographers being rather rarer than great novelists), he probably never will. But we need not therefore belittle the efforts of the Dick biographers--such as the two under review here--whose work, however imperfect, is seldom less than interesting.

Paul Williams is the Rolling Stone journalist who became one of Dick's closest friends, whose early pro-Dick writings have an important and honorable place in the history of Dick's literary reputation, and who currently serves as Dick's literary executor. He takes a decidedly Boswellian approach to his subject. This volume is quite frankly a memoir by the junior partner in a literary friendship rather than a work of scholarship; and excerpts from the master's conversation amount to an even higher proportion of the text than is the case with the Life of Johnson.

The comparison is not to Williams' advantage. Part of Boswell's genius lay in understanding that the mere transcription of conversation rarely produces the same impression on paper that the original did in person: in order to preserve the spirit of a great talker's talk, it is often necessary to take some liberties with the letter, pruning, revising, embellishing, and contextualizing. Williams seems to be too much the honest plodding journalist to take such liberties. Doubtless as faithful in his way as a tape recorder--he dutifully preserves an "um," a "yeah," and even a "[pause]"--he falls short of the higher Boswellian fidelity. Was the experience of hearing Dick's talk really much like the experience of reading it here? Was there really as much whining and as (comparatively) little humor in Dick's conversation as Williams' transcripts tend to suggest? I doubt it. And if so, it is hard to guess why so many intelligent people found the author's presence so thrilling.

Still, Dick's meandering musings make for sympathetic, if often rather sad, reading; and Williams is probably quite right to devote as much space as he does to what may in some ways be the central event of the author's adult life: the notorious break-in and burglary at Dick's home in November 1971, probably but not certainly the work of the FBI or some other government agency. Dick rarely says anything that directly illuminates his fiction in any significant way, but his recurring brooding and theorizing over this traumatizing event--the sort of thing one might expect to happen to Joe Chip, Rick Deckard, or Bob Arctor--resonates in an almost eerily profound way with the most searching elements of the novels and stories. The greatest writer of paranoia since Kafka was himself a paranoiac, but--just as an attentive reading of Ubik or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or any number of his other works would lead one to expect--Dick's paranoia had at least as much to do with the harsh realities of Nixonian America as with his own inner state.

I suspect that Dick's paranoia was also related, though in ways still somewhat obscure, to another outstanding feature of his personality, one that Williams shrewdly identifies and that deserves fuller analysis than he gives it: the trait that Williams describes in one of his chapter titles as "a life lived on paper." Williams' point is that Dick was one for whom nothing was quite real unless and until he had gotten it down on paper. The insight is eminently plausible (for one thing, Dick's immense productivity cannot be fully comprehended by the usual explanation of economic necessity, real though that necessity generally was); but the corollary would seem to be that what Dick wrote on paper was ipso facto real for him and in a position to compete with the "real" reality. If life can be lived on paper, then paper can colonize and dominate "life." The system-building and megalomania at the heart of all paranoia may thus have been at the heart of the writing process for Dick as well. Though this is not the place to pursue this line of speculation, it seems likely that if a truly great psycho-biographer--one of Sartrean or Eriksonian stature--should ever devote a volume to Dick, the result could be a pathbreaking theoretical treatise on the relations between paranoia and writing: which is to say, finally, between writing and the formation of the ego itself. Lacan and Derrida would be relevant to such an endeavor, of course, but I suspect that in the end Dick could throw nearly as much light on them as they on him.

Williams' biography, then, though less than truly great, can be recommended as an interesting, thought-provoking effort. I should add that, in the several years it has been on my shelves, I have most often gone back to it for the sake of the invaluable bibliographical index. Though it is quite short --it covers only the novels and gives only a few lines of information about each--Williams' special access to Dick's private papers has enabled him to make many important contributions to our bibliographical knowledge of the author, not only about the work unpublished in Dick's lifetime (thanks to Williams, it has mostly been published since), but also concerning the order of composition of the published novels, which did not always correspond to the order of their public appearance. All in all, and despite the shortcomings of this volume, it is difficult to avoid concluding that Dick, who probably made more than his share of mistakes in judging other people, chose his literary executor well.

Those desiring more bibliographic detail than Williams offers may be referred to Levack--but with some important cautions. When the first edition of Levack's bibliography came out in 1981, it was a superb contribution. Its core is an alphabetical list of Dick's books (novels and short-story collections), giving for each a description of content, bibliographical data about multiple editions, and (a very thoughtful touch) reproductions of cover art. There is a similar list of the stories, a list of adaptations of Dick's work into non-literary media, a list of connected stories and continuing characters, and more. It is difficult to imagine that anyone could have produced a much better Dick bibliography in 1981. But--mainly because of Williams and the Dick estate--the general condition of bibliographical knowledge about Dick was massively transformed between 1981 and 1988, and one reasonably expects that a "revised" edition will reflect the changes. Not a bit of it. Despite a few small corrections, this is basically the same book as in 1981, often to the point of absurdity: for instance, Levack continues to include in a list of unpublished manuscripts work that was in fact in the bookstores before his own allegedly "revised" volume came out. Even the typesetting and pagination appear unchanged. Levack continues to deserve a big debt of gratitude for his work a decade ago, but--if such a thing were legally possible--he (or, perhaps more likely, his publisher) also deserves to be sued for lack of truth in packaging. I wonder how many of Dick's readers bought this edition expecting it to be as good by 1988 standards as the original was by 1981 standards--only to find that they had in effect thrown their money away.

Finally, it remains to consider the most ambitious of the texts under review here, the first volume in Rickman's projected two-volume biography of Dick. Though Rickman was not an intimate friend of Dick's--unlike Williams or Tim Powers (who contributes a highly laudatory foreword)--he was personally acquainted with the author, and there is a substantial Boswellian component to his biography--unsurprisingly, since among Rickman's earlier works are Philip K Dick: In His Own Words (1984) and Philip K Dick: The Last Testament (1985), both quintessentially Boswellian efforts, though Rickman is as far as Williams from attaining Boswell's own remarkably high level. For the most part, however, Rickman's new effort is more scholarship then memoir, and he is first of all to be congratulated on his thoroughness.

If the second volume is of comparable bulk to the first, the final product will approach a thousand pages. Admittedly, first-class editing could sizzle that bulk down somewhat, for Rickman's style is often verbose and almost never genuinely elegant. Yet, even allowing for that factor, there is quite enough substance here to give some plausibility to Powers' generous claim that Rickman has captured "something close to the totality of the man, in all his depth and contradictory aspects." Though we may suspect Powers of a certain confusion of categories when he goes on to say that "to read Rickman's biography is, in a real sense, to know Philip K. Dick better than any one person ever did," I strongly suspect that Rickman's will indeed be considered in most respects the standard Dick biography, perhaps for years or even decades to come.

It is not, of course, merely a matter of quantity. Though Rickman's general tone and manner are more journalistic than academic, in point of conscientiousness he can lay claim to the solid academic virtues. He has done his homework, having pored over Dick's own published writings, having put in a good deal of time in the relevant archives (one gathers that the ubiquitous Paul Williams was helpful in this regard), and having worn out his share of shoe leather in interviewing not only Dick himself but many people who knew him. But not only has Rickman assembled more material relevant to Dick's life and career than anyone ever had before; he has also had the wit to understand that such material needs to be organized in several different ways, that good biography approaches the subject from various angles. To pick a few major examples, Rickman approaches Dick as a psychological subject in formation (and deformation), as a cultural figure of mid-century America, and--though the slant is of course less critical than biographical--as a great novelist. In sum, Rickman has made a serious, worthy attempt at great Dick biography of the academic (or quasi-academic) sort.

Yet he has not produced it. My main complaint is not with this or that particular fault, but is simply that, though Rickman's effort is in almost every way competent, it is in almost no way really brilliant. For instance, Rickman's psychological detective work (perhaps the most original aspect of his book and of which there is more to come in the second volume) is certainly interesting; in deriving much of Dick's character from early experiences of child abuse, he not only propounds an interesting biographical thesis but--most admirably--attempts to widen awareness of and thus help prevent this particularly hideous form of suffering in the future. Yet he does not, finally, command the kind of psychoanalytic background and depth which enable (say) Erikson's reconstructions of Luther and Gandhi to enrich our understanding of the category of the psychic itself. Similarly, though Rickman is aware of the necessity to situate Dick in historical context (he rightly stresses, for example, Dick's horrified fascination for Nazi Germany and his wide-ranging knowledge of the latter), he is not really a great cultural historian; and though he is well-informed concerning Dick's fiction, he lacks the theoretical equipment needed to be a major critic of it. There are also shortcomings of a more general sort. I have already mentioned the relative drabness of Rickman's style, and a similar insufficiency of aesthetic power or shaping joy is evident in the overall organization as well. Although we will be better able to judge this matter when the second volume appears (under the title Firebright: The Life of Philip K Dick 1962-1982), thus far Rickman seems to me to incline rather too much to the one-damn-thing-after-another mode of composition.

Having suggested these limitations, however, I should again stress that my implicit basis of comparison is a work for which we have every right to hope but will probably never in fact possess: a genuinely great life of Dick, an opus which would make to American biography a contribution comparable in quality to that made to American fiction by more than a dozen of Dick's novels and at least two dozen or so of his short stories. If Williams' and Rickman's attempts fall definably short of full success, their shortcomings are, after all, the sort of failure which Dick himself teaches us to expect, especially in ourselves. I once, as an undergraduate, had a professor who propounded the notion that the manners and mores of literary scholars sometimes seemed to be based upon the authors they studied; thus, he maintained, Miltonists tend to be dour and harshly judgmental of one another, while Burtonians or Joyceans are comparatively easy-going and much given to vinous recreation together. Though I must confess no preference for the drug-taking and mystical communion with other Dickians which might seem to be appropriate according to my old professor's theory, I do think we ought to be--and generally are--conscious of our own imperfections and tolerant of each other's. None of us, finally, is really adequate to the situation at hand. All of us are in some way Joe Chips, none of us a Glen Runciter--or, to be more precise, none of us is the commanding figure of authority which Joe Chip at some points wrongly supposes Glen Runciter to be.

Stephen Dedalus, notoriously, described history as a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. Certain literary realists and naturalists would reply that no such waking is possible or desirable. Philip K. Dick's contribution to the controversy is, in effect, to insist that you can awake as many times as you please, but the nightmare, in one form or another, will still be there. In that spirit, we should be grateful to the biographers who can tell us something about the personal nightmares of this portly, tormented, egoistic performer who--victim of assorted horrors from child abuse to probable government thuggery--achieved the most compelling vision of the nightmare that is the United States of America during the second half of the 20th (the American) century.

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