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Philip K. Dick and the Pleasures of Unquotable Prose

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What does it mean when a great writer like Philip K. Dick is considered to have an occasionally terrible prose style? Even so brilliant and well-regarded a defender of Dick’s novels as author Jonathan Lethem has referred, in a 2007 interview with the online journal Article for example, to Dick’s “howlingly bad” patches of prose. Lethem also made these sentiments clear in an interview that accompanied the publication of Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s by the Modern Library of America. (Lethem edited this and subsequent volumes.) In that interview, Lethem says [pdf] that Dick’s style is not a sentence-level style at all, but has more to do with scene construction and wild and crazy tonal shifting. Like any reader of Dick’s anxiously inventive fiction, however, Lethem knows that the writing is generally fine and occasionally excellent. It’s just that there are spots (sometimes lengthy) of distractingly awkward description, or silly interior monologue, or creaky exposition. As a genre writer who produced over 44 novels and something like 121 short stories, Dick’s prose style seems to disappoint, at least a little bit, his literary-minded devotees, myself included, of course. What are we to do?

For starters, we need a clear example of the bad prose in question. In this case, the howler will be coming to us from the dangerous and forbidden land of the sex scene, a writer’s booby trap (no pun intended) if ever there were one. Dick’s attempt, however, in his 1964 masterpiece, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, closes out the lovemaking with a poetic flourish that turns into something unusually horrific:

A long silence, then. Then, “Oof.” She leaped, galvanized as if lost to the shock of a formal experiment. His pale, dignified, unclothed possession: become a tall and very thin greenless nervous system of a frog; probed to life by outside means. Victim of a current not her own but not protested, in any way. Lucid and real, accepting. Ready this long time.

Take a minute to read this passage closely. You may not have noticed, but Dick has just compared a naked woman in the throes of orgasm to an electrified frog. Yet the description is so out-of-nowhere unexpected and ambiguously communicated that the first time I read it I thought Dick was comparing a penis to a jolted frog leg (“become tall and thin…”). There’s also the weird, dehumanizing way that the woman here is labeled a “possession,” a description given some obvious counterweight—one can sense Dick hoping—by the word “dignified.” And the adjective “greenless” is stupefyingly strange in this instance (and would be in a lot of other instances).

The usual defense of the disappointments in Dick’s sentences is: ignore the bad patches; just keep reading. But why worry, really? Yes, there are moments in Dick’s best novels that seem like unrevised first draft material, but there’s something essential about the inconsistency of Dick’s writing. It is important, I think, that Dick’s novels are not particularly quotable. I certainly wouldn’t show off the frog-experiment sex scene to any of my friends. So maybe the way to grasp the intricate philosophical craziness of one of Dick’s books is to think maximally, in terms of plot structure and narrative scheme. Forget looking for the pithy quote, which is a sham. Embrace the plot summary, which is real work.

Paradoxically, plot summary can be exactly the opposite of what we usually assume it is: reductive. What’s really reductive is excerpting a writer’s nice sentence on a blog. Thinking in terms of plot summary when praising a novel by Philip K. Dick does something else. In Dick’s novels, his plots are like thinking machines. You have to operate them like a piece of equipment to understand what they do, not expose one gear and say, Wow, it’s spinning so fast.

Take Ubik, a novel that Lethem loves yet chides (lovingly) in his interview with Article for its excessive and weird descriptions of characters’ clothing. One man in the novel is said to be “square and puffy like an overweight brick, wearing his usual mohair poncho, apricot-colored hat, argyle ski socks and carpet slippers,” a description that sounds funny out-of-context. But it’s actually one of an increasingly exhausting number of character sketches that seem pointless even when they aren’t overlong.

Ubik takes place in a world where psychics are common and commonly hated and feared. An entire industry of “prudence organizations” has sprung up to counteract mind-reading, precognitive prediction, etc. This is also a world in which the dead are kept alive, more or less, in what is called “half-life” or “cold-pac.” Their brains slowly dying, the dead are installed in freezing chambers which their next of kin can visit in order to telepathically commune with them. The dead even give business advice, though they spend much of their time in cold-pac experiencing some sort of alternate version of reality. A final layer of mind-fuckery comes in the form of Pat, who has the ability to revise the present and take people back to other versions of actuality. Those subjected to her revisions seem to get a sense that something is off, but the novel suggests more than once that no one is sure when or if her ability has kicked in. The decisive plot point of the book is an explosion that either kills a single character or all the characters but that individual. Either way, people’s bodies start spontaneously disintegrating. Then time starts devolving, too, until out of nowhere it is 1939.

Now the point of Ubik’s plot is manifold. The persistence of death looms large in the novel, its churning plot suggesting the human talent for denying life’s unrevisability—the fact that we remember the past, not the future, and think this gives us power, that we don’t always recognize the decay of our relationships as readily as their growth, that we insist we’re conscious of our circumstances, the warp and woof of cause and effect. But I’ve left out two key parts of the machine. In the world of Ubik, everything is coin-operated, even—and this is one of Dick’s great comic swipes—the door to a debt-ridden character’s apartment. He can’t get out unless he pays the door a nickel. And his refrigerator won’t let him have any food. Finally, there is Ubik itself, a spray can that, when used, restores decaying bodies to their survivable form. As a ubiquitously advertised consumer product (ubiquitous = Ubik), Ubik is the ultimate purchase in a world where everything works only for a price. Everything needs to be activated, like so much dead machinery. And in a series of worlds struggling against decay, the coin- and Ubik-operated realities of Dick’s novel reminds readers that consumer culture loves novelty because it’s devoted to obsolescence. Not to get all Werner Herzog, but decay is the engine of life. Moreover, Ubik suggests that economic transaction embarrasses human dignity. After all, if getting deli meat from your refrigerator requires a deposit of a few cents, your life has all the spiritual richness of standing in front of a vending machine. And buying your life one step at a time sounds a lot like fake resurrection (assuming, of course, that the idea of resurrection is not already some kind of fake).

In other words, the plot of Ubik is not a function of fantastic prose. There are funny, incredible passages that would, of course, be worth quoting. But that would be to miss the point of Philip K. Dick’s particular charm. If you take a writer like Annie Dillard, you can be constantly amazed. She can and does write single paragraphs so beautiful and diamond-sharp that to read them is to feel finished. That, I have thought more than once while going back over a passage of Dillard’s writing, is the absolutely conclusive statement about the metaphysical significance of giant water bugs.

But with Dick it’s different. With Dick, you have no conclusive statements, not really. Instead, you read unending reports about the casual imprisonments—emotional, spiritual, and pharmaceutical—that organize human experience. So many characters take mind-altering drugs in Dick’s novels that he manages to explore the crossover between addiction and conscious commitment. That is one of the key dilemmas in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Likewise, Dick’s plots require something more than just attention. You keep track. You lie in wait for the next quirk of invention, ignoring all the times Dick uses a tinny “Jeez!” as expression of a character’s interior turmoil. Pithiness was not Dick’s bailiwick; his work, I think, was in honor of confusion, not answers.

Dick’s paragraphs are sometimes scintillating, but rarely in the representative-feeling way that a more lyrical author might write. Dick isn’t out to crystallize a particular sentiment. He does not aim to be quotable—to be, in a word, reducible. Instead, his novels feel like labor, as though they are tabulating the results of some desperate experiment. So, it isn’t the prose style, but the plot assembly that gases up the moving parts of Dick’s fiction. This isn’t to say that his characters, dialogue, and description are somehow mere tools of the greater narrative, but rather that you don’t quote Philip K. Dick. You read him.

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