‘VALIS’ Through the Looking Glass

❉ Joseph Viney looks at the insane response to reality that is Philip K. Dick’s ‘VALIS’.

Thirty five years since its release ‘VALIS’ remains one of the most baffling and riveting pieces of science fiction literature.

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Philip K. Dick’s winding, jagged tome was at once a study of breakdown, a counter-culture religious text and a howl of outrage at a confusing and demoralising universe. The story anchors itself to Horselover Fat – aka Dick himself – who weaves and becomes involved in paths of destruction, conspiracy and the performing of miracles.

For the author, the road to ‘VALIS’ had begun years prior. The victim of hallucinations and nervous breakdown, Dick’s episode of religious mania in 1974 changed the course of his life and swathed his fiction in pink beams of light.

The pink beam of light Dick claimed had been transmitted into him via an artificial satellite network called ‘VALIS’ literally reshaped his whole world. In the aftermath of the hallucinations, Dick claimed to be leading two parallel lives. One as himself, the other as a persecuted Christian in first century AD Rome by the name of Thomas.

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The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick by R. Crumb from Weirdo #17

Context weighing heavy on the novel – suffocating it even – Thomas M. Disch wrote that VALIS “went off the rails sometimes”, but concedes that even in the maelstrom of what drove the book’s creation it is an admirable effort “considering how much there is to be held together”.

Underneath the talk of a transcendentally rational mind, superimpositions of 1AD Rome over the baked hills of California and the bleak retellings of suicide and terminal illness lies an artefact of the tail end of American culture in the 1970s; all self-referencing and self-deprecating. Away from Hunter S. Thompson’s hyper realised cartoon proclaiming The Death Of The American Dream, this was the beginning of the nightmare. A sad, sorry and piteous end to the bastard offspring of the beat generation. More ‘Kentucky Ham’ than ‘Naked Lunch’.

Dick’s penchant for the blending of worlds and traditions old and new comes to the fore. The aforementioned US culture references are in the allusions to the music of Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead. Within the first three pages, Horselover Fat chides himself for using language of the time that was becoming quickly trite. “Groovy”, “out of sight” he remarks to a friend who is asking him for pills so she can kill herself.

A percipient gloom pervades ‘VALIS’. Both book and author present as world-weary, tired, addled and afraid to hope. Witness the agonising slow death of Sherri, the frantic and desperate zealousness of Fat’s acquaintances Kevin and David and the doomed life of Sophia, a two-year-old child who may or may not be the incarnation of Holy Wisdom.

Yet despite all of the self-created obstacles laid in its path, ‘VALIS’ has remained crucial and intriguing enough to be revered three decades on. Dick – at times prolific to a fault – can leave the reader breathless with the length and breadth of his philosophical and religious knowledge and references.

It is Horselover Fat who ultimately defines ‘VALIS’ in one typically pithy line: “It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane”.

For Dick, the spells weaved in the novel had also been cast in his own reality. Or realities. VALIS served as a conduit – part of a network – to the lengthy, wide-ranging and grimly fascinating sections of a journal he dubbed his Exegesis.

Clocking in at over 8,000 pages in total, the Exegesis delves into Dick’s visions, beliefs, hallucinations, paranoid theories and theological diatribes in rich and raw detail. Finally published in late-2011 – albeit in a more palatable 1,056 pages – the book’s editor Jonathan Lethem wrote that the Exegesis was “absolutely stultifying, brilliant, repetitive, and contradictory” before deducing that “it just might contain the secret of the universe”.

Whether or not it does contain the secret of the universe is moot. Even with all his writing and mental exercising that left him a broken down wreck, Dick appeared to be no closer to whatever truth he sought.

Above: John Dowie and Ken Campbell defend VALIS by Philip K Dick on ‘Battle of the Books’ with Mariella Frostrup and James Naughtie.

‘VALIS’ is not particularly well-represented in culture, perhaps in part to the inherent difficulty of the text, subject and author. Tod Machover gave ‘VALIS’ the operatic treatment, looking for his own Jeff Wayne moment. It wasn’t to be. ‘VALIS: An Opera’ is overlong, lacking verve and narrated by a Homer Simpson soundalike.

Aside from an inevitable turn in Hollywood’s fabled ‘production hell’, VALIS has very rarely left the confines of its genre and fanbase. With varying success stories following the adaptations of other “unfilmable” novels such as ‘Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas’, ‘Naked Lunch’ and ‘Dune’, Tinseltown may be wary of trying to bring it to a wider audience.

It may be a blessing. Dick’s writing at this time was so aggressive, intelligent, logical and illogical concurrently and downright convincing that even the most seasoned sceptic may find themselves nodding silently and slowly, being drawn further and further in, line by line.

Maybe that would be too dangerous. Philip K. Dick was a trailblazer, but warned us which directions we should never take.


❉ ‘VALIS’ by Philip K Dick is available in paperback and Kindle as part of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series.

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