The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, by Philip K. Dick

2011. When time stops, “the substrate is revealed.” So begins this edition of PKD’s end-of-life compulsion to understand the revelation he experienced in February 1974 then again in March. He may have seen through to the underlying reality of, well, our perception of reality. Or he may have had a small stroke. Or he may have had an acid flashback. Or he may have been visited by a superior intelligence.

PKD explores every possible angle for his sudden insight by writing mostly by hand nearly every night for the remaining eight and a half years of his life. He analyzed himself and his own work especially ten novels he felt to be form a meta novel. He continued to produce novels and was working on still another when he died. He had reached a point in his career where money began to flow a bit more freely, a fan base had begun, international markets were bestowing more praise than his home country, and SF conventions were inviting him to keynote and paying for his trips. His overriding ambition throughout everything was to understand the above revelation. He wrote; he debated with himself; he called his friends in the middle of the night with further insights; he figured it all out only to dismiss his findings in the cold harsh light of the next morning when he’d start the process all over again.

It’s not clear to me if PKD ever meant for any of this work to be published, but I’d guess from my layman’s distance that he probably did. He wrote mostly by hand and didn’t bother to keep the material in an orderly fashion, but he had enough faith in his reputation to expect future biographers to come in after his death and sort through the mess he left behind. Friends even spotted him carting stacks of handwritten material to the incinerator at times, meaning he did dispose of something, which meant he did allow the rest of his pages to survive.

I spent months reading The Exegesis. The material was too dense for me to read more than ten to twenty pages at a time. This edition runs to 900 pages. I didn’t want to race through it. I wanted to think about it. Let the ideas linger, maybe fester, maybe germinate. And unusual for me, I expect to return to the book from time to time just to jump in for a blast of PKDickiana. I like how he challenges everything, every idea and solution he conjures, how he takes the BUT WHAT IF opposite side of every auto-debate.

It’s his process of exploration that I find most intriguing. How he hammers unrelentingly at a problem to see just how malleable are the assumptions upon which we base our worldview.

If you like PKD, and if you like digging into a writer’s journals for insight into how and why he wrote what he did, you’ll like Exegesis. If you aren’t familiar with PKD, this is still a violently good read. And if you stick with it, you’ll end up reading his novels which is exactly what you should do after you finally make his intimate acquaintance.


PASADENA PAYBACK published today

PASADENA PAYBACK, a crime novel, is the first in my series of Pasadena Crime Novels.

Crispín Gomez Diaz runs cash between Pasadena and Nogales to pay off his missing brother’s old debt. He has family in Los Angeles and in Sinaloa, and he does what he’s told to keep his family safe from retribution.

While Crispín is leaving on his final run for his Pasadena payer, joyriding barrio boys swipe his backpack not knowing that it carries a small fortune hidden among the contents. Crispín has thirty-six hours until his appointment in Nogales. If he shows without the cash he’s dead; if he doesn’t show, his family is.

Meanwhile, Crispin’s undocumented status becomes a behind-the-scenes issue in a local political contest. The gardener no one noticed suddenly becomes popular when he needs to remain invisible until he tracks down his backpack.

Dirty debts, raw ambition, and old loyalties collide in this fast-moving tale of honor and payback.


GUEST POST – Invention v. Interpretation: Bioy and Borges, by Tom Gething

Jorge Luis Borges called it perfect, as did the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. The Invention of Morelby Argentine novelist Adolfo Bioy Casares is a fantastical novella, a carefully constructed conceit. Spare and tautly plotted, this work of “reasoned imagination,” as Borges described it, is the offspring of the speculative fiction of H.G. Wells, the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson and the theological detective stories of G.K. Chesterton. Not coincidentally, it also echoes the themes of Bioy’s mentor—that master of the rational, philosophical and speculative, J. L. Borges.

In a prologue to the 1940 first edition of The Invention of Morel, reprinted in the New York Review of Books’ English edition, Borges argues that the psychological novel exhausted itself in masquerades of realism that were “formless” and “tantamount to chaos,” whereas the plot-driven adventure story, though often called puerile by critics, is alive and well—witness the number of detective stories written and devoured today. Borges goes on to compare Bioy’s novel to the Turn of the Screw and The Trial.

I respectfully disagree. While The Invention of Morel is a finely cut jewel, it has all the warmth of a white diamond. If there is fire, it is locked deep inside its facets. I won’t spoil the book’s conceit. Suffice to say, it resolves with a fantastical premise that seems less fantastical today than when it was written. Bioy’s conceit reminds me of such theoretical postulates as the multiverse proposed by modern physicists—those quantum ideas that can’t be experienced or proven but the mind can deduce, just as it can consider a mathematical equation, syllogism or paradox. “Isn’t that interesting,” you conclude and then get on with your life. As much as I enjoy Borges for such intellectual exercises, he’s the last writer I’d choose to remind me of what humanity is about. The thrill of James’ ghost story or the terror of Kafka is not derived from the plot, as Borges maintains, but from the psychology underlying the plot, not from what happens when but from the interpretation of what may have happened.

According to Borges, “there are pages, there are chapters of Marcel Proust that are unacceptable as inventions, and we unwittingly resign ourselves to them as we resign ourselves to the insipidity and emptiness of each day.” Yes, but I’ll take those pages full of miserable, messy humanity any day over the meticulous, reasoned imaginations of Bioy or Borges, as intriguing as they are.

For more from Tom Gething.


Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, by Lawrence Sutin

1989. There are several ways to go about your discovery of PKD. You can read his best novels; you can read his best stories; you can scrounge around garage sales and on-line for old magazines with his earliest works; you can read essays and interviews by and about him in those old mags, and increasingly in the “mainstream” periodicals as his work caught on and the “mainstream” caught up; you can rent the movies made from his novels and stories then you can read the underlying works and compare them to the Hollyversions; and if you really want to go deep, you can read Exegesis, PKD’s eight-year, eight-thousand page hand-written quest to answer his two BIG QUESTIONS: WHY ARE WE HERE? and WHAT IS REAL?

Or you can read Lawrence Sutin’s excellent biography. Written within seven years of PKD’s death, this bio is smart, thorough, and close to the subject. Sutin read it all – over forty novels and two hundred stories, the then unpublished Exegesis, and a lifetime’s correspendence – no small feat. He interviewed Phil’s surviving family and friends and fellow writers.  Through it all, he exhibits honest respect for his subject, hairy warts and all.

NOTE: I just found this comment on Amazon from Tessa Dick and add it for perspective:

I have mixed feelings about this book. Sutin gives the impression that he interviewed me extensively, but he actually used quotes from other interviews and never met me, although I did briefly answer three of his questions by letter. Furthermore, I must disagree with most of his conclusions. Since I spent ten years with Phil, and those were the last ten years of his life, I believe that I know more about him than a biographer who never met him and simply read about him.”

Wherever you start, PKD is a literary journey worth taking.

Then there is PKD the man: an only son whose twin sister died at one month and who by his own admission spent the rest of his life looking for her replacement. PKD married five times, fathered a son and two daughters, fought money troubles most of his life, attempted suicide at least once, and abused pharmaceuticals to sustain his energy and alleviate his phobias and anxieties. He loved cats, loved his children, fell in love at the drop of a hat – especially with dark-haired girls half his age – and was often generous with his friends and family.

Coming of age in the SciFi boom of the 50’s when success accrued to the writer who could crank it out the fastest, PKD learned to write – and type – at break-neck speed, at one stretch composing on average fifty pages a day for weeks at a time. As he aged, the drugs which helpd him sustain that pace took their toll, and he learned as did everyone who enjoyed the synthetic highs of the 60’s, that drugs had their dark side. He called Through a Scanner Darkly his anti-drug statement, even writing to the FBI to volunteer as a spokesman for anti-drug PR efforts.

As successful as PKD was at SciFi, his first and abiding ambition was to break into “mainstream” literary fiction. His only such breakthrough during his life was Confessions of a Crap Artist, published in 1975 to modest success. My intro to PKD happened to be that book which I found in a dime store on a rotating book rack. I was a lit major and had suckled on serious stuff, ya’know, but I often supplemented my diet and fattened up on richer fare. Crap was rich, and I was blown away by its energy, its humor, and its honesty. Who knew reading could be that much fun? It’s like it wasn’t even work; the words flew off the page and the pages turned themselves. Who was that guy?

I’ve since read some of his better books, some of his better stories, and plowed through all of Exegesis. None of it has disappointed. Of course, I’m a fan. And at this stage anything with his initials is going to interest me.

PKD was a man of ideas rather than a man of action. He wrote himself into physical and emotional hell, or he wrote himself out of physical and emotional hell. You could look at it either way. However you choose, he left us with a body of work that is as unique and powerful as anything from the second half of the twentieth century.

After a visionary experience in Feb/March 1974, PKD spent the last eight-and-a-half years of his life writing to try to understand the two BIG QUESTIONS. Exegesis is interesting because of PKD’s fiction. Exegesis is an exploration that doesn’t arrive at any conclusions. It asks THE QUESTIONS and discards every answer to further test corollaries and opposites and take unexplored paths. He read deeply and widely, dreamed constantly, thought and argued with himself consistently, and talked for hours to friends who would listen. Who knows, he may have understood THE BIG QUESTIONS a little better at the end, and as only he knows, he may have been ready for death when it came.

PKD left us with a body of work that is entertaining, provocative, funny, and capable of skewing your view of reality just enough to perhaps help you perceive it a bit more clearly. If that’s not mainstream fiction, PKD, I don’t know what is.


Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

2005. Biafra. Famine. Distended bellies. Massacres. Rock concert to raise awareness. Overwhelming military force used to conquer a short-lived breakwaway republic. Somewhere in Africa. A faraway place. A natural consequence of post-colonial self-government.

Which of these impressions did you have of Biafra? If any. Find Biafra on a map. Which country did it break from and why? Who won and who lost? How many people died? Which European country was the past colonial master and how did it respond?

If you’re like me, even if you lived through the Biafran saga – when was that again? – your knowledge is/was incomplete. Yes there was a tragedy which involved those issues and images from the first paragraph above. But the genesis of the conflict? The outcome?

The beautifully narrated Half of a Yellow Sun filled in the many gaps in my knowledge of this sad chapter in African post-colonialism. Adichie follows up her impressive debut novel Purple Hibiscus with a richly nuanced story of the Biafran separatist effort told from the perspective of five main characters: the teenage houseboy, the academic revolutionary, the twin sisters from a powerful and corrupt trading family, and the ex-pat gone native after colonial rule. Each perspective illuminates a group that suffered and survived, but not without tragedy and loss.

With intimate understanding of her tribal and national culture, of her family history, and of the impact international diplomacy had on local events, Adiche creates a compelling and powerful narrative. The main characters come of age as does the newly independent country at a time and within an environment when self-interest among nations created a disastrous situation for the innocents on the ground.

These individuals caught in the vice of history first met when struggling to make their ways in the heady world of independence. Gradually, the forces that shaped their personalities made demands that pit the individuals against their native groups and in the struggle for survival no one was blameless for the suffering of friend, family, neighbor, and countryman.


GUEST POST – Bolaño’s expanding legacy, by Tom Gething

Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives is a comic masterpiece—a 21st Century Don Quixote. It pits young, rebellious would-be poets against a world of drugs and sex, literature and philosophy, pimps and whores, menial jobs and aimless wanderlust. Imagine two disenfranchised youths who actually believe poetry should matter, then imagine them searching for a surrealist poet in the Sonoran desert and you have the sad arc of the story. Told in a series of first-person narratives, many of them masterful short stories in themselves, the novel gradually records the protagonists’ inevitable loss of illusion. What starts with youthful exuberance ends in a desert landscape of existential despair and imminent violence, with the outcome already foretold in the middle section.

With this prize-winning book and his novellas By Night in Chile and Distant Star, Chilean-born Bolaño burst upon the literary scene at the start of this century. He was working furiously to finish what he hoped would be his magnum opus, 2666, when he died of liver failure at the age of 50 in 2003. Since his death, in addition to 2666, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, his heirs have released a number of short story collections and several unpublished novellas and novels. The Third Reich is one of the latter.

The Third Reich possesses many of Bolaño’s addictive charms: his compelling narrative drive, his vivid and sometimes terrifying imagery, his biting sense of humor. It also contains themes that would later become obsessions: crime stories, people living in alternate realities that verge on the fantastic yet are mundanely detailed, unpredictable violence (real or imagined), and sublimated fascism (in people, games, literature).

The Third Reich is about a German tourist in Spain who is a champion wargamer (before the internet and World of Warcraft) of a board game that reenacts World War Two. Told in the first person—Bolaño’s favorite point of view—it is a suspenseful story that keeps you reading. While it lacks the thematic layering of his mature work, it is a mash-up crime story and mystery that still reads well twenty years after it was written. Odd and ominous things are happening in the Costa Brava resort town, and we’re not sure if they stem from the narrator’s imagination or are real. Meanwhile, the game must be played, and a disfigured novice gamer whom the narrator meets on the beach ends up threatening the champion. Bolaño plucks the dissonant chords of anxiety to keep the suspense going throughout. The ending is the most disappointing aspect—the story’s many threads don’t quite tie together.  At this stage in his career, Bolaño has not quite mastered his art but you can see the mastery coming. If you haven’t read Bolaño, start with his story collection, Last Evenings on Earth, or The Savage Detectives and you will likely be drawn to his lesser stuff like The Third Reich.

More by Tom Gething here.


Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

1959. Love it or hate it, Achebe’s tale of a flawed tribal patriarch is a powerful and important contribution to twentieth century literature.

Think back to 1959. Liberation from colonial masters had not yet swept the African continent when this book appeared, but the pressures were building. The US civil rights movement had not yet erupted, but the forces were in motion. Communism and capitalism were fighting a pitched battle for control of hearts and minds, for bodies and land, around the world. Africans would suffer under the proxy wars waged there to keep the Cold War cold.

Achebe tells the tale of Okonkwo, a young man of some fame throughout the nine villages and beyond for his wrestling prowess. He is a product of his land, his culture, his religion, and his people. He represents a way of life which admires and rewards strength, loyalty, hard work, a strong hand, and strict adherence to a social code.

He builds his life, takes wives, works his land, produces boys and girls to honor and carry on his legacy. When duty to the tribe makes demands, he must respond even if that response requires great personal sacrifice.

You can’t read this book through the prism of your own experience. Part of the mystery of fiction from cultures far afield from your own is the chance it affords to consider how men and women of a certain time and place grappled with the very human issue of living within an exotic social group.

Consider your own social group, and imagine how you would explain your daily and exceptional actions to someone from another religion, from another country, from another language group, from another generation, from another century. Where would you start? Perhaps by considering how you spend a normal day, then how you arrived at the great choices that formed your life. That’s a helluva task to set yourself. In my humble opinion, that was the task Achebe set for himself in writing this book.