lost in space (with philip k. dick)

(image courtesy Lydia Jane)

Something strange is going on and I’m not sure what to think, because I haven’t been writing at all. I fiddle around, revise a couple pieces, throw together some fluffy bits, but haven’t tackled anything substantial for more than a month.

I wish I could say I’ve been studying cello or playing scrabble or perfecting the soufflé or napping or earning money (!), but I don’t have time for any of that. I don’t even have time for my kids. They wanna play but I can only spare ten minutes before I start getting twitchy and shifty-eyed and begin inventing reasons to step out of the room for a sec so I can sneak back to the book I’ve left splayed on the arm of my chair.

Because I’ve been reading, reading like a fiend. “Obsess” is a mild term for what I do. I lie awake at night, wishing my husband wasn’t there so I could turn on the light and see what happens next. For the four solid kid-free hours I have each day during the week, I don’t eat or answer the phone. Going to the bathroom takes too much time.  I carry my book, a pen, my notebook, and my reading glasses with me at all times to circumvent a nervous breakdown. Even taking the time to write this post is a pain because I’d rather be reading Philip K. Dick.

I’m not the first person to be obsessed with PKD, and I certainly won’t be the last.  In fact, for some circles, I imagine that obsessing about PKD is probably a prerequisite, a rite of passage. His following is sometimes cultish, a wide variety of people from all over the world who voluntarily call themselves “Dick Heads.” For those of you who don’t recognize the name, he’s the science fiction writer who created the stories they turned into movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report.  He was a indefatigable writer and visionary thinker: a philososcribe, a literary guru, a “homegrown Borges,” and a “poor man’s Pynchon.” And he was my first writer crush.

My obsession began in junior high school when a cute older boy said he didn’t like girls who didn’t like science fiction, so I went to the library and fell in love with PKD instead. PKD died when I was a sophomore in high school; I wore all black, lit a candle, and read aloud my favorite parts of his novels. In college, I was incredulous that I could not find him on any of the reading lists for any class and then ten years later when my husband and I bought our house in Berkeley, I swooned when I discovered that it is next to the first house PKD owned, the place where he lived for ten years and started writing seriously.

Because PKD and I go so far back, I decided to write something about him on my blog to say happy birthday (he was born December 16th) but first, I had to do some research, so I started by re-reading some of my favorites (The Man in the High Castle, Ubik, A Scanner Darkly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Game Players of Titan, etc.).  Because some of his literary novels were published long after his death, I had to read some of those, too–Voices From the Street and Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, and then I found a nice two volume collection of his short stories at the library, and of course I had to check out some biographies, one by Paul Williams and two by Lawrence Sutin, which led me back to see some of the movies again, which inspired me to tackle his colossal Exegesis (oh my god, I can’t even begin to describe it: what a can of writhing electric worms).  Oh, and then I had to make a soundtrack for PKD’s life.

Picture me: walleyed, unwashed, unfed, hands covered in black scribbles, three pairs of reading glasses pushed up on my head, stumbling and fumbling around for glasses, wondering where am-I-whoamiwhatami? I feel like the sybil in the cave, the one who lives in a whirlwind of leaves. Each leaf has part of the answer written on it but I can only hold one at a time before it is blown from my fingertips.

And I still haven’t read everything he’s written. Not even close.

I am drowning in the words of an a man submerged in his own mind. I am glued to his fixation. Why am I doing this?  What will I accomplish?  I won’t get a degree or a paycheck or recognition, just like PKD, who died poor, before he achieved cult status.

Why does anyone do it?

That’s right. We do it because we must. We do it because it’s so freaking fun.  And hopefully, soon I will have something to show for it.  Of course, I’ll post it here.

*

What are you working on?  Why do you do it? What’s your obsession? 

(the exegesis is a book you have to talk back to, in the margins)

(a partial stack of what i've recently read)

(from this side, the # of pages is much more impressive)

About girl in the hat

aka Anna Fonté, writer of novels, short stories, personal essays, and bits about the neighborhood crows. The things I write want you to look at them.

46 comments

  1. This post articulates exactly how I feel about books. And I tend to do this too. Everything drops off the schedule (or what there is of it) and I spend months on the couch ignoring my partner and reading the entire back catalogue of so-and-so-writer in any spare time I have. Then I feel guilty because I haven’t done any drawing in months.

    The only difference being that they weren’t classics like PKD. They were pure trash. (double the guilt)

    • We should just call it “research” and alleviate the guilt. When I listen to music or go for a walk, I tell myself “I’m doing research.” It just sounds so together. You know, PKD used to be considered trash/pulp. But then the academics got hooked.

      • snagglewordz

        I like the “research” angle myself. Stephen King said reading was essential when writing…so there you go. I’m also “researching” at present. Am re-reading the Garth Nix series, Abhorsen.

  2. go for it–sounds great. right now i’m obsessing about paper flowers and plaster of paris, weird.

  3. I’ve just started drawing again – a handful of seashells and shadows. Like any artistic idea, it feels like a sliver and won’t let me alone until I’ve worked it out; until I’m free of the discomfort of creating.

    Until, that is, I find myself pinned down by another idea!

  4. I hope you’ll post them. I’d love to see.

  5. I’m doing the last read through of my third book and then I am putting it on Kindle Select. I am hoping I will not want to change much this time, but I am kind of ambivalent about the ending, actually their journey to the ending. Then one more. Then I’m through. I just did it to see if I could. I’m not one of those ‘inspired to do a literary masterpiece’ people. Pretty fluffy stuff. Fun for me. Had a few nice reviews.

  6. I don’t understand how anybody can NOT be obsessed by beautiful wonderful books.
    Last week I was obsessed with trying not to be obsessive. Clearly there was a flaw in that plan.
    Today I am obsessed with not writing anything while something builds in my head to where it will be ready to explode. Then, when it is ready, I will be obsessed with writing, and the whole world will stay out of my way if it knows what’s good for it.
    Obsession is a beautiful thing, I’m happy that you are enjoying yours. PKD rocks.

  7. This is fabulous. You will probably start to walk and talk like a Dick Head. You will cement that nervous tic in your synaptors and be PKD’s cutest cyborg, with all your machine-parts made of pages.

    I get on Agatha Christie jaunts, during which I read everything she’s written, even though I know whodunnit and why, and could probably recite entire passages without missing an adverb. No mean feat, let me tell you; Agatha was one prolific dame.

    I’m adding PKD to the book-alanche. Where should I begin?

    • Ha! I’m picturing me as a giant dick and having a a good chuckle.
      Machine-parts made of pages! How divine! Are you sure you haven’t already read him just a little?
      I’d start with “Do Androids Dream” or “The Game Players of Titan” and work my way up the list. But PKD is a book-alanche all by himself, so be careful.

  8. Yes, it sounds like research…and inspiration…filling up the well perhaps.
    I’m obsessing on wrapped trees right now so not to worry…

    • WEll, blow my socks off– YOU wrapped the trees? My god, that changes everything! See, I have a banana, a lemon tree, and a taro plant in my garden that do need to be wrapped when it gets too cold and so I assumed that somewhere out there some farmer was battling nature but now, I’m just flabbergasted. You did it! Wow. (Either way, those images are tongue-tyingly spectacular. I just can’t get them out of my mind. Like some music is an ear worm, your trees are eye worms.)

      • No, no it wasn’t me that wrapped them! I’m just obsessed with photographing them and seeing how they are morphing into characters. Strange the things that stick in your mind. The interesting thing is they change with the weight of the weather , if you know what I mean.
        They were wrapped by landscapers I suppose, whoever was contracted to plant them along the highway.

        You have me very interested in Philip K.Dick by the way. I’ve not read ANY of his books. Apparently I’m missing out!

    • The wrapped tree photographs are stunning. I’m obsessed with them myself.

  9. Great post. I’ll have to add him to my reading list. Right now I’m obsessing about electricity. Didn’t have it for years, functioned fine, got it two years ago and adjusted so rapidly that now I’m grumpy because snow took it from me and it’s been gone two weeks. Back to writing by hand next to a warm kerosene lantern.

  10. I can’t rush out and buy or check out every book recommended by my blogging friends, but you piqued my interest, and I was already out…. So I went to the library (which has a coffeehouse, by the way) and looked for Dick books. They had 3 compilations of Dick books–the Library of America ones, you know, black with white and red stripes and have a few of the author’s books in one volume. I picked the one with “Do Androids Dream…?” because of the odd title, started reading, and already have found gems such as the wife scheduling a 6-hour depression, the husband dialing in mood 594 for her: “pleased acknowledgement of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters” (well, DUHHH), hee hee, and his reply to the neighbor wanting to know what he’d say to the fact that the neighbor’s horse was pregnant: “I say pretty soon you’ll have two horses.” Different, interesting, funny, I’ll take it. I haven’t read any “science fiction”, other than Handmaid, in years. I do have to sleep, you know. I honestly never thought I’d be a Dick fan. Maybe someday I’ll be a huge Dick fan. Or maybe I’ll just be a casual Dick fan. Who knows? I will give Dick a chance though.

  11. I love this. You go girl! If I had the time, I’d be a Dick Head, too. I loved “Do Androids Dream…” It knocked me down when I read it so long ago. I decided I had to get smarter before I read another because I remember some critic saying that was an easy one. Someday I’ll start again with his short stories.

    I’ve been concentrating on writing my super shorts because most of the time they thrill me. It kinda feels like when I was six and stole a 1930s second grade science book from the school library. It had such cool drawings. I thought no one would love it like I did. Every time somebody likes one of my tiny stories, it feels like they understand why I stole that book. If that makes any sense.

    • Yay! You’re back! Knowing that your super-shorts give you the same thrill as stealing a book makes them even more thrilling to me. Aren’t we lucky that it’s words that do it for us? Just think of all the more expensive, harmful, and difficult options.

  12. Hey Girl in the Hat. This is Lord Running Clam here and I share your obsession with PKD! We’re having a PKD Festival and Conference in San Francisco Sept 22/23 2012. Hope you can make it. Check http://www.philipkdickfestival.com

  13. That sounds interesting. The venue and time aren’t set? Hope you’ll let me know– perhaps I’ll see you there.

    • The venue will be San Francisco State University and Professor David Gill is organizing events this time. He has a call out for speakers and has signed up some good ones already. Lots of fans will be attending too. If you go to http://www.philipkdickfans.com then that is a good place to keep abreast of the latest in PKD fandom. Yes, I hope to see you in San Francisco! I’ve never been there before.

  14. I see his eminence Sir Lord Running Clam has already introduced himself. He’s been at reading and exploring Philip K. Dick almost as long as I have. You couldn’t have picked a better obsession to help you
    deal with the current absurdities of life. Some of my reflections about PKD can be found at http://www.scribd.com,
    in a folder titled “Encounters With Philip K. Dick.” Will give you even more to read.

  15. Thank you for pointing that out. It is an interesting question, isn’t it? My answer so far is that PKD was all about asking questions, but less interested in fixing single answers. Only halfway through The Exegesis, though, perhaps he will finally settle on an answer… although I hope not.

  16. Don’t kick yourself too hard for all of this reading / no writing business. Reading one writer obsessively (obsessive being a good thing here) is like taking your own writing class. I read and reread certain authors — Jane Smiley, Margaret Atwood, William Styron — because I love their stories and their prose, but also because I’m trying to puzzle out how they do it. You and this reading-binge you’re on is a good thing.

    As for taking a break from the actual writing, it can be the best thing that ever happened to your manuscript. I wish I could remember where I saw this (just last week!, the memory is going!) but a famous writer said in an interview that he writes through the 1st, maybe 2nd draft, and then puts the book in a drawer and starts something else. He never goes back to rewrite that book until one year has passed. He said he needs time to unwind himself from the story so he can see it more clearly —- and this has become his tried and true method.

    As for of your hours with PKD? Time well spent. Enjoy!!

    • Thank you for this. I”m sure you’re right, it’s all part of the process, but I’m just paranoid, thinking that if I don’t write every day, I’ll forget how. Love your writers, too. There are just so many fabulous rabbit holes to get lost in, aren’t there?

  17. PKD is to me a great “cautionary” writer. to me he’s not science “fiction”, but science “fact”. very enjoyable read. continue…

    • He was an autodidact and very well-read, although many of the scientific hypotheses he based his plots on were later debunked, he was writing stories with plots based on informed predictions. He had a wonderful mind, for sure. Thanks for reading!

  18. Anna, you say I do a lot, but friend, you are a powerhouse!! You read blogs and books and write and you do this with two kids. We should all be so productive.

    As for PKD, I cannot say I’ve read him. I keep reading around him, but never the man himself. He’s going on the list. What do you recommend?

    best,
    g.
    http://www.thehistoryofthings.com

    ps. as long as we’re at suggestions: here are my two for the day: Borges–Ficciones and Ondaatje–anything, but The English Patient. Have you read them?

    • thank you, gabe– your comment made me feel very happy and proud of myself.
      I’m crazy about Borges and need to re-read him. Ursula K. LeGuin called PKD “our homegrown Borges.” A friend recommended that I re-read the story that starts with the bird in the stairwell– do you perhaps remember the title of that one?
      And I loved The English Patient and have two other recent books by MO on my bookshelf waiting. Maybe for my next obsession?
      Hmmm. maybe start with The Game Players of Titan (because it’s set where we live) or Do Androids Dream…? start int he shallow end (ugh– shallow is the wrong word in this context, but you get what i mean) and work your way in to Scanner Darkly and the later ones? Or maybe start with his short stories. Those are fun, too.

  19. Regarding how to categorize (label?) Philip K. Dick, consider what he wrote in 1981:

    “I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist; my novel & story-writing ability is employed as a means to formulate my perception. The core of my writing is not art but truth.”

  20. That is an excellent quote. By the end of his life, he had fully embraced his own style of writing. I just read some of his early attempts at literary fiction and they do sound like a person trying to write in an unnatural voice. Of course, when I read that quote in Sutin’s book, I had to ask him, in the margins, exactly what he meant by “truth.”

  21. Aha! Truth is like reality, “it’s that which doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it.” Another common PKD quote (though I may have misquoted it a bit)

  22. goodoldgirl

    Sci-Fi is a great read anytime, anywhere and PKD is among the best. Try Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day, if you can find it. Also, Ayn Rand’s Anthem.

    Enjoyed reading your blog. Thanks for writing it.

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