where am I and what the hell am I doing? Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis

(image courtesy Bill Pusztai)

In February and March of 1974, Philip K. Dick, my favorite science fiction writer, had a revelation. Whatever that means. If you prefer, call it a vision or a lucid dream or a stroke or a near death experience or an hallucination, but whatever term you use, something big and important-feeling happened and for years afterward, he attempted to decipher the experience and untangle its meaning by writing about it.

I use the word “write” because I don’t have a better verb, but “write” is rather mild, invoking some careful and shapely construction. “Scrawl” doesn’t convey the depth or breadth of what he did. I imagine PKD hunched over his papers, dark-ringed eyes sunk into his skull, muscles tensed as though physically grappling with the thoughts in his head, plugged into his stereo via headphones, surrounded by dozens of tomes (encyclopedia, dictionaries, religious and philosophical texts, science journals, and his own books) splayed open to key pages, with several spare pens handy because that’s how much ink he’ll need, probably talking to himself as he covers page after page, all night long, for the last eight years of his life.

Occasionally, he succumbed to sleep and in dreams he is visited by gods, prophets, Greeks, philosophers, St. Sophia, a “great luminous moth,” a “shy architect with claws,” and a mischievous shape-shifter called “Zebra.” He wrote like a writing machine, moving from one theory to the next, exhaustively, obsessively, endlessly, and when he died, he had written over eight thousand pages.

The result is his “Exegesis,” which was published late last year (edited by Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem). Even though his pages are carefully edited, the thing weighs about a pound, has 944 pages, and costs a whopping $40. I’m on page 303 and let me tell you, it makes my head hurt. I’m very slow-going because I can only stand a little at a time.

In my experience, personal journals are usually tedious, because even a great writer doesn’t always write well when she’s writing to herself. There’s something inherently annoying about the solipsistic address: spotty information, unselfconscious egotism, and didactic tone. When my grandmother died, no one wanted her journals but me, and even I don’t really want to read them (but I’m sure I will someday). When I read my own notebooks, I roll my eyes and blush with embarrassment. (Oh, god, did I really write that? What kind of person writes crap like that?)

In his NYT book review of 12/16/11, Charles Platt says, “The struggle of a highly intelligent man to find a rational explanation for something inexplicable inside himself could make fascinating reading, if it was thoughtfully organized. Alas, the “Exegesis” pursues its target in the manner of a shotgun firing randomly in every possible direction. Dick ruminates, cogitates and associates freely from one topic to the next. He mulls the content of his dreams, descends into labyrinths of metaphysical hypotheses and (ironically) wonders how he can ever use this material to create a publishable book.”

I like that bit about the shotgun. But, like his metaphor, Charles Platt misses the point, although I agree with part of what he says. Yes, the Exegesis is basically unreadable. But it is also utterly fascinating, and my interest is willingly captured by the insurmountable maze of PKD’s mind.  No editor could go in with a ruler and a machete and re-emerge with anything but a giant hole, but getting overwhelmed and lost are part of the fun.  

Plus, the term “publishable” is such a smug word, synonymous with “easy,” “conforming,” and “cool.” The reason to read the Exegesis (and skim over some parts) is not to discover clarity or find answers, but to marvel at the process: the electric buzz, lexical convolutions, dead ends, verbal diarrhea (I’m not going to convince anyone to read it with statements like this, but I’m not looking for converts), the highs and lows. The point is not that we agree with or even follow what he’s saying but that we are invited to witness the internal workings of a unique and fascinating mind grappling with essential questions.  In a world that seems primarily concerned with ego, money, fame, and entertainment, the opportunity to witness one man’s heroic search for meaning is beyond refreshing.  It gives non-religious people like me a reason to believe.  The Exegesis makes me sit up straight, look around with fresh eyes, and revel in the ideas that ultimately, the quest might be more important than its goal, that questions are far more interesting and important than answers will ever be. 

There’s simply nothing else like Philip K. Dick.  His mind goes where no mind has gone before.  And I went there with him. 

But for those who would rather skip it, here’s a little soundtrack/soundtract of songs to help you get in the PKD mood without the colossal commitment.

Dvotchka –A New World  
The Police–Invisible Sun
Arcade Fire– Cold Wind Blowing
Butthole Surfers –I Had A Dream
Cold Play– High Speed, Don’t Panic
Radiohead– There There, Paranoid Android
Schubert–Impromptu I, Die Winterreise
Nancy Wilson– Elevator Beat
Leonard Cohen–The Letters
Fleetwood Mac–Dreams (p. 286)
Linda Ronstadt– Quiereme Mucho
Nouvelle Vague– Confusion (New Order cover)
Cake–Commissioning a Symphony in C, Open Book
The Beatles–Strawberry Fields (p. 277)
Brian Eno–Discreet Music–(p. 279)
Bach’s cantata BWV 140, Sleepers Awake (p.285)
Bitter:Sweet–Drink You Sober
Beethoven’s Ode to Joy
Lenny Kravitz–Black Velveteen
Eric Burdon & War–Spill the Wine, Take That Pearl

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
*

What books have you tackled against all better judgment?  Was it worth it?  
PKD fans, care to add any songs to my list?

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.

10 comments

  1. This is just you hauling out the soapbox and saying, “Okay, Virginia. Climb up and let it go.”

    I bought A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and it sat on the shelf for years When I finally started it, I went straight through and when I finished I despised him and I still do. Take out the word frisbie and it is a short story. I would not go with my daughter and grandson to see the movie version of Where the Wild Things Are because of what I heard about him hi-jacking the story (which has no words). Then his take on Hurricane Katrina. Then the after story of what happened to his sister. There’s the heartbreak for you. He is a childish (not Child-like as he claims), egotistical ass hole. Creative facial hair = tragic hipster.

    • Oh, maaan, I read that one too and I have to admit, I felt the same way. I guess sometimes, you can tell a book by its title and leave it at that, huh? But most of my friends are in love with that guy, so i have to swallow my bile. (But also have to admit that WTWTA was really good.)

  2. It has been noted, more than once, that Philip K. Dick never meant for his so called “Exegesis” to be published. It was a private journal/diary of his quest to find answers to what he “experienced” 2-3/74. As for music to go along with it, you left out anything by Tangerine Dream!!

  3. Goodness, he does stir up some passionate reactions.

    I don’t read very long works for the most part. Just a personal preference, though.

  4. I’m embarrassed to say what I tried to read. I will say it actually got reasonable reviews and when I found it on the sale table I thought it would be fun, but after a while it seemed to me to be written the way a hyperactive, high functioning autistic person might write. Meaning, it was intelligent and heavy with details, but in a way that kept cycling through the same claustrophobic kinds of facts with every bit of self illumination pretty much written on the first pages so it quickly became tedious. At least to me. It wasn’t fun, and now I keep passing by the cover and wanting to slap whoever decided his book didn’t need editing.

    I usually find that sort of thing out while scanning a book in the store, because I hate to waste money and time on writing I don’t care for. I forgot to do that this time. I wish I had your perseverance, Anna. But my face gets weird and starts to freeze that way. I have to save the people I run into.

    • I wish you’d tell me the name of the author, but I admire your unwillingness to out the culprit.
      I recently picked up a book about Cleopatra and had the same experience– the cover is sumptuous, the first pages are mesmerizing, and then– *poof!* — I can’t toss it because of the initial promise but I can’t force myself to move on and see if the thrill gets resuscitated.

      But even though the exegesis is tedious, I am still fascinated. PKD is that good.

  5. Marc Schuster

    I’ve been curious about this one for a while now, so thanks for the review!

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