Philip K. Dick Goes Legit

Jonathan Lethem explains how he wrestled the most outré science-fiction writer of the 20th century into the canon of American literature.

June 1, 2007

This is an expanded version of the interview that appeared in WIRED 15.06


Illustration by Riccardo Vecchio

IT’S OFFICIAL: With the Library of America’s pub­li­cation of Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s, the most outré science-fiction writer of the 20th century has finally entered the canon. Yet this volume—edited by Jonathan Lethem, the Brook­lyn novelist and Mac­Arthur fellow whose own early fiction owes a lot to Dick’s—is a lit fuse to the orthodox­ies of con­vention. The Man in the High Castle (1962), Dick’s coolly ren­dered imagin­ings of Japanese-Nazi con­fronta­tion in occupied America, was his break­through work. The Three Stig­mata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) and Ubik (1969) estab­lished him as one of the most hallu­cinatory yet insight­ful critics of late-capitalist American civili­zation. Do Androids Dream of Elec­tric Sheep? (1968) became the basis for Blade Runner, the film that ultimately made him famous. WIRED caught Lethem as he was promoting his latest novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet, to ask about this sanc­tifi­cation of Dick’s oeuvre—or as Lethem once called it, his “irv.”
ROSE: Vintage has some three dozen Philip K. Dick novels in print. Why collect a few of them here?
LETHEM: For a great writer, the marginal stuff should be available—and I believe Dick’s a great writer, so that’s fine. But because Dick was so prolific and there’s been such an appetite for his work, Vintage has reached into the furthest reaches of his “irv” and put them in this irresistible package, so the masterpieces nestle up alongside books that Dick himself might have been horrified to see back in print. So you cringe on behalf of the potentially receptive reader who has earnestly wandered over to the shelf and come away with Dr. Futurity or The Cosmic Puppets instead of the kind of books we’re collecting in this volume, or the other titles I would argue over when I have these impossibly geeky which-books-would-you-take-to-a-desert-island conversations. Believe me, Dr. Futurity does not come into those conversations. So it can be a real turnoff. And that’s what you’re afraid of—someone who’s ready to be converted, but instead of picking up The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch or Martian Time-Slip, they’ll get one of those 1950s novels.
ROSE: Many of his short stories from the ’50s are won­derful. What was it that made his early novels so bad?
LETHEM: It’s not that there aren’t any good novels from the ’50s. There are things to be said for his first novel, Solar Lottery, and Time Out of Joint is a master­piece. But the real reason the ’50s books are so bad is because his creative energies were elsewhere. There’s a handful of books Dick wrote while holding his own nose as he was expending very serious energies on these unpub­lished realist novels. It’s an over­simplifi­cation, but one compelling argument you can make for Dick is that what happened with The Man in the High Castle and then Martian Time-Slip and then Stigmata and so many others so quickly was that he unified what had been two avenues of pursuit. He invigorated the science fiction motif with all of the emotion and ambition that he’d been reserving for his mains­tream efforts. It’s by feeding all his effort into one stream that he suddenly vaulted up to this other level.
ROSE: Why were his attempts at conventional fiction unsuc­cessful?
LETHEM: He was working with some disadvantages. He was such an untutored writer, and there were inconsistencies to which he was prone almost to the end of his career that would undermine a realist novel of suburban ennui but could almost be seen as an advantage in his other work. The dislocation that people suffer, the way they suddenly slip out of context into this galactic alienation—that’s not accounted for by the fact that their job is bad or their marriage is bad. It sometimes makes these novels seem very arbitrary. But he came close, and you can speculate that if one of them had been picked up by a sympathetic editor and published, as opposed to almost published, he might have applied his genius to working out some of these problems and improving the quality of his sentences.
The Man in the High Castle is as beautifully written as a novel can be, and many many sequences in the last few novels are elegantly written. He could have cultivated that if he were working in an arena where that was what was rewarded. But he worked with editors who wanted him to be a brilliant extrapolator—that was the criterion he was meeting, and he met that and then some. He became a hallucinatory extrapolator. He became extrapolatively insane, and therefore arguably the greatest science fiction writer who ever lived. The essence of his achievement is the degree of commitment, the way everything was life and death for him. For him it was all crucial. It all mattered utterly. That’s what gives his work its distinctive quality.

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ROSE: So is there an alternate reality in which he might have become John Cheever?
LETHEM: Well, I dunno. Another disadvantage is that serious writers in the western half of the country end up being boxed out of a certain kind of blue-blood—I mean Cheever was at The New Yorker. It’s hard to picture Dick figuring out what would tickle the East Coast establishment. Who can we think of who did in his generation of California writers, without coming to New York and making a commitment to the standards of the East Coast intelligentsia by dwelling among them, like Pauline Kael or Joan Didion? It didn’t really work to stay in California. But then again, you can make up a story where some editor says, “And you’ve got to come to New York.”
ROSE: How did you decide on these titles?
LETHEM: If I had to pick only one novel for someone to read, I think my head would explode. The best novels—and I think there are ten or fifteen of those—collec­tively form one of the greatest bodies of work in American litera­ture, and yet no single novel or even two or three novels even begin to suggest just how rich and deep it goes. They accumu­late power enormously. And I have a lot of dark-horse favorites, books I think are under­valued. Martian Time-Slip and Dr. Bloodmoney in particu­lar are right at the level of the four books I picked. But the Library of America really is the American canon, and it’s probably not the place to be showing off your erudi­tion by advo­cating for a dark-horse candidate. There’s a level at which acclaim becomes self-reinforcing. I think Martian Time-Slip is the equal of The Man in the High Castle, but The Man in the High Castle has a greater meaning in Dick’s career and in the history of American science fiction because of the award and the way it changed his career and the way academics have gravitated toward that book to write about. Its meaning was created partly in the reception. So I reached for the books that were the unmistakable classics.
ROSE: Why is this volume restricted to novels of the ’60s?
LETHEM: If we were only going to do four novels, I wanted to at least create the possibility of doing other volumes for other phases of his career. In picking those four novels from the ’60s, I was certainly not surprising anyone. But the important curatorial work was earlier than that, in arguing strongly that there ought to be a volume for the ’60s, which implied strongly that there ought to be a volume for the ’70s. So rather than pick three of the ’60s novels and A Scanner Darkly, let’s say, by carving out a decade of his career I’m reserving I hope the opportunity for there to be a look at the ’70s work. There are four novels that in my mind would very naturally fit—Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said; A Scanner DarklyVALIS; and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. I like The Divine Invasion too, but that’s a very hermetic book. Its virtues are unavailable to people who aren’t really versed in his work, whereas the other four all make their own case. I’m really talking through my hat here because I have no license to edit a second volume, but if it came to pass you’d have eight of his masterpieces.
[Lethem would eventually produce not one but two additional volumes for the Library of America: Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s — which included Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and A Scanner Darkly as well as Martian Time-Slip, Dr. Bloodmoney and Now Wait for Last Year, centered on a reality-altering hallucinogen — and VALIS & Later Novels, which in addition to VALIS included The Divine Invasion, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer and the 1970 thriller A Maze of Death.]
ROSE: You discovered him as a teenager?
LETHEM: My friend Carl’s dad bought Carl a copy of The Golden Man. I think that was the first Philip K. Dick book I laid eyes on. I would have been 13 or 14. It feels like one of those fateful moments. I just had to know who this guy was. And my great luck was that I found a copy of Ubik in a used bookstore. That changed my life. It was like a book-length meta­phor for feelings that were churning within me that were unnamed at that point. Turning the pages—all epiphany, all the time. He was my favorite writer before I finished even reading that book. My high school years were devoted to finding and devouring all of those out-of-print titles, right down to the maximally disappointing Vulcan Hammer and Dr. Futurity. And then what weird great timing for me, because VALIS was published. That was the first book of his that I got hot off the press, and it was right as I was about to go to college and beginning to think about running away to California.
I had this idea that I was going to go sit at the feet of my guru. I was very intent on it. And as I was conceiving this plan in ’81 and ’82, I got the news that he had died. So I sort of did it anyway. I was like a chicken with its head cut off—the thrust was still there, my feet moved to California, and I found Paul Williams. It’s a pretty funny thought that Paul Williams, who was so deeply of the counterculture, seemed to be the person who gave the imprimatur of the mainstream to this marginal writer, because he’d interviewed Dick for Rolling Stone and in the course of doing so called him the greatest sci-fi mind on any planet. That blurb seemed in the context of Dick’s total absence from the culture to be the greatest evidence that he had mattered. Rolling StoneRolling Stone!

“I don’t think it’s an accident that he was so marginal. There was something about him that was deeply fugitive.”

And this was just as Paul was becoming Dick’s literary executor, because the same thing that impressed me had impressed Dick—that this was his greatest brush with legitimacy. So he wanted Paul to be the one to usher his work into its posthumous life. What’s so incredible is how devoted Paul turned out to be to this project. Paul published what was basically a ’zine, the Philip K. Dick Society Newsletter, which drew all the people like myself into this community that somehow believed that he was going to get back in print. I think the Society Newsletter had a subscription base of between 750 and 1,000 people worldwide.
ROSE: Is that why you moved to California?
LETHEM: It was part of it, for sure. I lived a couple of blocks from where Dick had lived when he was first writing, in the Berkeley flats. He’d lived on Francisco Street and I lived on Chestnut Street, two blocks away. I used to wander over to the Lucky Dog Pet Store [where Dick bought horse meat in the ’50s] and marvel that these places he’d written about were real and I could dwell in the same landscape. Tupper & Reed, a music store he’d worked at, was still in operation. In fact, the electric guitar I’m seated beside on the cover of my new book I think was bought at Tupper & Reed.
ROSE: Obviously your first couple of novels relate very strongly to his work. What did you discover about him in writing them?
LETHEM: The first couple of books are really strongly influenced, but they’re not nearly as influenced as the one that precedes them—the one I wrote when I was 18 and that will never be published. I was absolutely shameless in imitating him. It was how I learned—I mean, musicians learn by playing songs that other people write, and it was sort of morbid and sentimental but I thought, Okay, I’ll write the books he didn’t live to write. I’ll keep it going for him. And of course you get captivated by your own things that almost involuntarily come to the surface. By the time of Gun, with Occasional Music, I was realizing that there were ways I wanted to write that weren’t totally encompassed by admiration for Dick, that in fact I was thinking about Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald and Alice in Wonderland among other things. But he’s still the formative underlying influence on every book. I can see that Amnesia Moon resembles a Dick novel more than The Fortress of Solitude, but for me the evidence is everywhere that he’s still my master.
ROSE: You’ve done pretty well. Would Dick have been better received if he were writing today?
LETHEM: It’s easy to say he’d be George Saunders or Don DeLillo. His satirical mode has been legit­imated, let’s say that. But he’s so deeply of his time and place that it’s hard to think of what kind of mind he would have been without World War II and nuclear fear and McCarthy­ism and the glim­merings of the counter­culture. It’s easy to overlook that because he seems so con­temporary, he has so much to say about the culture of late capitalism, he was such a prog­nosti­cator and seems so fluidly of our time. But if you immerse yourself in his work, you realize he’s of his time.
And I don’t think it’s an accident that he was so marginal. I think he needed to be. I think there was something about him that was deeply fugitive. I think he might have found a way to work in oppo­sition to whatever status quo he located. And it may seem cruel to say this, but I think his canoni­zation may have only been possible after the man himself and his instinct for dis­repute was off the playing field. If he’d been around, continuing to write and continuing to give inter­views, he would have made sure that anyone trying to espouse his work, including me going around saying he’s one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, would feel uncomfortable doing so. That we’d misun­derstood or betrayed him in some way. It’s very hard to believe in a Dick who’s been domes­ticated to a life of literary prestige the way we are presently domes­ticat­ing him. ♦

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