Monday 31 October 2011

The Divine Invasion – Philip K. Dick (1981)

The Divine Invasion is Philip K. Dick’s penultimate novel. It is also the second novel in a trilogy based on his 2-3-74 experiences and the concept of VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System). Having come back into Dick’s orbit once again, seeing the Radio Free Albemuth film and reading Sutin’s Divine Invasions (1989), I was ready for some more Dickian tomfoolery.

Dick’s body of work is inconsistent, but on the whole very good to brilliant. He really churned them out at times and on occasions it showed. Conversely Dick took some time writing The Divine Invasion, as revealed in Sutin’s book, however it is slightly disappointing in that it is unfocussed and too theologically heavy. Actually heavy is a good term to use as Dick really wrestled with his religious obsessions, many of them originating from the ontological insights and visions of 2-3-74. The book really strains under the weight of an incredible brain trying to frame its thoughts and experiences into a fairly typical Philip K. Dick narrative.

The Divine Invasion begins on Earth with Manny, a six year old boy and his guardian - Elias, talking about his deceased mother and the “zone of evil that lay over everything”. Manny was conceived on the colony planet of CY30-CY30B, a catchy name that’s for sure. Manny has memory problems and his father - Herb Asher, is in cryonic suspension due to an accident when they arrived on Earth. Herb is mentally stimulated to relive his life, giving him the impression that he’s still alive. In a typical Dick joke poor old Herb is driven to distraction within this cryonic dream-like state because the equipment used to keep him going is picking up transmissions from a nearby radio station that is constantly playing all string versions of Fiddler on the Roof. From here the tale of how and why they’ve all ended up on Earth is retold, giving the reader the impression that they are merely privy to Herb’s cryonic replay. Whether this is the case or not, typically, becomes unclear. Of course being a Philip K. Dick book I’m giving absolutely nothing away here.

Manny is divine in origin and Earth is under the rule of a religious and secular coalition of which Dick portrays as being evil, or at least inferior to the true god. Such concepts actually mirror some of his own experiences and beliefs. The occluded truths of his novels weren’t that far from how he actually viewed reality. Perhaps this is the most interesting aspect of this book, at least if you are familiar with Dick himself. His obsessions are made manifest here, including his infatuation with Linda Ronstadt in the form of singer Linda Fox, who, of course, is not what she seems.

The average reader may be perplexed or put off by the theological ruminations of the principle protagonists. There’s a great deal of dialogue in The Divine Invasion and much of it is about obscure theological notions. The novel really gets bogged down and doesn’t adequately recover. Despite this there is still much to enjoy here, including Herb Asher’s conversation with an air traffic cop (they get around in flying cars of course), in which he argues that he should be let go because the cop himself is not real, and he gets away with it.

The Divine Invasion is probably not the best place to start if you are a Philip K. Dick novice. To seasoned Dick readers it is fascinating, darkly funny and typically ultimately hard to fathom, which is what you want from a Philip K. Dick book really. It’s kind of sad, as Dick died only a few years after he wrote this and one year after it was published. I’m yet to read his last book - The Transmigrations of Timothy Archer (1982), so I don’t know whether he ended on a high note. Had he lived I have no doubt that he would have kept writing, continuing his efforts to shape his religious experiences into great science fiction narratives.

Monday 24 October 2011

The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx (1993)

In my experience award winning novels are often disappointing. Whilst Man Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel, 2009) was an exercise in brilliance, the novel that won it in 2010 – The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson) was unrelentingly awful. Others have been dubious or puzzling, books chosen as some ironic joke played on readers. The Shipping News, Annie Proulx’s second novel, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1994. Fortunately it is deserving of such a prize.

The Shipping News came into being after Proulx visited Newfoundland eight or nine times, eavesdropping on the locals in diners and bars and absorbing the ambience of the mostly harsh environs.  Apparently Proulx also fell asleep reading the Dictionary of Newfoundland English most nights for two years. The effort was worth it because The Shipping News is brilliantly written, full of rich adjectives that easily evoke images of strange people amongst a unique landscape. Despite Newfoundland’s obvious harsh weather, complete with a nine-month winter, the book actually tempted me to travel there to see it for myself.

The principle protagonist, Quoyle, is a pathetic anti-hero. Proulx makes it clear in the opening quote for the first chapter from The Ashley Book of Knots: “Quoyle – A coil of rope of one layer only. It is made on deck, so that it may be walked on if necessary”. This quote really does sum up the life of Quoyle that plays out in the opening sections of the book. The man with “ …the monstrous chin…” is unlucky in childhood, study, work and his love life. Petal, his wife, is perhaps the one character that flirts with caricature. She’s a real bitch, perhaps too much so, and Quoyle’s misery is extreme. Proulx really rams the point home. It’s a relief when she is dispensed with in memorable circumstances.

Once Proulx takes Quoyle to Newfoundland, his ancestral home, the novel settles into a slow arc leading to some kind of redemption for Quoyle. There’s the stoic figure of his aunt, his two daughters, a love interest and The Gammy Bird. As a relatively untalented journalist Quoyle ends up writing the shipping news at the Gammy Bird, an odd newspaper run by eccentric named individuals such as Tert Card, Nutbeem and Jack Buggit. All real names that Proulx dug up from Newfoundland phone directories and notice boards.

What kind of novel is The Shipping News? Indeed, what kind of novel wins the Pulitzer Prize? Well, it’s funny in an eccentric way. It’s realism but as narrated by someone whose worldview is eccentric - Proulx’s true voice or is it style? I can’t decide. The book is certainly not dramatic, although there are moments of drama. It’s not much of a romance, at least not in the traditional sense. Basically it’s a tale of personal redemption set amongst the mystery of the past and the hardship of the present.

There is much to admire, however I did find myself struggling to maintain an interest, particularly during the middle section of the book. It just didn’t engage me in the way that I enjoy. I think that this is more of a matter of taste rather than an inherent fault with the book itself. The novel is slow moving but many works of art that unfold slowly are extremely rewarding. Essentially The Shipping News is great literature, but just how much you enjoy it is down to a matter of taste.

Friday 14 October 2011

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick - Lawrence Sutin (1989)

For those of you who don’t know anything about Philip K. Dick then there are two things you need to know - he was a total freak but he was also a brilliant and unique writer of science fiction, perhaps because he was, well, a freak. I know this because I’ve read quite a few of his novels and short stories. After reading Divine Invasions – A Life of Philip K. Dick I’m more convinced than ever that he was one of a kind. I few months ago at the Revelation Film Festival I saw Radio Free Albemuth and it was a film worthy of Dick’s vision. I mentioned this to a fellow ‘Dickhead’ at work and he lent me this book. Divine Invasions is a fine summation of Dick’s work and I recommend it to anyone interested in this maverick’s life.

Philip K. Dick was born in 1928 in Chicago and later moved with his mother to Berkeley after his parents divorced. Dick would live in and around Berkeley for most of his life. Dick was born just at the right time to be involved in the great rise of science fiction in the pulp era of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Dick is rightly considered to be one of the most important science fiction writers to emerge from this era because his influence permeates both modern film and literature. Also, to a certain degree, modern life resembles his books (more on this later). Early on Dick churned out short stories on demand in an attempt to make a living from the pulp magazines. Although science fiction was popular during that era it certainly wasn’t seen as a legitimate form of literature and initially Dick yearned to escape its confines by writing mainstream literature. However, only one of these novels would be published in his lifetime - Confessions of a Crap Artist (1975), but fortunately for Dick he became recognized as one of the most talented science fiction writers around.

Dick wrote a large number of short stories throughout his career, many brilliant, most fascinating and some deserving of the moniker ‘pulp’. The most recent collection I read - The Father Thing: Volume Three of the Collected Stories (1987) had some of his greats, like The Golden Man and Null – O. These stories are brilliant distillations of Dick’s imagination and his disturbing world-view. He was also a prolific writer of novels, typing at mad speeds under the influence of legally prescribed amphetamines; he was hooked on them for well over a decade. During 1963 – 1964 alone Dick produced 11 science fiction novels, including two that I’ve read in recent years – Dr Bloodmoney (1965) and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965).

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a perfect example of Dick’s obsessions – what is real, how can you tell you know what’s real and what is human? A question that would later be fully explored in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). Stigmata is bizarre, intense, thoroughly entertaining and above all subverts the reader’s perception of just what science fiction can do. This is true of many of Dick’s books, just start reading and you are in for a wild ride. Stigmata is a great place to start if you are unfamiliar with Dick’s writing.

Dick’s writing mostly negates science fiction’s usual obsession with predicting the future. Most of his books are set in the near future and usually within the confines of the solar system. Furthermore Dick certainly didn’t write space operas, although part of me wished that he had. Dick’s main interest was placing ordinary people in extraordinary situations, usually mind-bending and unfathomable in nature. The events in Dick’s narratives are not only weird to the reader, but also to the protagonists. Dick gets away with presenting weird realities in his stories because his characters are very believable and are usually ordinary individuals the reader can relate to. A great example of this is the policeman in Flow My Tears the Policeman Said (1974) who has to deal with some intensely strange situations, yet he has reoccurring sinus problems and a yearning to connect. Many of his characters are usually neurotic or have very human flaws, like being messy or hopeless at relationships. In fact one could argue that Dick was a humanist science fiction writer. Also, characterisation is one of Dick’s great strengths, something that was often missing in his contemporaries writing. As Divine Invasions reveals, Dick quite often sourced his characters from those around him, his relationships and from his own numerous neurosis.

Another fascinating aspect to Dick’s writing is the fact that because he set many of his stories in the late 20th and early 21st centuries we are essentially now living in their time frames. Although we don’t have flying cars, and Dick loved flying cars (in novels such as Flow my Tears the Policeman Said and The Game Players of Titan (1963) flying cars are sarcastic, stubborn and offer unwanted advice about their owner’s lives), in many ways we are living in times that he would recognize. The interactive and malleable digital society that we take for granted is far weirder than we think. The technology of the Web has created an environment in which duplicity and occluded reality are as easy to create as ever before. The sinister implications of this would be easily recognizable to Dick. The kind of technology that is used to deceive, to control and to spy in modern times could have come right out of some of Dick’s narratives (this would have made him very paranoid). In some ways, though, Dick would have been proud that we have become aware that the universe is way weirder than we could have ever imagined. As an interesting aside, for William Gibson, one of the most significant science fiction writers of the last thirty years, the multiple layered realities of Dick’s near future narratives have become symptomatic of our times. Gibson has mostly given up on the future, setting his recent novels in the present because he believes that it is weirder than any future he can now imagine. See the great quote: The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed. *

Dick’s life and work would get stranger before he died in 1982 of multiple stokes and a heart attack. His life came to resemble his books and fittingly he began to place himself as characters in their narratives; in VALIS (1981) he was known entertainingly as Horselover Fat and sometimes he would appear as multiple characters at odds with each other or sharing the same experiences. Dick managed the post-modern trick of inserting his life into his novels as a reaction to his life becoming like his novels – they just bled into each other.

In what became known as the 2-3-74 experiences, Dick ‘received’ via beams of light a series of insights, messages and visions that obsessed him for the rest of his life. These visions he ‘received’ in 1974 conferred to him that reality, as humanity knew it, was an illusion, that in fact we were trapped in time by an outside force. These were religious experiences for Dick and he spent years pondering his visions and insights. Helped along by his vast knowledge of the world’s religions, Dick kept a diary he called the Exegesis, that helped him explore his experiences. Apparently the Exegesis journal is to be published shortly. Safe to say, as Sutin noted, Dick did not take himself too seriously and throughout the Exegesis writings he wonders whether he’s just a delusional hack. Dick’s last three novels published during his lifetime explore these experiences and obsessions – VALIS (1981), The Divine Invasion (1981) and The Transmigrations of Timothy Archer (1982).

Apparently Dick regarded himself as a ‘fictionalising philosopher’, and I think that description is apt. Philip K. Dick is a hip writer insomuch that many get into his books because of his reputation and his mind-boggling plots, however he offers much more than that. Dick deserves to be read because he challenges the reader and his writing is intensely thought provoking and insightful. Personally I still have much to look forward to, as I’m yet to read such greats as Ubik (1969) and Martian Time Slip (1964). If you think that you may be immune to the lure of Dick’s writings, that he was just a delusional writer of pulp sci-fi, then please set aside your presumptions and give his writings a chance. After all, you are living in a ‘Phildickian’ universe but you just don’t know it yet. **

·      I couldn’t find the interview in which Gibson talks about the present, but this is entertaining in any case.

** Or now maybe you do after reading the above?

Sunday 2 October 2011

Five Bells – Gail Jones (2011)

Before I started to read Five Bells I had a number of impressions in my mind. The first was of Gail Jones herself, her petite face in the half-light of the corridors of the Arts department at UWA in the nineties when I was there studying literature. She was an academic at UWA and although I never had her as a tutor or lecturer I knew who she was and despite seemingly retiring personality she had a presence. Even then I thought I’d read one of her books at some stage.

The second was shortly before I started to read the book in question, which had been selected by the Subiaco Library Book Club, I mentioned that I was about to start reading it to a male library patron. He told me that he had given up on “that book”. He concluded by saying that it was book for “women”. So, I thought, what does that mean? I never really got to the bottom of it at the time and therefore dismissed it as matter of taste.

I’d also read that Five Bells was influenced by the Modernists and in particular Virginia Woolf, of whom I’d read The Waves  (1931) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Despite such quality influences, or perhaps because of it, I cringed a few times in the opening twenty pages or so at the mannered and florid prose. It seemed that Jones was trying too hard to impress. Despite this Jones manages to settle the novel into a decent display of character building, in particular the characters of Ellie and James, two childhood friends now to be reunited. Ellie and James interior lives are fleshed out with their memories of childhood, their sexual connection as teenagers and their lives after that. Jones evokes a mostly satisfying interior world of regret, suffering, and joy. Their back-stories are played out against the tension of their first contact with each other for many years. The sections leading up to their reunion were certainly the most enjoyable for me. Jones evokes beautifully the bitter sweetness of interconnected lives truncated by the circumstances of dysfunction. An easy connect is created between the reader and the characters and is one of the novel’s strengths

The other two significant characters are both expatriates who have their own stories to tell. Pei Xing, an elderly Chinese woman who lived through the hardships of Communism in China and Catherine, an Irish woman trying to escape a family tragedy. These characters are also haunted by their pasts. This is the crux of Five Bells - time, memory, emotion and rich interior musings set against an evocative and symbolically laden physical backdrop, in this case circular quay and the water of Sydney Harbor. The success of Modernism’s influence on this novel is debatable, with some of the prose coming across as contrived. However there are some beautiful descriptive moments and the back-story of Pei Xing, who is perhaps the most intriguing character, is certainly fascinating. Pei Xing and her particular story could have warranted her own novel, even one laden with Modernist tropes.

The ending, of which some of my book club members found unsatisfactory, at least brings a concrete resolution for one of the characters. The swirling water of the harbor, the pain of the past and the intense emotion of the present merge into a conclusion that makes a sizable impact. If you are interested in the poem, Five Bells (1939) by Kenneth Slessor, that inspired the novel, then you’d better steer clear until after you’ve finished otherwise the ending of the novel will become all too apparent.