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The truth as he knew it

I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick; By Emmanuel Carrere; Translated from the French by Timothy Bent; Metropolitan Books: 316 pp., $26

June 20, 2004|Francie Lin | Francie Lin is an occasional contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review and former deputy editor at the Threepenny Review.

"Often people claim to remember past lives," Philip K. Dick told a sci-fi convention audience toward the end of his life. "I claim to remember a different, very different, present life." This statement, in all its koan-like paradox, mystified his listeners, for what could it possibly mean?

It meant, for one thing, that the author of mind-bending works like "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" and "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" was perhaps not inventing anything when he wrote about the dark alternative realities and nightmarish government conspiracies in which his characters, over the course of some 50 novels, are freakishly ensnared.

That is, at least, French novelist Emmanuel Carrere's take on the life and works of Dick in his brilliantly inventive biography "I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick." Carrere combines fact and fiction to form a new sort of genre, blending literary criticism and cultural history with a novelist's earnest speculation. He emerges, somewhat bloodied by the experience, with a picture of a life by turns pathetic and heroic, but most of all plagued by a sense of feverish doubt and emptiness that nothing -- not heroin, not psychotherapy, not marriage, affairs, religion or any of the other standard panaceas of the 1960s and 1970s -- could quite subdue.

Seasoned readers of Dick's stories will know what this great emptiness alludes to, but for others, consider a scene from "The Man in the High Castle," widely considered to be Dick's best work. The novel envisions an alternative present in which the United States is occupied by Japan and Germany, the Allies having lost the war. The Japanese, who have taken over the West Coast, are obsessive collectors of genuine Americana. Wyndam-Matson, a purveyor of fake antiques, shows a woman he's been sleeping with two cigarette lighters:

" 'One of those Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt's pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn't. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. And one has nothing. Can you feel it? ... You can't. You can't tell which is which.... You see my point. It's all a big racket; they're playing it on themselves. I mean, a gun goes through a famous battle ... and it's the same as if it hadn't, unless you know. It's in here.' He tapped his head. 'In the mind, not the gun.' "

"In the mind," says Wyndam-Matson. Which is to say, "not real." The most disturbing aspect of this scene, however, is not that there is a "real" lighter and a "fake" lighter but that the two are essentially indistinguishable: "You can't tell." The interchangeability of true reality and ersatz reality is the terrible void that whistles below the feet of Dick's characters, and it made itself felt in his life as well. One would think that a person who could write so rational and prescient a scene must himself have a strong sense of reality, but in Carrere's estimation, Dick suffered from a debilitating split personality, so that while he understood that there were distinctions between "(a) writing that ... Nixon was a Communist (b) believing it, and (c) believing that it was true," this understanding did not necessarily prevent him from swinging wildly from certainty on the one hand to doubts about the authenticity of the world on the other.

Time and again Dick's works address the problem of distinguishing between reality and artificial illusion: Witness Douglas Quail in "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," whose humdrum reality begins to unravel when he receives a memory implant of Mars; or the androids with implanted human memories in "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" who refuse to believe they aren't real.

These imaginings, far-fetched as they seem, were nevertheless rooted in the anxiety and myopic reality of postwar America that were heightened, for Dick, by his longterm residence in the San Francisco Bay Area. During the McCarthy era, FBI agents, suspicious of his first wife's attendance at Socialist Workers Party meetings, suddenly arrived on Dick's doorstep in Berkeley and began questioning him. Eventually they developed a wary friendship with him, even as they continued to push questionnaires full of assertions like: "The greatest threat to the Free World is (a) Russia (b) our high standard of living (c) subversive elements hiding in our midst." During the 1970s, conspiracy moved to the sphere of drugs. Carrere writes that "narcs sometimes tried to pass themselves off as dealers and sold hash ... dealing served as a perfect cover.... Everyone knew that dealers could also become narcs and start informing on their associates and clients.... Cops, dealers, users -- they all changed roles depending on the circumstances and depending on what role others were playing."

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