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Critical disjuncture

Voices From the Street A Novel Philip K. Dick Tor: 302 pp., $24.95

February 04, 2007|Ed Park | Ed Park is a founding editor of the Believer.

IN "Search for Philip K. Dick" (1995), Anne R. Dick (the third of the visionary science-fiction writer's five wives) recalls a potentially life-changing response to the manuscript of "Confessions of a Crap Artist," a mainstream novel he had finished in 1959. "Alfred Knopf, himself, wrote Phil a letter saying he was interested in publishing it if Phil would rewrite the last third making the female character more sympathetic," she reports. "He compared the quality of Phil's prose to that of Salinger, Roth, and Mailer.... We were both thrilled with this letter. But Phil said, 'I can't rewrite this book! It's not that I don't want to, it's that I'm not able to!' "

In an alternate universe -- of the sort that Dick fluidly conjured in novel after novel -- Phil can do the rewrite. Encouraged by critics, he happily departs the precincts of science fiction, which had nurtured and released 10 of his books, and has a successful career producing highbrow, gently experimental fare. He reworks the territory of soured domesticity (a la Richard Yates and John Updike) in a working-class milieu anticipating Raymond Carver. Decades later, his oeuvre (like Philip Roth's) is lovingly enshrined in our national pantheon.

None of this happens in the real world, of course, save for that last outrageous twist: This spring, four of his best novels will appear in a Library of America volume edited by novelist and stalwart PKD champion Jonathan Lethem. Lauded in science-fiction circles, Dick (1928-1982) gained mass exposure after the movie "Blade Runner," based on one of his books, was released the year of his death. His carpet-yanking virtual realities have been film fodder ever since -- most recently, Richard Linklater's stunning 2006 adaptation of "A Scanner Darkly."

But mainstream acceptance was Dick's first novelistic ambition, one that took years to dispel. An early fan of "scientifiction" stories, Dick also read widely outside the genre. In 1940s Berkeley, beginning at age 19, he roomed in a converted warehouse occasionally occupied by literary figures like poets Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, with whom he struck up friendships. During this time, according to biographer Lawrence Sutin, he was inspired to steep himself in the classics ("I gained a working knowledge of literature from the Anabasis to Ulysses," Dick wrote in a 1968 "Self-Portrait"), with special attention to modernists like Ezra Pound and John Dos Passos. Sutin notes that from 1951 to 1958 Dick wrote dozens of science-fiction stories and six science-fiction novels, all of which were published, and seven mainstream novels, none of which found a publisher in his lifetime. "Confessions of a Crap Artist," written in 1959 and published in 1975, is a lean, semiautobiographical divorce drama that nimbly shuttles between points of view. The other surviving mainstream manuscripts gradually found their way to print, and with the publication of "Voices From the Street," finished in 1953, we have a complete view of the path not taken.

At the center of "Voices" is Stuart Hadley, a handsome, New Yorker-reading 25-year-old and amateur painter who is languishing as a repairman at Modern TV Sales and Service. Called "Stumblebum" by his boss, Jim Fergesson, Hadley is a dreamer with unclear dreams. His marriage leaves him cold, and his wife's pregnancy intensifies his feeling that life has trapped him. (His solution: memory-obliterating pub-crawls.) Taking note of a natty young man, Hadley imagines his bookcases hold "French novels in French paperback editions. Gide, Proust, Celine...." A liberal sort with socialist Jewish friends, Hadley is simultaneously attracted and repulsed by a group of holy rollers led by Theodore Beckheim, a charismatic black preacher -- and also by the "strong, calculating, ruthless, efficient" Marsha Frazier, who runs a haphazardly produced magazine called Succubus that turns out to be anti-Semitic.

Whereas "Confessions" had both a wrenching, violent climax and a sense of humor, "Voices" is obsessed with rage and race and is unremittingly bleak, a mood intensified by its chapterless format. The title suggests James Joyce's polyphonic "Ulysses," but Hadley is a dominant, unifying presence. Though an early story line centers around an avuncular character named Horace Wakefield, hints of a Bloom-Dedalus dyad get snuffed early. The only deviations from Dick's patient, observant style are Beckheim's tour de force of a sermon and Hadley's violent, drunken ramble, reminiscent of Joyce's hallucinatory "Nighttown" chapter. (At times the novel reads like a hazy, low-rent version of Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead," with Hadley's inchoate ambition as above reproach as Howard Roark's will to power; Hadley's one-night stand with the fearsome Marsha is, troublingly, a more vicious version of Roark's rape of Dominique.)

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