I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick (1993)

Emmanuel Carrère

4/1/2017

One of my guilty pleasures is that I love biographies. It’s a guilty pleasure because so many biographies are either bad, boring or unnecessary. But I try over and over. It began when I read Jackie Chan’s biography at a young age. Admittedly Jackie Chan’s story is reasonably interesting and, by comparison, a lot of other biographies are boring even, or despite, interesting subject matter. But the unexpected highs and lows of Chan’s story started something for me. And like any gambler who wins on their first try I’ve continued to search for the same reward. Yet it’s often difficult to gauge what will and what won’t be a good biography. Those who produced the most interesting work may have had dull lives.

Sure, though Phillip K Dick had an uninteresting life? Considering his fiction and Its breadth and influence. But really Dick’s life was remarkably mundane and this could easily have been a bad biography. He married several times, did very few drugs in general but lots of amphetamine in particular. Didn’t really travel or interact with other authors. He wrote, a lot, though arguably only some of it was great and much of his output, like his life, was merely mundane.

Nonetheless this is perhaps the best biography I have ever read and, I’d wager, will ever read. Carrère tackles the subject with a true passion and interest as well as the innovation of providing his own dramatization of events so that the book resembles a work of historical fiction. The book is built heavily upon facts and events but embellishes otherwise undocumented events in Dick’s with some conceit to fiction. Carrère delves deep and even in the mundane sections is innovative and relates Dick’s work and day to day existence to the world events and the rise and fall of the sixties counter-culture such that this book is about far more than merely the life of a prolific writer. The book is about philosophy, modern history, the birth and development of early modern science fiction, the nature and demands of creation, the counter-culture and its expectations and limitations as well as mental illness and the rewards and pitfalls of recognition.

It’s a sad book. Carrère tells the tragic life of a man who’s work touched, and continues to touch millions of people through the continual reprints of his novels and TV and movie adaptations. The book is not afraid to show the depths to which Dick fell and that he died lonely and confused and paranoid. Convinced to the end that he was trapped in just the kind of situation that he had written so much about. And Carrère in this work is not just providing us with the life of Dick, a genius. He is also asking what happened. At which point did the fiction consume and derail the writer and become his reality. Could he have been saved? Should he have been saved? Can he really be considered a hero or a genius when he was also seemingly so doomed and powerless? The book cannot provide answers to any of these questions. Nonetheless it does provide that perfect and poignant life and times story I’ve valued so much ever since my first taste.

Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)

Phillip Roth

1/1/2017

This is the first and so far, only Phillip Roth book I’ve read. Controversial at the time of publication (1969) for its depiction of masturbation, bodily fluids and obscenity. It’s relatively tame by modern standards though some would argue otherwise (including this Guardian article). The writing is solid, especially for a first novel, but I found it from a modern perspective bereft of controversy and so the book serves more as a well-done writing exercise in the (now) well known trope of Jewish neurosis. The book is narrated as one long monologue through the central character of Portnoy. While reading, I assumed this novel was a small side journey from Roth’s more serious works in the same way that Gore Vidal wrote Myra Breckinridge and Mailer wrote Barbary Shore. Although looking at the publication dates it seems as if Barbary Shore was a similarly early work of Mailer’s and so perhaps Gore Vidal was the only one making side-journeys while the other two were evolving as writers in these their earlier, lighter books. Or perhaps I’m completely wrong in my idea of Roth and all his writing is similar to this, but that’s a realization for another day.