Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Revisiting the Classics -- Valis

Today we have the 1981 Philip K. Dick novel Valis. It's one hell of a strange trip.

The story is told from the point of view of Dick himself (who breaks the fourth wall by referencing his earlier works). He's here to tell us about his friend Horselover Fat (yes, that is his name). I liken him to Forrest Gump if Gump was on a constant acid trip. Fat has had it pretty rough the past few years. His wife left him and took their son; his friend Gloria committed suicide despite his best attempts to stop her; he himself got hooked on drugs, attempted suicide--but failed--and got sent to a mental institution. There he was bullied into not trying to kill himself anymore. Once he got out, he found himself broke and basically alone. And that's when things get weird.

See, Fat claims to have had profound revelations beamed into his head via a pink laser from a divine creator that he calls Zebra.This suddenly makes Far very spiritual, and he spends a considerable amount of time discussing theology with his friends. He even writes page after page of his exegesis in which he records his metaphysical ramblings. Here is one such example:

Entry #14 from the tractate: The universe is information and we are stationary in it, not three-dimensional and not in space or time. The information fed to us we hypostatize into the phenomenal world.

Fat believes--among other things--that there are two Gods, a rational one and an irrational one. The irrational one seems to have the most influence on our universe since our universe is irrational.

He also has a hero complex. In between writing his exegesis, he does his best to assist his friend Sherri who has cancer. This leads to nothing but trouble for our protagonist who has plenty of trouble to begin with. His good-natured antics are continually spurned by the women in his life. Can this guy ever get it together and lead a normal existence?

Eventually, the sci-fi element does come into play. Fat and co. see a movie called Valis. The bizarro plot centers around a mysterious satellite with the acronym VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System). Many elements of the story mirror Fat's experiences, and the gang comes to believe this is no coincidence. They get in touch with the film's creators and are introduced to a world they could have never imagined, a world where the wildest ideas are possible, yet nothing is what it seems. Now they must face difficult questions. Who or what is God? What is reality? What is time? Can they trust the people giving them the answers to these questions?

Valis is based on real events in Dick's life, and the novel is supposedly his way of trying to make sense of it all. Like Horselover Fat, he had either stumbled onto advanced knowledge or he was simply going insane. This book was written during the last years of Dick's life, and his (apparently) deteriorating mental state is evident throughout. It's much more out there than, say, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Reading the story, I got the sense Dick hadn't completely lost his mind. He knew what he was writing about, even if he wasn't entirely certain about it.

The narrative manages to merge diverse religions, from Christianity to Judaism to Gnosticism and everything in between. Dick covers all the bases. I'd be lying if I said I understood all of it, but I did catch glimpses of profound ideas throughout the story. Whether or not the characters themselves have lost touch with reality (if, indeed, reality every truly existed) I can't say. But I can say Valis is a wild ride that will really make you think. Everyone should give it a read.

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