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Philip K. Dick's deconstruction of madness

The autobiographical "VALIS" highlights this inventive collection of his final four novels.

By Philip K. Dick

Library of America.

849 pp. $35

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson

'Horselover Fat's nervous breakdown began the day he got the phone call from Gloria asking if he had any Nembutals. He asked her why she wanted them and she said that she intended to kill herself."

So begins VALIS, the principal novel in this Library of America collection of Philip K. Dick's final four.

An epigraph - in the form of an entry from something called the Great Soviet Dictionary (Sixth Edition, 1992) - tells us that the title is an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System. This is defined as "a perturbation in the reality field in which a spontaneous self-monitoring negentropic vortex is formed, tending progressively to subsume and incorporate its environment into arrangements of information. Characterized by quasi-consciousness, purpose, intelligence, growth and an armillary coherence." (An "armillary coherence," by the way, would be one resembling circles or bracelets.)

The epigraph hints at the bizarre epistemology that runs through the book, but those two opening sentences of the narrative are even more telling: VALIS is about madness, drugs and death.

It is intensely and peculiarly autobiographical. In May 1971, a friend committed Dick to the psychiatric ward of Stanford University Hospital. In August, he was admitted to, first, the Marin General Psychiatric Hospital, then to Ross Psychiatric Clinic. He was evidently psychotic.

Four years later, after oral surgery - for which he was given sodium pentothal - he started having intense visions that can only be described as a more or less incoherent mix of good and evil, religion and politics, God, gnosticism, ancient Rome, and much, much more.

All of this is incorporated into VALIS, which turns out to be an account of what psychosis looks like from the inside.

Three pages in, the narrator reveals that "I am Horselover Fat, and I am writing this in the third person to gain much-needed objectivity." As it happens, "Horselover" is what the name Philip means, and "dick" in German means "fat." "Philip Dick" means "Horselover Fat."

Of course, Dick, as narrator, refers to himself in the first person, which is necessary because Fat spends a lot of his time hanging with three buddies of his: Kevin, a skeptic; David, a Roman Catholic; and Phil Dick.

Fat eventually takes off for a while to search the world for a new messiah he is convinced has recently been born. Phil stays behind in his apartment in Santa Ana, Calif. When Fat returns, broke but certain he's near to finding the messiah, Kevin takes him and Phil and David to see a sci-fi flick that seems to have subliminally encoded all of Fat's notions of religious enlightenment and political paranoia.

Kevin knows the rock star who made and starred in the film and gets in touch with him. The four friends are invited to visit the filmmaker and his wife in Sonoma. There they meet Sophia, a 2-year-old product of a virgin birth, who is both human and machine. Sophia is knowledgeable and articulate way beyond her years, and she cures - Phil:

Sophia said, "Phil, Kevin and David. Three of you. There are no more"

Turning to speak to Fat - I saw no one. . . . Fat was gone. Nothing remained of him.

Lest you think this gives away too much of the plot, rest assured: It is no more revealing than it would be to say that Plato's Symposium is about a dinner party.

Dick's inventiveness is what keeps the story moving and the reader turning the pages, but what gives the novel its strange authenticity is the absence of affect, which uncannily mimics the way psychotics fail to register much emotion. Feelings are noted, but without much feeling getting in the way of them. The same is true of Dick's prose: The absence of ornament creates a documentary effect that contributes to the verisimilitude, as if all of this really did happen and none of it is made up.

VALIS is the major work here, but the three other novels are certainly worth reading. A Maze of Death adapts the medieval dream-vision to an outer-space setting. The Divine Invasion is actually the second volume of what would have been a VALIS trilogy. It is enough to say that it is about a little boy named Emmanuel who has some unusual abilities. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is a kind of fictional biography of Dick's friend Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike, who died in the desert near the Dead Sea searching for information about the historical Jesus.

Finally, if you pick up this volume, under no circumstances should you fail to read the excellent chronology of Dick's life and career that Jonathan Lethem has compiled. It reads every bit as strangely as any of Dick's novels.