I’ve committed myself to serving on a thesis committee for one of our grad students who wants to write about Philip K. Dick, so I thought I ought to read some of his books besides the couple I had chanced upon over the years (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in a Blade Runner movie tie-in edition, The Man in the High Castle). I’m halfway thru Valis right now. It’s a fairly compelling read, if a bit short on plot and a bit long on far-out ideas. The writing is better than that of Man in the High Castle, but it’s still pretty meat ‘n’ potatoes. I don’t get much sense that the words have been revised, or even deeply pondered, but just punched out as they came to him. And we’re to read them, forgiving him the fact that he’s not Joyce or Proust (or even Iain M. Banks or William Gibson) for the story. It reminds me of one old friend who’s a great consumer of mass-market romance novels; the inherent interest of the subject matter obviously overcomes his very well-honed stylistic prejudices. Rather like my ability to (sometimes) read my way thru really lame rock histories and biographies.
I wonder how Fredric Jameson, who has such a deep involvement in prose style – his first book, which I haven't read, is on Jean-Paul Sartre’s style – is able to switch off that section of his sensibility when he reads Dick, who’s a recurrent touchstone of the postmodern in Jameson’s writing, someone who furnishes, time and again, scenarios & ideas to spark Jameson’s own theorizing. I do notice how FJ steers clear of Dick as writer – he’ll describe a story, talk about its particular outrageous scenario or premises, and then move on to beautifully convoluted theorization. But he never quotes Dick at any length, or analyzes the grain of his writing as he does with, say, Claude Simon or Adorno.
It’s not that Dick is an actively bad writer, like Dan Brown or Kathy Acker.* It’s just that he’s (like Stephen King) a serviceable writer, someone who can tell a compelling story clearly, can get the compellingness of its events across to the reader – but never in language itself compelling or memorable. He’s no Melville, or Woolf, or Joyce, or Marilynne Robinson, or Samuel Delany. Not even a John Barnes or Iain M. Banks, who have a much better feel for presenting action. Dick’s prose has the rushed quality that reminds me of not-the-best Vonnegut, all of whose novels have evaporated from my head since I read them in high school. But I think I’ll keep reading Dick, and see if any of his vivid scenarios stick with me a year from now.
*A CLEAR DISTINCTION: Brown is bad because he’s a tone-deaf hack; Acker’s “badness,” on the other hand, is part of thorough-going aesthetic of transgression – you have to work very hard indeed, if you’re a person of such manifest intelligence as KA, to write as outrageously badly as she does in, say, Empire of the Senseless. Violating the style taboo is parallel to violating the incest taboo, the superviolence taboo, the taboo against sex with stuffed animals, etc. – simply part of the package.