Friday, September 30, 2005

Philip K. Dick and Style

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.


egyptiansally said...

Great post. I feel sorry for your grad student.

Anonymous said...

Dick's style is not a matter of beautiful sentences but concentration and speed. With other writers, there are whole novels one could summarize in a single paragraph; in Dick, there are single paragraphs one could use an entire novel to explain. This is part of the rhetoric of science fiction: the story is situated in a fully realized world, though that world is never entirely explored or explained. But Dick was one of the first writers to deploy this rhetoric for purely aesthetic ends--and he did so by taking one of the most disparaged writers in the field as his muse, A. E. Van Vogt. It's no surprise, then, that Dick's stylistic originality often looks like "bad" writing; nor that his particular innovation would appeal to Jameson. (In Marxism and Form Jameson says that style is what replaces rhetoric in middle-class culture.) To be sure, Dick's books often bear the scars of their commercial origin, but the best among them--my own favorite of the ten or so I've read is Dr. Bloodmoney--have a stylistic appeal perfectly suited to their origin. Quotation gets at some of this appeal, but description often gets at more. So I don't believe that Jameson is merely slumming when he draws on Dick's "outrageous" scenarios and premises for his own "beautifully convoluted theorization," though it may be true that Dick serves for him as A. E. Van Vogt served for Dick himself.

Well, it would certainly be nice to have an essay by Jameson on this very topic.

Ben Friedlander

Don Napoli said...

Maybe you could convince the grad student to toss aside Dick’s science fiction, which is pretty well plowed over by this time, and do something with his “mainstream” novels. For reasons that defy my understanding, nobody seems to be paying much attention to these books. They are sensitive, character-driven stories that show how oridinary people tried to cope with the vacuousness of American culture in the fifties. Much of the writing is pretty compelling. A thesis that argued that Dick was the most incisive novelist of the decade might not be far from the truth and could at least be fun to read.

Anonymous said...

I think Philip K. Dick was a classmate of Jack Spicer's in the early fifties at U.C. Berkeley. I believe he and Spicer had a shared sense of language as 'dictation' (probably the ultimate pun on "Dick"!) - those Martians transmitting the poem's vocabulary, etc. Kevin Killian is the master purveyor of this kind of study, comparison and knowledge. Who originated the concept of the poem's vocabulary as 'alien' - indeed as a gift from literal aliens - whether Dick or Spicer, I do not not know. Tho it was Spicer who is said to have told Robin Blaser -
in the throes of his dying, something to the effect, "My vocabulary did this to me."
Which some may also interpret asan alchoholic's classic form of self-denial, no matter how sophisticated it may sound. (It's probably not too short of a leap to go from Rimbaud's "Je suis un autre" to an alien's linguistic launching pad. Or, at least, access to a particular kind of radio - Spicer's transistor radio is rumored to have been covered with band-aids. As he was fond of saying, Those were not punchless syllables!
I agree on that part.

Stephen V