There might be an impulse when seeing a book like this to think that it’s only for completists. I say this as a Philip K. Dick fanatic who would read a collection of his grocery lists. I’ve read a lot about and by Philip K. Dick so I’m fairly certain I can tell what belongs in his canon and what is less vital. Search for Philip K. Dick is one of the best books about Philip K. Dick I’ve ever read – yes, as good a window into his life as his late autobiographical Valis novels. It is a more-vivid window into the mind and life of PK Dick than mainstream biographies like Divine Invasions by Lawrence Sutin.
Why? Because it’s written by someone who knew him intimately, but who also took a scholarly approach to writing the biography – interviewing people from Dick’s life and his other wives (he had five). So it is a hybrid biography/memoir. Anne Dick, his third wife, was married to him in the early sixties, when he wrote some of his seminal books, including Man in the High Castle. When you read something that completist’s might have known before (he took speed to write books, he wanted to be respected as a literary writer), it’s very much more like you’re right there living along with him – because Anne Dick was:
He told me, “Most of my novels have been published by Ace, the lowest of pulp publishers.” It surprised me that Phil was so embarrassed about writing science fiction. When we invited the children’s modern dance teacher and his boyfriend over and were driving around sightseeing, they asked Phil, “What kind of writing do you do?” He absolutely would not answer them. Later, when we were all having dinner together, Phil insulted them in such a cold and sarcastic way that they never spoke to us again.
A better title of the book might be “The Wives of Philip K. Dick” or, perhaps, “The Women of Philip K. Dick,” because that’s the main perspective of the biography. Indeed, the title might be the weakest part of the book. If you’re a woman who’s interested in what might like to be married to a mad genius like PKD, here’s your book. If you’re a man wanting to get inside the skin of PKD, that’s here too. If you’re a writer looking for a what it make take to be as prolific and original as someone like Philip K. Dick, that’s also in here.
The last one is what makes this book so hard to read in some places, but also so hard to put down. This is by no means a flattering portrait, but that’s why it’s so powerful. It is brutally honest. And there were certain parts of this book which led me to think that I’d never want to give this guy my attention again – he doesn’t deserve it. For one, he had Anne Dick committed to an institution, when PKD himself was clearly the one who needed the help:
When I finally stopped taking those dreadful , I was very angry. I hadn’t been doing anything for months and I was rested and strong. But I shoved the anger down where I wouldn’t have to deal with it or even know about it. I wanted to put my life and my family back together, to restore it to a happy, normal condition. But in my brain, my whole past was a series of blurs: my grade-school friends; my favorite brother; the junior high fudge club; my little dog, Spot. They all were like ruined frescoes in my mind, the colors gone, the outlines partly missing, the middles totally obliterated.
So you don’t just get a window into Philip K. Dick, but into those close to him. Just as he’s a prolific writer, he’s also prolific with self-abuse, neglect, and certain types of abuse of those left in his wake. You’re led to think at some points: My God, is this what it takes to be a writer of his caliber? To totally fall apart? He’s painted as a person with huge appetites for self-destruction, but while also being enormously charming. After Anne Dick and PKD split in the mid-sixties, he devolves into drug use and paranoia. All the while his fame is growing, and he’s still completing great work: “‘When the book Helter Skelter came out, we all had a big discussion about Manson and ‘the family.’ Phil wanted this sort of relationship but without the crime.'”
But of course that’s what makes this book so riveting – and should be riveting to anyone, including those who aren’t too familiar with PKD’s work (the writer behind the movies “Minority Report,” “Total Recall,” “Blade Runner” and others). There is some completist flavor to some of the book, such as when Anne Dick goes through his novels and points out which characters were based on real people. You do have to be a fairly obsessed insider to know what she’s referencing. But if you can look past this you’ll see that she’s just outlining how this fantastical writer’s work was all based on personal experience – to a very deep degree.
The autobiographical nature of his work is why his novels are so enduring – because he’s not just writing about neat gadgetry or far-out ideas, but really expressing the human condition as a reflection of his piece of the world. There’s a reason why he’s considered one of the major writers of the 20th century and other genre writers are not, because his books transcend genre, and Search illustrates just how his novels came to be written. It’s incredible to find out how deeply personal Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novels were. And coming from the perspective of someone who knew him so personally, Search for Philip K. Dick is a vivid and profound portrait.
Visit Point Reyes Cypress Press.