I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick , by Emmanuel Carrère. Metropolitan Books, 315 pages, $26.
It’s difficult to imagine a writer who could have appreciated the adaptation of his works into a series of increasingly bad movies more than Philip K. Dick. The progression from Blade Runner through Total Recall to Paycheck has all the hallmarks of one of his stories-black irony, psychological degradation and the implication of a vast conspiracy organized to deceive and persecute one man. The young Dick would have written it as a dark comedy, the older as a bizarre Christian fable.
Dick’s journey from neurotic bohemian to full-blown religious psychotic is as fascinating a tale as anything he ever wrote. And it has fallen into capable hands in Emmanuel Carrère’s I Am Alive and You Are Dead. The title is drawn from one of Dick’s most horrifying novels, Ubik (1969), in which it appears as a message scrawled on a bathroom wall. Mr. Carrère, a French novelist, demonstrated his gift for capturing stranger-than-fiction truth in The Adversary (2001), his book on Jean-Claude Romand, who murdered his family when he could no longer maintain the fiction-as he had assiduously done for most of his adult life-that he was a high-ranking doctor in the World Health Organization. I Am Alive and You Are Dead is similar in approach to The Adversary: an attempt to depict the life of a pathological personality “from the inside,” as Mr. Carrère says in his introduction. Dick, whose everyday activities seem positively dull when compared to his chaotic inner life, is a figure peculiarly suited to this sort of biographical treatment.
Dick’s biography is spare. He was born in Chicago in 1928. After his parents’ divorce, his mother Dorothy took him first to Washington, D.C., and then to Berkeley, Calif. Philip was a withdrawn and sensitive child, subjected to both Freudian and Jungian therapy by the time he was 15. His anxious, self-dramatizing mother lived, in Mr. Carrère’s phrase, in a state of excited “bovarysme.” It’s not surprising, given these circumstances, that Dick turned toward literature, and particularly toward the fantastic and grotesque.
In his early 20′s, after an adolescence colored by his mother’s subtle domination and his fears of latent homosexuality, he published his first science-fiction story and decided he’d found his vocation. From his beginnings as an unknown and frustrated writer of science fiction, he became a theological guru and existential mascot to the burgeoning counterculture, a highly respected author in a small but explosively broadening field; he finished as a prematurely aged, functional-but-insane casualty of LSD and scores of other drugs, writing an interminable religious text called the Exegesis. He died in 1982, after achieving his first substantial material success with the sale of the movie rights to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novel that would become Blade Runner. His reputation survived his rather sad end, and his cult of fans (of which I am a member) rivals or exceeds in size and devotion that of any other major contemporary science-fiction author, from Asimov to Zelazny.
Given the absence of globe-spanning travels (he spent his entire adult life in Northern California), brilliant conversation or any of the other staples of the typical literary biography, the fascination Mr. Carrère’s book exercises on the reader may seem puzzling. The biographer lavishes on his subject’s internal life great care and detail, and that’s the source of the book’s power. Dick, after all, attracted an astonishingly broad readership, from philosophically inclined hippies to jaded French journalists. The Man in the High Castle (1962), Dick’s 1963 Hugo-winning alternate history set in an America conquered by and divided between the Empire of Japan and Germany, has become a staple of high-school reading lists. The mind that produced his fiction, unsurprisingly, has a similarly unnerving and far-reaching appeal.
At least it does when elucidated by Mr. Carrère, who has seized on the fact that Dick’s books resulted, almost uniformly, from progressively more serious derangements of his psyche. As Mr. Carrère puts it: “[This book] is a trip into the brain of a man who regarded even his craziest books not as works of imagination but as factual reports …. Dick’s life was as much marked by the fictions he created as those fictions bear the mark of his lived experiences.”
In a dreamily clinical prose, he proceeds to chronicle these derangements as carefully as if they were the factual bases of Dick’s “reports.” When, in 1955, a series of visits by the F.B.I. touched off in Dick a long and involved paranoiac fantasy (the speculative process that ultimately led to his 1957 novel Eye in the Sky), Mr. Carrère follows in detail the convoluted internal argument Dick had with himself, covering nearly as many pages as he devoted to the first 24 years of Dick’s life. Dick’s hallucination that the C.I.A. had attempted to steal the manuscript of his novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974) is treated with similar seriousness. As Dick grew older, ingested various drugs in ever-larger quantities, and indulged his compulsive passion for catastrophic relationships with women, these fantasies grew ever more bizarre, and ever more insistent on the illusory and adversarial nature of reality. But Mr. Carrère never wavers: With his concise, fluent prose and eye for psychological detail, he succeeds in making Dick’s psychoses not only understandable but even convincing. By the time Dick, in the last decade of his life, came to the conclusion that reality as we know it is an illusion used by the Roman Empire to numb the minds of Christians, the animating idea of his unfinished Exegesis, the reader feels as simultaneously trapped and enlightened as Dick must have at the moment of his epiphany. Mr. Carrère, through a remorseless and clear-eyed accretion of detail, makes this last madness seem both plausible and inevitable.
Mr. Carrère’s book does not supplant Lawrence Sutin’s authoritative biography, Divine Invasions (1991). It’s not, one gets the sense, meant to. Rather, it serves as a complement to Mr. Sutin’s dense and heavily annotated book. Divine Invasions may be more comprehensive, but I Am Alive and You Are Dead is more intimate-as one reads it, one feels uncomfortably at home in Dick’s claustrophobic fantasies. In the end, it reads almost as if it had been written by its subject. And that is perhaps the highest possible testament to Emmanuel Carrère’s gift for telling stories “from the inside.”
Sam Munson is a research associate at Kudlow and Co.
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