A while ago I ran out of Philip K Dick books to read (or so I thought, having totally forgotten about his one book for kids which is now safely waiting for a rainy day on my Kindle) and so ever intrigued by the man who could come up with so much cool shit and generally jolly sci-fi japes I sought out a good biography. There seemed to be a few to choose from but Sutin’s debut biography seemed to be most recommended one.
It is a very interesting and informative read. They say never meet your heroes. I guess I’m learning the hard way to never read truthful biographies of your heroes either. Some of the revelations within the book about his dead twin sister, his pill-popping and serial monogamy I already knew from watching TV or reading the forewords of some of his collections, but the worst thing for me was to read about how he physically abused some of the women he knew. That’s not the actions of the kind hearted mad-as-a-galactic-teapot cat-loving hippy reclusive writer I had imagined all these years.
Like any good biographer, Sutin tries hard not to be judgemental of Dick in any way. Although sometimes he seems to defend Dick against valid criticism that’s been levelled at him, it’s rare and oftentimes Sutin instead presents multiple viewpoints of the same incidents from a variety of sources. He lets the reader know that Dick was prone to embellishment and giving different versions of reality to whoever he talking or writing to at the time.
Sutin conducted over a hundred interviews for the book and had exclusive access to some of Dick’s private papers including Dick’s legendary handwritten Exegesis. The Exegesis lays out theories and counter-theories as to what precisely happened to Dick in February/March 1974 if the visions that inspired his later novels weren’t just the result of a mental breakdown rather than some kind of religious experience.
Dick’s obsession with dark-haired girl after dark-haired girl becomes apparent as the reader is taken through one love affair and marriage to another. So to is Dick’s depressive tendency to dwell on the childhood death of his sister and the neglectful role his mother played in that death. And of course then there’s his reliance on all sorts of pills to keep his paranoia at bay, his blood pressure down, his heart under control and his writing on track.
I found Sutin’s chronological survey and guide to Dick’s published books very useful. Having read the novels, and indeed the short story collections, over a long period of time and out of chronological order the interrelatedness of his individual works wasn’t hugely apparent to me – apart from the obvious connections between Radio Free Albemuth, Valis and The Divine Invasion. It was also interesting to read how Dick struggled to try and be a mainstream author (with books such as Voices from the Street) before falling back on sci-fi to earn a living, and the sometimes troublesome relationships he had with other (often more successful) sci-fi writers.
All in all, this is a very satisfying read for a Philip K Dick fan like me and I can throughly recommend it as a pretty thorough study of a very complicated man.
(Image from Pixabay)