Sci-fi novelist Douglas Lain, nominated for the Phillip K. Dick Prize earlier in the year, reviews the latest OUP text on that famous prophet of the technological age.
Kyle Arnold, The Divine Madness of Phillip K. Dick (Oxford University Press, 2016) 248pp
Since his death in 1982 the reputation of Philip K. Dick, the author of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and “We’ll Remember it for You Wholesale,” amongst many other novels and short stories, has risen markedly. Dick, who spent most of his life scrambling from book deal to book deal while downing amphetamines in order to keep his word count up, has posthumously become both a literary and Hollywood darling. Starting with Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” Dick’s work has been adapted for the big screen over a dozen times. His Hugo Award winning novel “The Man in the High Castle,” was recently adapted for an Amazon original television series, his novels have been reprinted by the Library of America, and he’s been the subject of no less than eleven biographies. Dick has, while maintaining an ever growing cult following, become a respected literary figure of the 20th century. Given the popularity and significance of Philip K. Dick’s work, along with the sensational nature of his personal biography (PKD was a known paranoid, a womanizer, and a man prone to self-mythology) it is not surprising Kyle Arnold’s biography The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick, a book that aims to analyze Philip K. Dick the man rather than to consider him as a cultural force, should appear.
Kyle Arnold is a clinical psychologist out of Brooklyn, so it is natural that he would turn a clinician’s eye towards his subject and attempt to settle some of the big mysteries about PKD’s life. Arnold is not, in fact, the first biographer to attempt a psychological diagnosis. The science fiction fan Gregg Rickman was one of Dick’s last interviewers, one of his first biographers, and among the first of Dick’s fans to become obsessed with the prospect of solving what Dick referred to as the 2-3-74 event. Dick regaled Rickman with tales of pink lights, divine interventions, black iron prisons, and assorted other bits of strange conjecture during Rickman’s famous sixteen-hour interview of the author in 1981. It’s easy to imagine that the force of PKD’s personality along with the absurdity of his tales left a young Rickman with a dilemma. He could either accept that something otherworldly had happened to his idol, or face the reality that the author he so admired was out of his gourd. In Rickman’s early biographies he opted for this second solution, but as an admirer, he could hardly leave the question there. PKD was most likely mad but something, some early trauma perhaps, had driven him to this state, and, almost out of kindness, Rickman set out to discover what bad thing had happened. Arnold, a quarter of a century later, and using Rickman’s biographies as a primary source for his own book, heads off in a similar direction.
The strength of The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick is in its meticulous accounting of Dick’s many possible mental disorders, breakdowns, suicide attempts, delusions, paranoid obsessions, feuds and so on… It could particularly appeal, then, to those interested in madness and its diagnoses. However, as a biography of a writer of some significance the book could be considered something of a disappointment. Like Rickmann before him, Arnold takes Dick’s work and its significance tothe reader for granted and, given his pragmatic approach toward psychology, and most especially his reliance on Jungian concepts, he tends to bypass the philosophical and cultural implications of both PKD’s body of work and persona.
If you are a reader of PKD who is wants to know just what happened, who has an insatiable curiosity about the inner demons that plagued the author, this book may satiate your appetite for a time, but it will not, of course, resolve anything.
Douglas Lain is a novelist whose books include Billy Moon (Tor Books) and After the Saucers Landed (Nightshade Books), which was recently nominated for the Phillip K. Dick Prize. He is also the publisher of Zero Books and the host of the weekly Zero Books podcast.
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