Ian Garrick Mason

Book Reviews

National Post -- July 17, 2004

I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick

Emmanuel Carrère
Holt, 315pp

by Ian Garrick Mason

The subjects of most biographies don’t stare in the mirror and ponder questions like these: “What proof was there that the images of Vietnam that appeared on the television screen weren’t cooked up in a studio with blank bullets, scale models, and ketchup? Who was to say that Vietnam even existed? That anything existed ouside of this room ...” Then again, science fiction writer Philip K. Dick is not a normal subject, and it should come as no great surprise that his biography is, as French author Emmanuel Carrère admits on its first page, “a very peculiar book”.

Dick is best known in contemporary popular culture as the author of stories that have been adapted into Hollywood science fiction movies like Blade Runner (based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Total Recall (based on We Can Remember It For You Wholesale), and Minority Report and Paycheck (based on short stories of the same name). His tales of illusory or parallel realities, human identity, and artificial intelligence seem tailor-made for postmodern audiences. But during his relatively short life -- he died of a series of strokes in 1982, aged 53 -- Dick lived in poverty, a chronic sufferer of agoraphobia, drug addiction, paranoia, and depression.

Smoothly translated by Timothy Bent, the novelistic text of Carrère’s I Am Alive and You Are Dead moves back and forth from the objective facts of Dick’s life to recreations of his thought processes. There are few clear dividing lines between the two perspectives, and while this can prove disorienting at times, it offers a fascinating simulation of what the world might have seemed like from Dick’s own perspective. “Snatches of thoughts swam around inside Phil’s pill-addled brain like fish in a jar of stagnant water,” writes Carrère, as Dick struggles to begin a new book.

This kind of “creative nonfiction” seems particularly appropriate for depicting someone like Philip K. Dick. Dick, the man who used the hexagrams of the I Ching to plot out his Hugo-award-winning novel, The Man in The High Castle. Dick, who in 1974 received messages from God (or VALIS, an acronym he preferred to use, standing for “vast, active, living, and intelligent system”) and then spent the remaining eight years of his life attempting to uncover the meaning of this in an “Exegesis” consisting, in the end, of more than eight thousand typewritten pages of notes. Who believed that the Roman Empire never ended, and that 1970s America was a malign illusion. Whose twin sister died at birth and who never stopped suspecting that he was the one who was supposed to die. Or that he had died and she had lived; that he was the dream and she the reality.

Though it’s a remarkable and riveting experiment, Carrère’s book does assume a certain amount of faith. He provides no index and no bibliography. In his preface, he explains that “in my imaginative recreations of scenes in Dick’s life and of his state of mind, I have drawn from a wealth of sources”, goes on to imply that he studied Dick’s papers and letters, and thanks several people who turn out to be some of Dick’s former wives, girlfriends, and male friends. But the main text is devoid of footnotes and doesn’t give any hints as to where specific facts and descriptions have come from. Certain chapters, he mentions in passing, are reconstructions based primarily on Dick’s own semi-autobiographical novels -- A Scanner Darkly and Valis, for example -- which leads him to introduce characters like “the person [Dick] called Jerry in his book”. But who was “Jerry” in real life? Was there even a “Jerry” at all, or did Dick invent him? How are we to know?

For all these reasons, one would be perfectly justified in treating this book with a degree of caution; it certainly cannot fill the authoritative shoes of a traditional, fully-sourced biography. But if you are willing to assume that Carrère really did read everything Dick wrote, really did study his papers, really did interview the people who knew him best -- and I have no reason at all to suspect he didn’t -- then you can read this book in the spirit in which I believe it is intended, which is as an act of empathetic portrayal.

The notion that reality is an illusion is as old as Plato’s cave, and it’s been renewed and reworked through the ages. As the success of movies like The Matrix proves, it is a “cool” idea, providing ample scope for in-group winks and late night philosophizing among college students. Indeed, Dick’s works are in danger of being strip-mined for this commodity. But as Carrère demonstrates, the mental world of someone who really believes this notion is a profoundly unhappy mixture of elation, obsession, frustration, and terror. By letting us walk in Dick’s shoes for a mile, he improves the odds that we will approach his stories with greater understanding, and the seriousness that so many of them deserve.