1. The Best of All: Homage to Philip K. Dick
I set out to praise really good writers in this column, and I'm finding it difficult. It's much easier to damn bad books than to praise good ones; you almost want to keep the best books to yourself, because the prospect of seeing them rejected -- or worse, loved for the wrong reason -- is so terrible. But even a reviewer who specializes in damning the bad has to praise the good, if only to show the standard the bad books fail to reach.
I've made a list of the books I really treasure, and discovered something surprising: The "classics" I was taught at the university don't seem particularly interesting or impressive now. None of them make my list. They were literature for social climbers -- books you could name with pride, whether you really loved them or not.
Take Joyce. Is Ulysses a good book? I guess it is. I don't want to read it again. Dubliners was good -- you'd pick it up and keep reading even if you never heard of the author -- but Ulysses? You wouldn't read that except at college. Reading and trying to like Ulysses was like trying to like abstract painters: you could only do it if you remembered that these painters had started out painting some very good representational work. In the same way, you could only keep yourself reading Ulysses by reminding yourself that Joyce COULD write well when he wanted to, like he did in Dubliners.
That excuse doesn't hold for some of the "classics" I read in the delusive excitement of young adulthood. Some were just plain bad. Virginia Woolf comes to mind here -- a very bad writer, period. But most now seem simply dull, workmanlike writers, not bad but not worth remembering. Bellow, Styron -- try-hards, white running backs with lotsa hustle and little talent. Beckett...a great writer, I guess, but I'd sooner chop weeds by the freeway than read him again. I feel the same way about many of the "great" Russians, like Byely. Petersburg is a great novel, they say...but I read it as homework, and that's all it ever was.
Other great writers, read at first with a provincial's desperate desire to share the cool people's tastes, now seem repellent -- so evil that the question of their talent doesn't even arise. Take Tolstoy -- do the arbiters of taste still consider him a great writer? I don't keep track; all I know is that I despise him. I don't care if he's great. He gives me the creeps.
The books that live most vividly in my mind now are the few I loved on my own, before the universities told me what to like. That's why I have to place Philip K. Dick at the top of my list of great writers: because I loved his stories before I had any idea who wrote them, and love them just as much now, when I no longer care about impressing the cool people.
I learned to love Dick's stories before I ever knew his name.
There's a brief, happy phase in late childhood, after you've learned to master your body and keep your savage agemates at bay, when you begin to look excitedly around the world and choose your colors. It lasts only a little while; then the golden anvil of puberty is dropped on you from the 99th floor, and you're staggering around again like an idiot, your true tastes lost in the hopeless desire to like what the mean little coolsters like.
I spent the hot summer afternoons of that brief late-childhood bliss at the Pleasant Hill public library, reading every science-fiction anthology I could find. Out of the hundreds of stories there were a half dozen which were burned into my head forever. I didn't know or care who wrote them. But 20 years later, when I went looking for them, I discovered that all those stories were the work of Philip K. Dick.
Dick was the great writer of my time and place: Northern California in the hippie days. Dick wrote about the dissolving world of California before and after the great quake called the Summer of Love. He was, among other things, the best journalist to cover that Big Bang. The other contenders didn't have a clue: Joan Didion with her campy LA noir; Tom Wolfe and his finicky overdressed fussing....Even Hunter S. Thompson missed the fiercer Tolkienian-Jihad overtones. Only PKD really got it right. And he told that story so many ways, in 47 novels (at least). He wrote about every moment on the great amphetamine trajectory; he took the marital chaos and drug shivers of his friends and made them great myth.