A Report from the Lethem-PKD Event

The Jonathan Lethem/Philip K. Dick event at Cooper Union was a real delight. It began with Max Rudin, publisher of the Library of America, announcing that a second volume of PKD's novels will be released from the LOA in August 2008, also edited by Lethem. He rattled off the titles of the five novels quite quickly, but -- assuming I heard him correctly and nobody involved with the book changes their mind between now and then -- the included novels will be:
Lethem then read some excerpts from his introduction to the selected stories collection from a few years ago (which, Lethem informed us, would not be released in paperback because the paperback rights to the stories are owned by somebody else) and the whole of his own story "Phil in the Marketplace". Lethem then answered a number of questions from the audience. I took some notes, but missed as much as I got, and all of it is at best paraphrase. Nonetheless, here 'tis:

To a question about why, when other writers also write about paranoia and such, Dick is so special, Lethem replied that when he speaks of Dick, he often also finds himself (or other people) bringing up Pynchon, DeLillo, and Vonnegut, among others, but that for him the difference is a matter of distance and emotional reserve -- Dick's difference is defined by his emotional investment in the situations. His empathy is his only compass. He possessed an obvious satirical impulse (or worldview, even), but he doesn't make fun of his characters' situations. He seems to grapple with the world and seek for solace.

Lethem had mentioned early on that one of the things he found most interesting and challenging about putting together the first LOA volume was working on the timeline, where 40 years of disappointments and struggles were not buffered by a biographical narrative, but were, instead, tied to particular dates. An audience member asked him to elaborate on this, and on the timeline's effect on his story "Phil in the Marketplace". He got a bit off topic and talked for a while about Hampton Fancher, who wrote the first version of the script of Blade Runner, mostly as a way to explain that it seemed Dick was deeply uncomfortable with his growing fame, and feared the encroaching outer world as much as he desired it. Who knows, for instance, how uncomfortable he might be with the kind of canonization he's recently received? Yet he would also, hopefully, be hugely gratified. "Phil in the Marketplace" is about his exile temperament -- he wrote from the margin and drew energy from what he saw as the fate of the pulp writer. Lethem said he wants, and has wanted since he was young, what every PKD fan vociferously wants -- legitimacy for Dick. And yet he noted that he and many fans also have another side, one that no matter what sort of accolades or canonization Dick receives, still feels slighted, denied, defiant. But, Lethem noted, Dick is now in the Library of America, and nobody can remove him.

The next question referred to I Am Alive and You Are Dead, and the questioner asked if Lethem thought Dick was ever really in control. Lethem said he admired that book, but thought it played to the Romantic view of Dick as a crazy artist, and that we have to remember that he had other sides to his life and personality, and that he also really enjoyed wearing masks (playing a role) and being a raconteur. He loved to create theories, test them, and test the credibility (and gullibility) of his audience with them. He didn't stand on one patch of ground. It's as hopeless, Lethem said, to defend him against the word "crazy" as it is to defend Faulkner against the word "alcoholic", but we also have to recognize how generally functional Dick was, and how much more to him there is than just the crazy stuff.

Another questioner asked if he liked Dick's Transmigration of Timothy Archer, and Lethem said he did, and he thought it was, as Dick's last completed novel, a very encouraging place for his career to end up, because it's a sensitively-written novel told from a woman's point of view -- and if you're going to have trouble with any element of Dick's writing, Lethem said, you're going to have trouble with the female characters in many of his books, because they are often treated as [I think this is the term he used, but had some trouble hearing it:] dark lords. Dick wrote 40+ novels, Lethem said, and on any day at least 8-10 of them seem to him to be among PKD's best, and Transmigration is up there.

He then made a point I think is insightful -- that you have to read at least 3 Dick novels, preferably in different modes, to really understand his accomplishment. (I should have raised my hand and asked him to elaborate on this, but he's probably done so in an essay or interview somewhere.)

Finally, someone asked what Lethem thought of the movies made from Dick's writings. He said two or three are worthwhile. Blade Runner he said he hated when he first saw it, because of its huge divergences from the original novel, but that later, and particularly with the director's cut, he decided it was one of the great American movies, something any PKD fan could be grateful for the way a Hemingway fan, for instance, could be grateful that something by Hemingway inspired a movie as great as To Have and Have Not [the obvious difference being, though, that that great movie -- with a script that William Faulkner, among others, worked on -- was based on one of Hemingway's lesser novels, whereas Blade Runner was based on one of Dick's best]. Lethem said he liked A Scanner Darkly, though it certainly shows some of the limits of adaptation. Of the other films, he said there are some scenes that he likes very much, and wished he could put together a movie just from some of those. He said we can be grateful that most of the movies based on Dick's writings have been made from the short stories, leaving the major works for future Richard Linklaters. Or so we can hope.