Friday, August 7, 2009

Firebright Reviewed

The author of the following review kindly gave me permission to reprint it here:

Dear Tessa,
Here's my Amazon review of FIREBRIGHT. I sent it both to REMEMBERING PHILIP K. DICK and to AN OWL IN DAYLIGHT on Amazon. Alas, I no longer write for The Hollywood Reporter. though I did a ten-year stint there.
Many thanks for the books. Since I just sent the review on Wednesday evening, it won't appear on Amazon until it gets read by them.
Don Newlove


While reading Tessa Dick's memoir PHILIP K. DICK: REMEMBERING FIREBRIGHT I turned down the ears of perhaps fifteen pages I meant to come back to and speak of when writing this review--but at last I was overwhelmed with questions. Nonetheless, as you can see, I give the book five stars for its corrections of the PKD myth and for a certain naiveté in the writing that adds to its interest. This is after all by the woman PKD married twice, lived with for most of his last ten years, and left as his widow. Her ingenuousness here and there should not disqualify the book from the PKD canon of commentary. How could it, although on Amazon she takes issue with Lawrence Sutin's biography of PKD, a book I've not read.

Tessa Dick at first seems saner than her fear-ridden and wobbly husband. But within a few pages after she marries him (she's 18, he's 42) she falls hip-deep into his paranoia and for much of the book seems as nutty as he. How do I mean nutty? It would be unfair to Tessa and perhaps to PKD himself for me to list their mass of shared illusions, since she often accepts them as just and sane. However, during their later years her interest in taking a few college courses makes him fear she'll find a younger lover and this thought drives him into leaving Tessa, renting another apartment, divorcing her and taking on another helpmate. But Tessa's soon back with him, editing A SCANNER DARKLY (which they worked on for eight years, and is perhaps his best written and most poised long work). She helps gather together what he completes of the VALIS trilogy and cares for him during all of his unending and relentless breakdowns. She makes clear that his breakdowns did not stem from drugs. She never saw him take an illegal drug during their marriage(s).

I won't describe Phil's phobias since she defends his lifelong raptness with them and tries to explain their sources. The reader even begins to believe that the U.S. government may indeed have been gathering information about Phil. I've read the government's stupid Cold War files on Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer from the same period and greater blunt-brained idiocy would be hard to find. All youngish and unread government agents who gather info and write reports about liberal and radical writers seeking change and yet have not read these writers' works are dunderheads. And PKD fearing himself on the FBI's Cold War hit list read their intelligence-gathering into every little twist of events.

She tells us that "Contrary to popular belief he did not churn out a complete novel every few days. He did type furiously for about three weeks, but he didn't even sit down at the typewriter until he had worked out the entire story in his head and in conversations with me and others."

None of the eight films made from his works gets her full approval and she points out their flaws, most often in the scripts, and yet admires the partial successes in BLADE RUNNER and the stunning A MINORITY REPORT and much of A SCANNER DARKLY. By the way, TOTAL RECALL (taken from WE CAN REMEMBER IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE) is now being remade, and she hopes it will be more faithful to Phil's vision than the Arnold Schwarznegger version (which I found quite enjoyable largely because of Arnold. Let me add that for me the single most powerful character in a PKD movie adaptation was that by Robert Downey Jr. as James Barris in A SCANNER DARKLY. Downey gives a master class in acting and making the text your own).

As for PKD's famous vision in 1974 that produced the unfinished VALIS trilogy, he'd had oral surgery and later been given Percodan for his pain. Earlier this year I broke a hip and was given Percodan and had the very same colored lights and shapes and dots that Phil had but I did not call them a divine invasion, as he did. But then I am not paranoid and my firebright sphere did not channel me to masters of the mysteries of the universe as did Phil's. And last summer when my cat lay down and died on the lawn I did not think that the cat had taken its death as one that was meant as a hit at me. In Phil's case his cat Pinky saved Phil from cancer. Tessa herself suspects that "Given the presence of powerful electronic equipment in the apartment next door, it is most likely that we were exposed to microwaves."
"Phil held two beliefs at the same time. First, human agents had brainwashed him. Second, demons had attacked him. They were not mutually exclusive. . . The demons, or the agents, might have followed him from San Rafael to Canada, abducted him and subjected him to both interrogation and mind control. We didn't worry about whether the demons were real, but only about whether we could stop the psychic attacks. . . "
"Phil theorized that we were actually living in ancient Rome . . . The world of 1974 was an illusion, and no real time had passed in almost two thousand years. The modern world was simply overlaid, resting on top of ancient Rome. The Empire never ended. He was informed of this fact, not only by his visions, but also by time travelers who instructed him. He said that they were hiding in the corners of our living room. . . Phil said that they were very timid and expressed shock when they realized that he could see them."

It's only fair that I mention that, despite being the second edition, this work is self-published and has many misspellings and errors that would not take place in a well-edited book. And yet Tessa Dick speaks often herein of proofing her husband's work, not to speak of the editorial authority lent to her by her master's degree and published stories and other literary work. Nonetheless, most of these textual mishaps cannot be defended. She has written THE OWL IN DAYLIGHT, a novel which I believe means to complete the VALIS trilogy pretty much as Phil may have meant it to end. I haven't read it but looking through it I sense its pages have gone through more rigorous editing.

I read PHILIP K. DICK: REMEMBERING FIREBRIGHT with interest and at times amazement. Library of America, by the way, has brought out three volumes of PKD's novels, edited by Jonathan Lethem, and in October will offer these three volumes boxed. That's pretty nifty; and even adds some heft to Tessa's books as commentaries on a star risen in the American literary heavens.