On the radio...

>> Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Apparently, someone has made a movie out of Philip K. Dick's Radio Free Albemuth. I'm not really surprised: PKD has been a hot property, and his kids have been aggressively licensing their dad's work. (And well they should--one suspects that the things that made him a brilliant writer made him a less-than-brilliant dad, and anyway there wasn't a lot of money to be made toiling in science fiction until right before he died. I may not like most of the adaptations of his work, but I like the idea of his kids finally getting something for their old man's hard work a lot.)

RFA is a fairly minor novel. In my opinion, it's mainly notable for being salvaged into the brilliant Valis, a brilliant novel novel and not just a brilliant genre novel. Valis is absolutely and utterly worth reading.

Whether RFA will make even a halfway decent movie is also hard to say. RFA, like Valis, is deeply rooted in something like a psychological break PKD was undergoing in the early 1970s. Being a little crazy, and having damaged himself with various drugs (including the speed he took to pound out low-paying pulp novels to try to feed his family), PKD apparently became convinced that God was talking to him via a pink laser beam projected directly into his eyeball. Being a brilliant man, PKD was apparently smart enough to realize that believing that God is shooting pink lasers at you is a sign of mental illness. And being a damn good writer, he turned it into a moving book--Valis, not RFA so much. RFA is kind of like Valis before it got filtered through PKD's personal and literary self-awareness: the paranoia, without as much of the parody; the religious exultation, without as much of the profound empathy for the human condition that makes PKD great.

Which, ironically, may be why RFA might work better than Valis as a movie. The native duplicity of the soul can be much harder to convey on screen, but on the page it can be comic and pathetic all at once. Valis is so brilliantly pretzel-shaped that PKD appears in the book as two characters: a mentally-ill man named Horselover Fat ("philip" is Greek for "lover of horses" and "dick" is German for "thick"--i.e. fat) and as the narrator, a science fiction writer named Phil Dick.

Here's a funny and sad page from Valis, in which Horselover Fat, Phil Dick, and their friend Kevin discuss God:

No need existed to bait Fat with idle questions, such as, "If God can do anything can he create a ditch so wide he can't jump over it?" We had plenty of real questions that Fat couldn't field. Our friend Kevin always began his attack one way. "What about my dead cat?" Kevin would ask. Several years ago, Kevin had been out walking his cat in the early evening. Kevin, the fool, had not put the cat on a leash, and the cat had dashed out into the street and right into the front wheel of a passing car. When he picked up the remains of the cat it was still alive, breathing in bloody foam and staring at him in horror. Kevin liked to say, "On judgment day when I'm brought up before the great judge I'm going to say, 'Hold on a second,' and then I'm going to whip out my dead cat from inside my coat. 'How do you explain this?' I'm going to ask."

By then, Kevin used to say, the cat would be as stiff as a frying pan; he would hold out the cat by its handle, its tail, and wait for a satisfactory answer.

Fat said, "No answer would satisfy you."

"No answer you could give," Kevin sneered. "Okay, so God saved your son's life; why didn't he have my cat run out into the street five seconds later? Three seconds later? Would that have been too much trouble? Of course, I suppose a cat doesn't matter."

"You know, Kevin," I pointed out one time, "you could have put the cat on a leash."

"No," Fat said. "He has a point. It's been bothering me. For him the cat is a symbol of everything about the universe he doesn't understand."

"I understand fine," Kevin said bitterly. "I just think it's fucked. God is either powerless, stupid or he doesn't give a shit. Or all three. He's evil, dumb and weak. I think I'll start my own exegesis."

"But God doesn't talk to you," I said.

"You know who talks to Horse?" Kevin said. "Who really talks to Horse in the middle of the night? People from the planet Stupid. Horse, what's the wisdom of God called again? Saint what?"

"Hagia Sophia," Horse said cautiously.

Kevin said, "How do you say Hagia Stupid? St. Stupid?"

"Hagia Moron," Horse said. He always defended himself by giving in. "Moron is a Greek word like Hagia. I came across it when I was looking up the spelling of oxymoron."

"Except that the -on suffix is the neuter ending," I said.

That gives you an idea of where our theological arguments tended to wind up. Three malinformed people disagreeing with one another.

-Valis, 26-27 (Vintage Books, 1991)

Rest in peace, Phil. Rest in peace.

More about the Radio Free Albemuth movie can be found here.


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