November 14th, 2011 | Staff Blog

“You are an unusual man, Mr. Asher,” the cop beside him said. “Crazy or not, whatever it is that has gone wrong with you, you are one of a kind. […] This is not an ordinary kind of insanity. This is not like anything I have ever seen or heard before. You talk about the whole universe—more than the universe, if that is possible. You impress me and in a way you frighten me.”
—Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said

Lately I have been re-reading all my Philip K. Dick books, but not for fun. It’s for instructions. You could say it with less enthusiasm and more accuracy every year, but the world of right now—with Occupy, Wikileaks, killer drones, advertisements that know your name and where you live—is uncomfortably close to the futures Dick wrote about. (Second place: John Brunner.) It feels like the first third of any of his major novels, the grind-you-down Earth of the Joe Fernwrights and the Nicholas Bradys, where the little guy realizes anew just how little he really is. That’s the point just before the true plot is revealed and the great voice makes itself known—when the Glimmung or VALIS or whatever external force decides the time is right and shines down its beam of light. In Philip K. Dick’s legendary but mysterious Exegesis, finally released in edited form last week, I hope that great voice comes through.

That beam of light isn’t my metaphor or Dick’s metaphor, either. Instead, in 1974, something like that really happened—while recovering from minor surgery, Philip K. Dick answered the door of his Fullerton home and (basically) got zapped by a pink beam of light. It caused him to know things he couldn’t have known and to see things that shouldn’t have been there—he called it “anamnesis,” the lifting of amnesia. He also freely admitted that it was something out of a plot to one of his own novels: freaky sci-fi writer in Orange County talks to God/aliens/and-or-all-of-the-above.

The experience would resonate for the rest of his life, showing up over and over in his work, sometimes veiled and sometimes with clinical accuracy, as Dick tried to figure out what had happened to him. Was it a biochemical anomaly? Was it supernatural visitation? Was it both, and did one cause the other? His lifelong examination of the questions ‘What is real?’ and ‘What does it mean to be human?’ suddenly took on awesome new personal relevance, and arguably—I would argue it, anyway—led to the most vital and passionate writing he’d ever do.

Realistic and symbolic treatments of what he called the 2-3-74 experience appear in Radio Free Albemuth, in VALIS, in A Scanner Darkly and probably elsewhere I’m forgetting, and aftershocks—or sometimes, intriguingly, seemingly predictive beforeshocks—run through Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, The Man In The High Castle, UBIK, The Divine Invasion and more. To summarize Dick’s theories about 2-3-74 would flatten them beyond recognition. Sometimes he felt he’d talked to God; other times he felt he’d seen the true nature of reality; he admitted to himself that every theory fragmented into a countertheory, itself reflecting canceling counter-counter-theories of its own. (Look up his idea of the “fake fake” sometime. It’s vital to 21st century living.)

But night after night, from the months after the experience to his death in 1982, Dick would stay up writing for himself, producing almost two million words—by friend and writer Tim Powers’ count—on the true nature of reality. He called this unpublished stack of type-and-handwritten work his Exegesis. To Philip K. Dick readers, it is the same kind of holy grail as the unreleased SMiLE was to Beach Boys fans. But now both have been officially released—within days of each other, oddly enough. Sadly, I don’t have a copy of either one to tell you about. But tonight you can come find out about the Exegesis with me tonight at the L.A. Central Library, where the Exegesis will be the subject of a panel discussion led by Jonathan Lethem—one of Dick’s champions—and featuring Dick’s daughters Laura and Isa.

What I have seen of the Exegesis—which has been excerpted here and there, most notably by biographer Lawrence Sutin, and occasionally in places on the Internet, where the spirit of Dick-ian supercomputers VALIS and Big Noodle both live on—is nothing like a novel. Instead, it is the writer and thinker at his purest—a beam of light all its own, powerful and strange and sometimes unexplainable. It talks about God, reality, freedom, hope, physics, math and history and more. It more than suggests the infinity that Dick knew was before him, and it is alive with the courage Dick put into his little-guy heroes—that determination to accept and then push forward into the unknowable.

This is strong stuff, and it can be disturbing, Paul Williams, Dick’s friend and the later executor of his estate, told me. But, he said, it’s a work that’s ultimately more about joy and hope than despair, which—even in his grimmest moments—is true for all of Dick’s great books. At a certain point, the plot is revealed, and if the ending isn’t happy, it’s somehow hopeful. As Dick himself wrote in the preface to his novel Radio Free Albemuth: “In the year 1974 [a] man found himself in terrible difficulties, facing disgrace, imprisonment, and possible death. There was no way for him to extricate himself. At that point the supernatural entity returned to Earth, loaned the man a part of his spirit, and saved him from his difficulties. The man never guessed why the supernatural entity came to rescue him. […] I speak now of these matters.”

—Chris Ziegler