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Book Review May 29, 2002
Summer Reading Guide
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 3
And yes, it DOES matter that he wrote so much. It's a little odd, isn't it, when the "great" writers of an age produce so little? These coddled New Yorker-ers who manage to squeeze a half-dozen books and die of advanced self-consciousness -- what would Defoe or Balzac make of them? It is the genre writers, science fiction and crime, those machines who turn out 50 books and die young, who are the writers. It's not good to write so little; you start to catch up with yourself, read your own press, and you end up imitating yourself. The machines have no such leisure, and it's their salvation.

To this day, no one appreciates the extraordinary inventions Dick created from the most banal materials lying to hand. Take his novel We Can Build You, so obscure even most PKD fans haven't read it. This novel comes out of a forgotten moment: the Centennial of the American Civil War, from 1961-1965. Much was made of the anniversary at the time: Life magazine did photo shoots of Gettysburg, newspapers ran those "On this day 100 years ago," and you can still see Peanuts strips from the early sixties showing Charlie Brown wearing one of those little blue Union caps.

The Centennial came and went -- and seven years after it ended, Dick produced We Can Build You. This is the story of Louis Rosen, who runs the a small company which builds organs. With the musical-instrument market going bad, the company decides to branch out into building simulacra of great historical figures. They build a walking, talking, thinking, feeling Abraham Lincoln.

As usual, Dick grabbed this idea from something floating around California. In this case, he picked up on the "audio-animatronic" figures in Disneyland, one of Walt's pet projects in his last years. These were simply moving mannequins which went through the motions of oratory as they repeated taped phrases from famous speeches. Since Disney built the exhibit during the Centennial years, the star of the Disneyland audio-animatronic show was of course Abraham Lincoln.

But the Lincoln in We Can Build You has as much in common with Disney's Lincoln as Disney's Anastasia has with those cold bones lying in Ekaterinburg. Dick's Lincoln is the real thing: a sad, brilliant figure who quickly sizes up the world in which he's been reanimated and becomes a sort of stoic Ann Landers for Louis Rosen, who's fallen in love with Pris, the brilliant girl who built Lincoln's artificial mind.

The Lincoln simulacrum (and yes, Dick WAS using that term long before you lot ever read your damned Baudrillard) doesn't have much time to exercise his benign influence over events, though, because the company makes a second simulacrum: Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's sinister Secretary of Defense. During the years of the Centennial, there were a number of articles reviving the old debate about whether Stanton took part in the plot to kill Lincoln. Dick, who probably never even read these articles, somehow picked up on their distant vibrations (the man had more sensitivity to distant electrical currents than a great white shark) and makes Stanton Lincoln's antagonist, an equal and opposite God. Dick had been making Manichean oppositions from the beginning; in one of his finest early novels, The Cosmic Puppets, he sets the ancient Persian gods of Light and Decay against each other in a quiet West Virginia valley. In We Can Build You he pits Lincoln, the Mercer-like preacher of endurance and faith, against Stanton, the quick, brilliant and cruel advocate of force.

And all this plays against a half-dozen other plots, starting with the protagonist's descent into schizophrenia. I could write pages on the place of schizophrenia in Dick's work. The term as he uses it has very little to do with the textbook definition. In this novel, there's an epidemic of schizophrenia, with vast institutions imprisoning huge numbers of Americans. Louis tries to avoid being scooped up into one of these, helped by the morose and kind figure of Lincoln, while pursuing Pris.

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