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Book Review May 29, 2002
 
Summer Reading Guide
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 3 of 3
 
Dick has no "ironic distance" from these events. If he had written with greater awareness of the absurdity (from a university perspective) of his plots, he would now be adored by the people who consider deLillo & co. great writers. But Dick, thank God, dropped out of Berkeley early, and never went back. He meant what he wrote, and though he's often comic, he's always very serious about what he's saying. It is a matter of life and death with him. And his seriousness is starting to look more and more reasonable. Like Stevens, Dick has only begun to become comprehensible, and grows more lucid with every decade since his death. His global warming (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch), his email slackers (Galactic Pot-Healer), his recovered-memory syndrome -- these components of his world have already arrived, and the rest are on their way.

He was no stylist, though -- or so people say. Well, it depends on what you mean. If Faulkner is style, Dick is not -- and neither is Defoe, or Dostoevskii. If style is snickering at your own plots, then Dick, thank God, is no stylist at all. But it's the stylists who are aging most alarmingly these days; it's hard to read them without impatience. Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf -- all these names, on expensive bookjackets, are being flung across many a room these days.

Dick wrote two or three great scenes per book. They're like arias, and he rationed them very carefully. His books are plot and dialogue; the great scenes are the payoff, and they come at the end. The Martian jackal, who looks "like a wizened grandmother," veers at the last second away from its prey, Barney Mayerson, and telepathically asks him, "I can't eat you. I'd be sick. You're unclean; can't you cleanse yourself some way?" The garrulous automatic cab tells the hero of Now Wait for Last Year tells the hero he's "a good man" for sticking with his malevolent, braindamaged wife, as it speeds him home in misery...there are a few such moments in each Dick novel, written as well, line for line, as any Joyce. But a book of great lines is a burden to the reader, and Dick saves them for the end. It made him unpopular with the Joyce-bred critics; but it will save him, when they and their idols are footnotes to the study of the Philip K. Dick era of English Literature.
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