I got a funny feeling the other day as I opened a package and found inside one of the stately grey pre-publication galleys the Library of America sends out. The last five authors to be enshrined in the Library of America were Hart Crane, Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck, Capt. John Smith, and Thornton Wilder. If that sequence were one of those SAT math problems where you have to complete the sequence, the next logical term probably wouldn’t be Philip K. Dick.
But there it was: a big chunky super-deluxe volume containing “Four Novels of the 1960′s:” The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Ubik. Good choices, definitely. The book was edited by Jonathan Lethem, an interesting writer and apparently quite the Dick aficionado (snigger) — I seem to remember from one of his essays that Lethem collected early Dick editions “back when it wasn’t cool,” and even helped out the Dick estate with some rare ones.
I was sorry he didn’t write a critical essay for this edition, though – there’s just a few footnotes, plus a fairly detailed chronology of Dick’s life, which is about as messed up as you would think it would be. (Sample, from 1969: “Receives phone call from Timothy Leary who is attending John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “bed-in” in a Montreal hotel. Leary puts Lennon and Ono on the phone; they discuss their admiration for his novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and their desire to adapt it to film.” Gods. Dick was quite the serial marrier, too, it turns out.
But the point of this post was supposed to be the sheer weirdness of the cultural logic that enshrines Dick in the Library of America. I mean, as much as Dick has been taken up by the academics as the “thinking person’s” SF writer, he’s still a pure genre player, and a huge dork: all twisty mind-hurting plot, with prose style and characterization pretty much as afterthoughts. He still belongs to us nerds! They can’t take him away from us! I feel like some exotic aborigine, when the rich white collector comes and cherry-picks the bits of my indigenous culture that appeal to his “civilized” sensibilities. (Are you going to pay for that in Joe Chip money?)
[Random personal anecdote: The year after I graduated college I lived in a farmhouse in Maine. Completely isolated. I barely had money for heat, so I would only turn on the stove when I was desperate. I remember reading Ubik late one night and getting deeply freaked out by all the epistemological weirdness and huddling over the stove muttering, "Ubik is heat! Ubik is heat!" Good, good times.]