Can this be for real? Have I entered some alternative universe? Do I actually see the pulp sci-fi novels of Philip K. Dick infiltrating the distinguished shelf of classics published by The Library of America? Yes, there it is, “DICK” emblazoned across the discreet black background, with red, white and blue trim - sitting between James Fenimore Cooper and John Dos Passos. What planet am I on?
Yes, this feels like a scene in one of Dick’s alternative reality novels, where somehow history (lit history in this case) gets re-written and all familiar guidelines disappear into the fifth dimension. But Dick’s arrival in the pantheon of American novelists is no sudden plot twist. No American writer has seen such a dramatic turnaround in reputation over the last half century. But the shift has happened gradually, fueled by the interest of film-makers (Ridley, Scott, John Woo, Paul Verhoeven), younger writers (most notably Jonathan Lethem, who edits the Dick volume for The Library of America), and a growing cadre of fans and admirers.
Today, the film rights to a Dick short story can bring in close to $2 million to the author’s estate. But during his lifetime, Dick was so poor he bought horsemeat from a pet shop for dinner. His drug habit — Dick would pop pills by the dozens — also ate into his income, and fed his paranoia and psychotic episodes. As a result, Dick churned out novels and tales in mad rush to stay financially afloat, and set down the visionary images and concepts of his over-heated imagination. His fervor resulted in a oeuvre of 44 published novels, countless short stories, and (most intimidating of all) his so-called Exegisis, some 8,000 pages of journal writings, documenting his mental strife, visions and metaphysical speculations.
Even his best known books, including the four novels featured in The Library of America collection, reflect the haste with which they were written. Dick’s prose is often lackluster, his plot lines full of holes, his characters as flat as a cardboard cutout. Why, one might ask, do such works merit recognition as American classics?
But Dick does matter – perhaps even more now than during his lifetime. He showed a different way of responding to the growing awareness that reality in literature (and life) is problematic. While other writers retreated into word games and an exploration of “discourses" (to use the fashionable term for this linguistic approach), Dick accepted the challenge head-on. If reality was constructed, confused and beset by issues, Dick would try to map the maze, especially the most labyrinthine corners of it.