Thursday, December 2, 2010

Philip K. Dick’s Masterpiece Years

Philip K. Dick’s Masterpiece Years
November 22, 2010

POINT REYES STATION, Calif. — Half a century later, Anne R. Dick still remembers the sunny October day she met a clean-shaven 29-year-old Berkeley exile who had just moved to this rural enclave in west Marin County, thick with eucalyptus trees and brooding owls.

The science-fiction novelist Philip K. Dick was standing with his hands in the back pockets of his jeans, rocking on his heels, and gazing at the floor of his house. In his flannel shirt and heavy army boots, he looked, she writes in a new book about him, “graceful and attractive — like someone wearing a disguise.”

She had gone that day in 1958 to introduce herself to Dick, her neighbor, who had moved to west Marin with his second wife, Kleo. Less than a year later, he and his wife split. And Anne Rubenstein, as she was then called, a skinny blond widow, and Dick, a struggling writer, were married. Five years later, they too divorced. In the meantime they had a daughter, and Ms. Dick ran a jewelry business; Dick grew a beard and wrote some of the novels that would eventually get him hailed as a West Coast Calvino or Borges. (The Library of America began issuing his novels in 2007.) Ms. Dick, now 83, would spend the ensuing years seeking the man behind the disguise.

That inquiry is the subject of “The Search for Philip K. Dick,” a biography dressed like a memoir, which was published this month by the San Francisco press Tachyon.

“I think he’s what you might call a psychomorph,” Ms. Dick said recently, sitting in the boxy, modernist home she once shared with him. “He was quite different with each person. He had this enormous gift of empathy, and he used it to woo and please and control. I’m not saying he wasn’t a very nice person too; he was. He just had a very dark shadow.”

The book, while refraining from literary analysis, is invaluable for Dick fans and scholars because it’s told by the one person he was close to at an important turning point in his career. He wrote or developed roughly a dozen novels during his time in west Marin, including “The Man in the High Castle” (1962), his only novel to win the Hugo Award, science fiction’s biggest prize. While there were stretches of Dick’s life in which he had roommates, a series of girlfriends or a tight group of male friends, the Point Reyes years were his most domestic.

David Gill, who wrote the book’s introduction and runs an obsessive blog, calls this “Dick’s family man period.”

The writer Jonathan Lethem, who included five novels from this period in the Library of America anthologies he edited of Dick’s essential works, calls it Dick’s most fruitful time.

“The river of his literary ambitions — his interest in ‘respectable’ literature — joins the river of his guilty, disreputable, explosively imaginative pulp writing,” Mr. Lethem said in a phone interview. “It’s the most important passage of his career — more masterpieces in a shorter period of time.”

This was a remarkably placid interval for Dick — a writer associated with paranoia, political extremism, various kinds of madness and heavy drug use — at least outwardly.

Ms. Dick, who does not suffer fools, recalls Point Reyes Station as a cow town, literally. She remembers the years with Phil, as she calls him, as mostly idyllic. He helped her bring up her three girls from her marriage to Richard Rubenstein, a San Francisco poet who had died suddenly. The couple raised fowl and black-faced sheep. Each morning Dick would walk through a barbed-wire-and-wooden-post fence and across a grassy meadow to a cabin he called the Hovel, where he did much of his writing.

Ms. Dick recalls wide-ranging, universe-spanning conversations, and lending books to her autodidact husband. In 1961, in the heyday of Freudian and Jungian theory, she gave him several books with introductions by Carl Jung. One, the I Ching, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, would show up as a plot point in “High Castle” and guide its composition.

Ms. Dick says that while Dick was both agoraphobic and shy, he was a man of enormous personal magnetism. “He knew how to talk to people, to move their emotions and thoughts,” she said. “But he was too shy to go out into public. He could have been a great F.B.I. agent and a great actor.”

After the breakup of their marriage, Ms. Dick said she endured seeing herself reflected in several evil-wife characters in his later novels. Yet when he died in 1982, after a series of strokes, “everything changed,” she said.

“You see a person in the round,” she continued. “I started writing this after he died, because I was still so confused by what had happened.”

“The Search for Philip K. Dick” — which begins with the couple’s meeting, continues through Dick’s death, and then drops back to cover his birth and early life — was published obscurely in the 1990s and self-published earlier this year. The Tachyon publication, a more thoroughly edited and fact-checked version, provides an invaluable record of Dick’s Marin County years.

Much of what is revealed in the book is already known to scholars and is part of the biographical record. But by putting Dick’s life into human terms, Ms. Dick offers a window through which the curious — from the general reader to the fan boy — can approach this often inscrutable author, whose audience and critical standing have increased significantly in recent years.

Living in isolation, with fewer people than in urban Berkeley, Dick began to care about character for the first time, said Mr. Gill, a lecturer at San Francisco State University.

“He was no longer writing about things that could only take place in the future or after traveling to other worlds,” Mr. Gill said.

“He’s talking about the mundane things of the future — all very local and real and immediate” in novels like “Martian Time-Slip” and “Dr. Bloodmoney.” Mr. Gill added: “He’s writing about the Everyman, midlevel people who are almost powerless. His interest in the pedestrian sent science fiction in brave new directions.”

Dick, though, remains an enigma, even to his ex-wife. “Did Phil change identities,” her book wonders, “the way some people change their clothes?”

The marriage began to crumble as Dick’s self-doubt and paranoia increased. “Anne and I were having dreadful violent fights,” he wrote to a friend, “slamming each other around, smashing every object in the house — the kids were running in terror.”

The couple’s once idyllic domestic life ended quite unambiguously in 1963: Dick told neighbors his wife was trying to kill him, and, at a time when the rights of wives were less advanced, had her committed to a psychiatric institution for two weeks.

The memoir, for stretches a softly lighted Disney film with cavorting farm animals, takes a Samuel Fulleresque turn when Ms. Dick writes about being put in the care of duplicitous doctors and repeatedly spitting out a pill given to subdue her.

After she returned home, and Dick left to live with his mother in Berkeley, Ms. Dick found a large bill from the local pharmacist, listing drugs she did not know her husband was taking.

Strange turns like this, as painful as they were, helped her understand Dick’s painful fit with domestic life. “He gave a lot,” she said, 52 years after an innocent neighborly visit changed her life. “Maybe too much. He tied himself in knots, and then exploded, like a balloon.”

A version of this article appeared in print on November 23, 2010, on page C1 of the New York edition.

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