I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick

by Emmanuel Carrère

Published by Picador

320 pages, 2005

Buy it online




Authors Behaving Badly

Reviewed by Andi Shechter


When I began I Am Alive and You Are Dead by Emmanuel Carrère, I didn't expect what was coming. About halfway through the book, however, I realized the oddest thing: I hated Phil Dick. Mind you, I respected -- and still respect -- his work, though I was never the biggest fan of his books. I even understand, to some degree, the fascination people have had with the creator of his often paranoid, often brilliant imaginings about various futures, and conceptions of reality, but I had a difficult time reading to the end, because I disliked the subject so very much.

There have been times in recent years when I gave up on a biography because it "told me more about giraffes than I wanted to know." Sometimes, when you are reading about someone you admire, you find something less than admirable and it can darken your appreciation of the person's work. I quit reading a biography of choreographer Jerome Robbins because I was seeing lots of things about Robbins that were, in the long run, going to sadden or anger me and I didn't want to lose my appreciation for his genius. But, though I'm aware of his impact on science fiction, I'm not a Phil Dick fan or scholar. I had thought that, through reading I Am Alive and You Are Dead I might learn more.

This is hardly the first biography of Philip K. Dick. Since his death more than 20 years ago he's become very popular. His books have been turned into major films and I'm sure there have been doctoral theses on the guy and studies and studies. Paul Williams had the responsibility and burden of being Dick's literary executor and, as author Carrère says, the PKD Society Newsletter came out of Williams' garage for over a decade. Dick is the focus of cult-like attention. And bless these fans for having a sense of humor: some are known as "Dickheads."

I don't know whether earlier books about Dick are hagiographies or critical looks; in this book, French writer Carrère claims to be offering a "very peculiar book" by which he means he's writing "from the inside" relying primarily on Dicks' own writing to explain him. This both enhances our understanding and limits it, because Dick's own writing often shows that he hadn't a clue what he was about.

One of the least helpful forms of analysis and interpretation of behavior is armchair quarterbacking or, in this case, armchair analysis. Philip K. Dick visited psychiatrists often throughout his life and showed a lot of odd behaviors, writing and living with extreme paranoia. Did it enhance his writing? I don't think there's any doubt that the world as Dick saw it gave great power to his novels. His behavior was often weird, ranging from self-destructive to grandiose and overly dramatic. I wanted to at least feel sorry for Dick. Perhaps some of his behavior was because he was ill? But, too often, I couldn't see the link and just disliked him for his assumption that anything he did was right and acceptable. If something went wrong in his life, it was pretty much always the fault of someone else, from birth (where his twin sister died) to the day he died. Dick seemed to assume that he had a right to act egregiously badly, in ways that today could be seen as abusive. This was when reading the book became difficult.

There's a school of thinking out there that says that "geniuses" are allowed to act badly; that "artists" just can't be bothered with petty details of life because they have to spend all their time creating and must be looked after by lesser beings. While that's not stated here as a philosophy, it's clear that at times, that's how Philip K. Dick lived. He was above or beyond rules of decent behavior at times, and throughout his life, it never seemed to occur to him to question that behavior. He questioned a lot of things -- he had lifelong debates about the existence of god, and about the limits of reality. He dove in with rich imagination to fascinating looks at how we know things, about mysticism and all sorts of levels of reality. And out of that came unique work from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to Valis and Ubik, he was always questioning what it meant to be human and looking at the limits of human understanding.

At the same time, Dick was a nasty, self-absorbed, obnoxious man. He married over and over and yet never stopped hitting on women. When women disappointed him by, it seems, not worshipping him enough or providing for his every need, not understanding him when he muttered or spoke in a foreign language, he chose to believe that the women didn't "understand" him, were schizoid, cold and trying to suffocate him. At least one relationship in the book fits every outline for controlling man that I know of -- except there's not one instance where he ever physically abused anyone. Small solace.

Much of what motivated Philip K. Dick came out of the times he lived in, from the hateful cold war paranoia of the McCarthy era and later in the Nixon White House, to the "free love," however interpreted, that showed up in the 1960s. Carrère argues that while much of Dick's legend owes itself to stories that he took tons of LSD and that his stories come from a brain tripping out on acid, that Dick in fact only tried it once, had a bad trip but let the legend, and the stories, continue.

I wanted to feel sorry for Dick. That would have helped me in reading this book because then I could have tried to see his behavior as something he couldn't help doing. But while Dick often surrounded himself with wounded, needy people and sycophants who thought him a genius, there were often enough people in his life who could have provided more realism and a way to clear things up. Instead, when offered what might have been a road to sanity, Dick rejected it over and over, choosing instead the grandiose version. If he had a mystical vision, it was to be endlessly discussed, brought to everyone's attention, dissected and molded to mean what he wanted it to mean. If told that he was not alone and that thousands of people experienced mystical visions, this didn't suit him. If his wife started to chafe at his requirements that she never leave the house or get a job, that she do what he wanted when he wanted, then she was suffocating him in her bourgeois requirements that there be some money to raise their child. If she complained that he was coming on to other women, she was cold and strangling his creative needs. If Dick's FBI file was in fact one page long, it's not because he wasn't on the agency's radar; he had to have been important and threatening in his own mind, "they must have purged the file." He was without question the most important person in his universe almost to the exclusion of anyone, but still needed lesser beings to adore him and take care of him, have his child, see that he was listened to.

There's a lot to learn about author Philip K. Dick in this book, don't get me wrong. Much of it, however, is hard to deal with. There's no denying the power of his visions and that he made a unique contribution to the genre: no one writes like Philip K. Dick. But if you can get through this book without wincing, that would be surprising. | September 2005


Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.