Book Review: I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick by Emmanuel Carrere

This is a very disturbing book.  It was first published in French in 1993, and the English translation was published in the United States in 2004.  Philip K. Dick died in 1982, and Carrere had several already-published biographies of Dick to draw on to fact-check Dick’s life; nevertheless, some critics consider I Am Alive and You Are Dead to be a sort of nonfictional novel that draws from the science fiction writer’s life.  Perhaps this is because it takes liberties in interpreting Dick’s state of mind as Carrere journeys through the often sordid events that constituted his life, or because Carrere blends lengthy descriptions of the plots of Dick’s books into the narrative. The biographer gets inexplicably and annoyingly self-indulgent near the end when he devotes several chapters to a sort of stream of consciousness narrative of Dick’s deteriorating state of mind just before his second attempt at suicide and subsequent stay in a mental hospital.  However, whether every detail is true or not, most of it rings true.

The fact is, Philip K. Dick wrote some popular well-received science fiction novels but lived an extremely troubled personal life.  Early on, as a young adult, he became addicted to pharmaceutical drugs, and maintained and increased this addiction throughout most of his life.  He married and divorced five times, being unable to sustain a mature relationship.  He had a number of phobias, including agoraphobia, the fear of the outside and open spaces, which caused him to sequester himself within the confines of his various homes.

He began writing and selling science fiction in 1951, when he was 22 years old, and remained a professional writer his entire life.  However, due to his only being able to sell his work to low-paying pulp markets, he was poor most of the time, adding to his stress, which he alleviated by taking downers, and then amphetamines while he was writing to stimulate his creativity.  He won the Hugo award in 1962 for his brilliant novel The Man in the High Castle, but though it brought him a measure of respect within the genre, it did not alleviate his financial woes.

Dick drew on his own fears and psychoses for inspiration for much of his work, which is characterized by confused identities, parallel universes, evil doppelgangers, and drug trips gone wrong.  Personally, I have not read many of his books, as I am partial to more stylistically elegant writers of the era such as Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delaney, Robert Silverberg, and James Tiptree, Jr.  Dick’s writing style is rudimentary, and is characterized by flamboyant ideas rather than flamboyant prose.  I read The Man in the High Castle and felt that it was an understated masterpiece.  I also read a collection of his more popular stories, and they were entertaining, but my impression was that they seemed very similar one to another.

An extraordinary amount of Philip K. Dick’s novels and short stories have been adapted for film or television, the most popular being Blade Runner, from his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Total Recall, from the short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.”  Most of the adaptations, however, were posthumous productions, so Dick was never able to benefit from the financial bounties that might have been his had he lived longer.

The main lesson that I carry away from this book, which I knew already but which bears repeating, is that literary success does not at all guarantee a happy life.  I should know better, but I fall into the trap frequently of thinking that if only I could achieve success as a writer, my life would be more fulfilling and satisfying than it is now.  It’s a myth.  There’s nothing of truth in it.  Yes, I receive a thrill when an editor accepts a story for publication or a reviewer raves about the merits of one of my stories.  But these rushes of excitement are short-lived.  Afterwards it’s back to the struggle for survival.  What would really help me out in the long term is the financial stability that literary recognition would bring, to a degree at least.  At the beginning of this year, in mid-February, I made a big story sale and for a week or so I relaxed from the stress of our financial situation.  I had been living with that stress for so long that a non-stressed-out state felt like being high.  Alas, it was short-lived.  Soon after, emergency dental bills wiped out all the money that had just come in and much more besides.  C’est la vie.

But I digress.  In the multitudes of biographies of troubled artists, Philip K. Dick stands out as more troubled than most.  The story of his life is a sad, sad story.  At the same time, this book is fascinating as the author traces Dick’s descent deeper and deeper into drugs and confusion.  In a way, his art was the only thing that granted Dick surcease, for limited periods of time at least, from his inner demons.  At the least, his fictional chronicles of his journey through his own interior landscapes have given entertainment and inspiration to many.

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