Chronic Citizen: Jonathan Lethem on P.K. Dick, Why Novels are a Weird Technology, and Constructed Realities

Chronic Citizen Johnathan Lethem. Photo: Fred Benenson

While mainstream literary figures sometimes praise their fellow writers, rarely do they present themselves publicly as hardcore pop culture fans. Since the publication of his novels Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude, as well as his reception of the MacArthur Fellowship in 2005, Jonathan Lethem has become a successful and widely-praised author of playful and intelligent literary fictions. He has also become probably the most visible fan and proponent of the science fiction of Philip K. Dick. A few years ago, Lethem was commissioned by the august Library of America to edit a volume of Dick‘s writings for the publisher‘s definitive canon of American letters. The initial volume, Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s was the best-selling title out of the gate in the history of the library, and two more Lethem-edited volumes of Dick‘s work followed (Philip K. Dick: Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s and Philip K. Dick: VALIS and Later Novels).

Lethem began his own writing career drawing heavily from genre fiction, both SF and hard-boiled detective novels. But he avoided getting stuck in what some SF writers refer to as “the golden ghetto,” and his later work achieved mainstream recognition for more realistic, psychological, and crisply detailed tales largely rooted in a slightly altered version of the Tri-State area that is his home. His latest book, Chronic City, is a dark and druggy take on Manhattan — an anxious, funny, and disturbingly charming book infused with cannabis, conspiracies, astronauts, nihilistic artists, virtual objects, and pop culture mania. Though very much written in Lethem‘s mature voice, the book is also infused with the spirit of Philip K. Dick, who remains Lethem‘s first and most important influence.

ERIK DAVIS: How did you first encounter Philip Dick?

JONATHAN LETHEM: I first saw his books in my friend Carl‘s house. His dad was a science fiction fan. I was already reading the old classics — the Heinlein and Asimov and Bradbury that were on my mother‘s shelves. But those books were written and packaged in a style that was very ‘40s and ‘50s. And these Philip K. Dick paperbacks from the ‘70s looked like a whole other flavor of stuff.

The first ones I saw were A Scanner Darkly and the Bantam reissues of Ubik and A Maze of Death. And I just immediately connected it with psychedelia and was drawn to it. I was thirteen or fourteen when I was devouring his work and just wanting to read as much of it as I could. By the time I was about eighteen, I had read every Dick book that had been published to that point. One way or another, I found them. I just identified with him totally, and it rearranged my thinking.

I moved to the Bay Area. It was like the husk of a plan, to go and meet him. But he died, so I went anyway. I tried to look for meaningful traces, including hanging out with Paul Williams and helping him with the Philip K. Dick Society. So it was a very shaping obsessing. I kind of apprenticed myself to the guild of Philip K. Dick.

ED: As a pop culture fan, and an intense Phil Dick fan, I find it incredibly satisfying that this author that I‘ve loved since I was a teenager is now getting his props. On the other hand, I cannot deny that there is something a bit sad about losing the esotericism of the cult. You yourself are a true fan, but one who has been instrumental in Dick‘s current canonization. How do you feel about that?

JL: I have a very divided conscience. I mean, just as an eyewitness, it‘s something to be incredibly proud of. It‘s almost unprecedented: the creation of a real canonical literary reputation when the person is dead and out of print, and when there was a pretty definite ceiling on how far he‘d ever gotten while he was still alive and in print.

We turn them [our media] into advertisements for ourselves, rather than opportunities for shedding ourselves.

For people familiar with Dick‘s personal experiences, his biography and his temperament, the ironies in that are deep and bitter and complicated. You inevitably think: if he‘d been alive, he would‘ve screwed this up. He would‘ve found some way to make it impossible that he could be treated with such simple reverence, because he was so distrustful of any form of institutional authority. He had a particularly deep, bitter and twisted suspiciousness about traditional literary authority and about academia. And frankly, to some extent, it‘s academia that‘s driven his acceptance in a canon.

When I was a kid and I discovered Philip K. Dick, I felt that I‘d made this kind of soul mate contact with his work. It‘s a defining experience, and it feels like it‘s innate. For me, that experience was absolutely bound up in finding these books that were out of print. The books almost seemed like fictional artifacts. I couldn‘t believe there was such a writer. I still remember thinking his name seemed weird or that his titles seemed preposterous to me. It was like a secret reality unfolding in my life.

There‘s something about the essence of his writing that creates that feeling. And I think it‘s still creating it for let‘s say the 14-year-old equivalent of Erik Davis or Jonathan Lethem, who‘s discovering this book in the shiny expensive Vintage paperback editions. I still think there‘s something innately self-marginalizing, self-cultifying (if that‘s a word) about the writing. You feel like you‘re the only one who understands it, and he‘s the only one who understands you. It‘s like a cognitive version of a love affair. You‘re making this intimate connection with this other mind. He projected that into the work.

ED: In a way, Dick is the ideal highbrow-lowbrow saint. The academics will analyze the social critique, the metafiction, the dense weave of allusions, the importance of the themes as they relate to emerging problems of simulation and consciousness and existential anomie. And at the same time, there‘s a pop level that‘s most obviously manifested in cinema, a steady stream of Hollywood films which are mostly pretty corny. And both those levels of recognition have shaped the context that allowed the Library of America to say, “Okay. This guy gets the canon badge.”

But because I‘m one of these cultists, I have to believe that there‘s something more to it. It‘s because his books say something about our time, even more, in some ways, than his time — the ‘60s and ‘70s. Why are we hearing these books now? What are these books telling us?

JL: I‘ve always agreed with the view that — with science fiction — its predictive powers were the least important or least relevant aspect of its public profile. I always loved stuff like Orwell‘s 1984, where he explicitly said “It‘s 1948, reversed.” I liked writers that were doing allegorical, satirical, fantastical versions of everyday life.

Philip K. Dick Collection. Photo: Fred BenensonThat suggests that Dick‘s work is dated to the ‘60s and ‘70s. And I thought of him very much in this framework, and not as an extrapolative writer. He certainly doesn‘t have that kind of rigor or scientific chops that you find with someone like Bruce Sterling. But I think that Dick saw the makings of the contemporary reality we experience so profoundly. And this speaks to the different layers of reality in his work — the way time moves at one clip according to the calendar, but other ways in terms of mental time, psychological time, social time, American historical time. Like if you look at the terms of this absurd, hysterical healthcare debate — it‘s basically McCarthyism again, the Red Scare. “Socialism is coming to get us.”

Dick looked around his world with a kind of skinlessness. He existed in the world and it just permeated him. Mid-‘50s America was overwhelmingly alive in his vision, in such a way that he saw it simultaneously as a present and as a future. He saw the makings of the late capitalist experience embedded in that mid-century triumphalist post-war moment. And it‘s as though he experienced it all, in all its absurdity and its tragedy, as this overwhelming vision. And he just jotted it down as frantically as he could. And the books are so raw with that perception that they still feel like a desperate attempt to record an arriving moment. I think that‘s the experience of reading Philip K. Dick. He seems to be frantically trying to transcribe an arriving reality that is urgent and totally fresh.

What‘s missing from both the academic and pop movie descriptions you mention is that Dick is an immensely personal writer. In his own way, he‘s a Beat or a proto-Beat. He‘s like Henry Miller. One of these gargantuan, slightly egotistical but insecure, garrulous personas that just pour themselves onto the page, and says, “Love me or hate me. This is what I feel. And these are the kind of women I find sexy. And oh my god, I hate them. They‘re consuming me. And I feel really stupid today, but I‘m going to tell you about….” And he just gives himself. And as anyone who‘s ever tried to write literary novels or stories or a memoir can tell you — it‘s not a small thing to pour yourself onto the page. And when it‘s accomplished, totally, you end up with the kind of monumental writers that many people find also unpleasant or toxic or unreadable.

ED: Dick set many of his tales in what we might now call a “posthuman” future of cognitive-enhancing drugs, psi powers, and other amplifications of human capacity. Many of the developments he envisioned in his own unique way are now edging ever closer to reality, and there are many enthusiasts. While not exactly bleak, Dick had a generally more dark and satiric — and often funny — take on cognitive enhancement. Was he a pessimist or a realist? How would you characterize his particularly lesson about human for today‘s enthusiastic transhumans?

Johnathan Lethem. Photo: Fred BenensonJL: While I‘m hardly an expert on the reality of cognitive enhancement or the transhuman impulse as it‘s working itself out on the contemporary frontier, I suspect Dick had little to offer in the way of a “lesson” for aspirants, except in the senses that were relevant while he was coming of age as a writer — that‘s to say, when the breaking news in the framing of such matters involved names like Freud, Kinsey, Norbert Weiner and, well, A.E. Van Vogt. Dick‘s concerns were ultimately both epistemological and deeply moral — in the sense that a philosopher would use the word moral, not in the sense that, say, Joseph L. Breen would. You know, love, empathy, “what is human?” and so forth. For contemporary voyagers, these matters remain as Dick delineated them: exquisitely local, negotiated on the human-to-human, or human-to-self playing field according to an infinite number of variations and contexts. No sweeping paradigms will do here. We‘re all walking down the street conducting our self-Turing exams every time we pass a homeless person, or greet our spouse at the breakfast table.

ED: For proponents of the Singularity, we are on the verge of massive technological transformations that involve some version of artificial or machine intelligence. Dick had a very particular take on intelligent machines, like Joe Chip‘s conapt or suitcase psychiatrists. While these devices are clearly fantastic and absurd, they also express some real insight and concerns about the cultural consequences of machine intelligence. Does Dick‘s take seem relevant now, thirty years later? What would he say to our contemporary gadget fetishism and addiction to information machines?

JL: My best guess about such matters is that each technological transformation, up to and perhaps including the Singularity, is going to work itself out vis-à-vis “the human” according to the deep principles of all media. Defined in its largest sense, as including things like cinema, theory, drugs, computing, moving type, music, etcetera, media is utterly consciousness-transforming in ways we can no longer competently examine, given how deeply they‘ve pervaded and altered the collective and individual consciousness that would be the only possible method for making that judgment. And yet -— we still feel so utterly human to ourselves, and the proof is in the anthropomorphic homeliness that pervades the ostensibly exalted “media” in return. We humanize them, shame them, colonize and debunk them with our persistent modes of sex and neurosis and community and commerce. We turn them into advertisements for ourselves, rather than opportunities for shedding ourselves. At least so far.

ED: You‘re pointing toward the psychological dimension of Dick‘s writing. Even when you are looking at the futuristic aspect, what‘s really being extrapolated is a certain kind of dreamlike, subjective response to changing technological conditions. And all that is intensified by Dick‘s own psychological sensitivity.

JL: Dick was supremely labile. He has the power to put himself, as a writer, at the mercy of his own inventions. He could construct realities and then immerse himself in them as though helpless. So he conveys the experience of the mind-altering or the reality-transforming better than nearly any writer who ever lived. As a creator of fantastical, preposterous kinds of realities that are nevertheless grounded in a critique or an insight, he was the best at two things: at making these things a kind of a reality; and then, at experiencing that reality as though it were a given. His characters — his proxies within the space of his own fictional world — are totally subsumed in it. There‘s no mastery exhibited. They‘re reading it. They‘re experiencing it. They‘re surviving it. They‘re not objective tour guides. His character is a sufferer who moves through these worlds.

ED: Given Dick‘s obsessions, it seems inevitable that he would wind up asking religious questions. These came to the head with the so-called “VALIS trilogy” he wrote toward the end of his life: VALIS, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. In the ‘70s, when he was read in kind of a proto-Marxist way by some critics, his later works were often dismissed at the works of a crazy man, even though the religious elements and visionary questions in his writing are evident from the get-go.

Today, some people continue to dislike these more explicitly spiritual works and prefer the more socially and critically dynamic ones of the ‘60s. Others see them as a crowning gesture. Did you have a sense of satisfaction in getting these three books included in the Library of America series?

JL: One of my goals was to get what I felt was the majority of Dick‘s masterpieces into the Library‘s three volumes. And for me, VALIS is probably one of his five greatest works. Leaving aside context, the voice, the form, the velocity, the humor, the emotion — it‘s a great novel. It would be a great novel in any writer‘s career. It had to be canonized if he was going to go into the canon. So the minute I knew we could do more books, I started scheming about how to make VALIS a part of the project. I like all three of the books that have been described as a trilogy, although I‘m skeptical about the whole trilogy idea. Besides VALIS, I think Transmigration of Timothy Archer may be among his greatest works. And Divine Invasion is rock solid.

Chronic City by Johnathan LethemED: With your own new book, Chronic City, I can very much sense the way that Dick has marked you as a reader, as a writer, as a person in the world.

JL: In the process of editing these Dick books, I felt myself recapturing a feeling of intimate kinship that came from the very beginning of wanting to be a novelist — a feeling that I wanted to, in some way, project a relationship to Dick‘s writing. I wanted to find a way to extend my own feelings about it into fictional space. For me, this is a book that‘s suffused in his influence.

ED: Chronic City is a dark book. What does it mean to embark on a book that, while it‘s entertaining and there‘s plenty of nice people in it that you kind of want to spend time with, is also suffused with meditations on dread and the conundrum(s) of contemporary reality?

JL: Well, at the outset, if I started with that as a goal, I‘d never do it at all. You have to start in a kind of innocence. You have to think, “I‘ve got this funny idea.” You know, “What if there was this character who didn‘t know he was doing such and such. And that would be fun.” You start in a kind of willful naïveté about the breadth of your ambition as a survival trait — it‘s the only way to get in.

But I felt that this was a book, like Fortress of Solitude, where I wanted to disburden myself of a lot of anger. I think it‘s a response to living in a pretty dreadful moment — a series of dreadful moments in the last ten years. And it‘s a book about complicity, too — about going along with how wrong it all is because you find it entertaining or good enough or necessary, in various degrees.

ED: There is also an extraordinary amount of pot smoking in this book. Why so much?

JL: Confession compulsion? I don‘t know. One of the main subjects in my work is friendship, the experience of hanging out with people, of what it‘s like to really adore someone, argue with them, be obsessed with them — you know, compare your life to theirs, day in and day out. Chronic City is very much a book about friendship, and so I was trying to capture a certain vein of deep and silly and exhausted and slightly outlaw time-spending that is typified, for me, by getting high, with a certain personal group of people, again and again and again. Which isn‘t so much the stuff of my days right now — it can‘t be, you know — it‘s an older feeling. But it‘s one I hadn‘t ever gotten down the way I wanted to.

ED: Part of the experience I have of novels these days is that it seems like the more awake and aware and acute they are, the more they are aware of their own fragility in the face of other kinds of narrative technologies. The most obvious example is simulation — immersive worlds that we can go into and reproduce behaviors that are more or less storylike. The fundamental character of a massive, open-ended, multi-player role-playing game is utterly different at this point than the character in a novel. How will novels stand up?

We’re all walking down the street conducting our self-Turning exams everytime we pass a homeless person, or greet our spouse at the breakfast table.

JL: I‘m far too close to one pole to illuminate. But I‘ll say that — in the face of certain kinds of rival technologies and rival frameworks for experiencing what we might call self-admitting false realities — novels are a class of virtual reality experience that has some very particular and innate bottom lines. And I happen to like those. As I see the rivals emerge, I feel that novel-making and reading becomes one option on a very large menu, and in some ways a rather antique or humble or lumpen example. But I also think some of the things that make it that are also deep strengths that are becoming more and more highlighted.

We talked about what makes Dick so compelling and personal — what made us each take him so personally when we discovered his work. And in some ways, those are elements that are innate to this very strange technology — this gigantic pile of sentences stuck between two hard covers, that someone makes this incredible commitment to read. It‘s a bizarre commitment, very unusual the first few times you make it — to just sit and follow, in order, each of these sentences and make the artificial reality come to life yourself by reading. It‘s a crazy technology, very specific and weird. Now may not be the time to take it for granted. Instead, maybe we should point out that by doing this, you do achieve a kind of weird mind meld.

ED: There are a number of Phil Dick-ian moments in Chronic City where we‘re on the edge of realizing that something we‘ve been taking for reality is a construct or is a convenient fiction. There‘s a palpable sense that recognizing this construct to its fullest extent would thrust one into the cold vacuum of space. At the same time we are immersed in more and more media constructs every day. So as we edge closer to the anxious recognition of the reality construct, there are also more technologies of distraction that try to cover that over or displace it.

Johnathan Lethem. Photo: Fred BenensonJL: The reason I tend to write from the complicit point of view is I‘m always struck by the deeply personal nature of the alliance we make with these opportunistic distraction mechanisms, the substitute realities that are offered to us, the way that we build ourselves into them. And that‘s why I always think that Dick was such an insightful writer — because he always took it personally. He was always aware of his own wish- fulfillment impulses, his own yearning to be consumed and seduced. And it‘s why his role as a fiction maker and as a liar was allied to his fascination and distrust of fictional realities, of marketing realities, of commercial realities and political realities — because he saw that they‘re rooted innately in storytelling and in emotional necessity. And that there are all sorts of things that turn out to be ideological all the way down to their bones — the family structures that we come up inside are themselves a form of storytelling, a form of myth-making and persuasion. We sell ourselves on versions of existence that are tolerable. We‘re all marketing.

ED: Towards the end of your book, I sense a deep ambivalence about the necessity of consoling fictions. Right next to the rage and the desire to expose the machine is a complicit adoption of conventional realities and more constructive views.

JL: Absolutely. What are the tolerances for the exposure of sustaining fictions in any given life? At some point, you‘re going to settle. You‘re going to make a snow globe and live inside it.

Erik Davis regularly posts to His most recent book was The Visionary State: A Journey through California‘s Spiritual Landscape.

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