BOOK REVIEW: “Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick” by Lawrence Sutin (1989)

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

It’s been said that the more interesting a person is, the more problematic they are for their biographers. It’s also been said that a biography should never be confused for the subject’s soul, but rather merely the image the author had of them. It’s also been pointed out on more than one occasion that people tend to egregiously misrepresent themselves in their lives to their friends, business associates, family, even to themselves.

With those three things in mind, a biography of Philip K. Dick is a daunting and probably thankless task. Feigning objectivity while reviewing it is also a bit tricky, so I’ve decided to dispense with that entirely: I’m an unabashed fan of the late Mr. Dick. I’ve read all his short stories, and all of his novels, with one exception that I can’t find, and I’ve re-read most of ‘em. That said, I’m not a ‘rah rah’ kind of guy who’s heroes can do no wrong in his eyes, and I’m generally annoyed by people who are. My heroes are never people who could do no wrong, my heroes are people who struggled to do right. A person who has everything given to them isn’t a hero, just lucky. A person who has to fight and strive and overcome a lot to earn their scars and accolades, that’s a lot more impressive, isn’t it? So why pretend thus-and-so was the new Messiah when being a mere human is so much more interesting?

In addition to being my favorite writer, and unquestionably one of the great English-language writers of the 20th century, Mr. Dick has become something of a New Age saint. The latter portion of his life was beset by signs and visions and heavenly ascents of one kind or another. He spent his last years struggling to understand these, and never quite managing it. Were they real? Were they fake? Who knows. When I was a Baha’I I was taught that miracles are for the benefit of the people who experience them, not for people who hear about them afterwards. If Jesus feeds the 5000, it’s for there benefit. It’s nice that you heard about it, but it wasn’t really meant for you. If the face of St. Paul appears to you in a butt roast and assures you that you’re going straight to heaven, that’s a message intended for you, personally. Run around telling people that Christian Saints are talking to you via low-cost cuts of beef, and they’ll put you away. They might even be right to do it, who can tell? So maybe God was talking to Mr. Dick, and maybe He wasn’t. I don’t concern myself about it too much, because such conversations are personal either way.

The annoying bit about this is that since he had all these experiences, the “Spiritual but not Religious” set - you know the type: people who’s religious expression consists of bumperstickers, sandalwood incense, and political slactivism - have adopted him as their prophet. Not the high-lord-grand-poobah prophet, but certainly he’s in the retinue. He has the advantage of being dead, and hence can’t embarrass them - and himself - like some more recent seers have done. Being dead is always a plus.

Would he have liked this? Again, who can say. Thomas Disch said he thought Phil was a huckster, others that I respect just as much have said the exact opposite. The truth, as always, is probably somewhere in between. The important bit, however, is that because of his sanctified status, a great deal of revisionism has cropped up in recent years - he took drugs, he didn’t take drugs, he did this, he didn’t do that, whatever - so as time goes on, it becomes harder and harder to get a clear picture, as more and more pious fannon from the faithful obscures the object of their affections.

Fortunately, this book was written twenty years ago, on the eve of adoration, not afterwards, and as such it’s mercifully mostly untainted by that. It may not be an accurate picture, but it’s at least less heinously inaccurate as some stuff I’ve read. Probably.

And it’s a great book, make no bones about that! It’s a page-turner, a must-read, even if you don’t like the guy or his work. It’s a fascinating self-contained story about a compelling character that mesmerizes, even as you can’t ever quite nail him down. He shifts around like quicksilver, simultaneously conservative and liberal, predictable and erratic, abusive and abused, loving and callous, frequently at the same time. It’s as fascinating a portrait of a man as you’d find in any solid fictional literature, excepting that he’s real. Mostly.

There’s a degree of artifice between himself and the world, or so it seems to me. He was, first and foremost, a storyteller, a guy who created fictional universes peopled with fictional characters, and, frequently, fictional gods who were dim platonic reflections of the Ideal that lay behind all his quests. It’s not uncommon for a writer to re-invent himself a bit for the benefit of his audience. Everyone wants to put their best foot forward, everyone wants to appear a bit grander, a bit larger than the life they really lead. If you’re a bad boy, you need to be the baddest of the bad. If you’re a good boy, you need to be an angel, if you’re a lover, you need to be Don Juan. If you’re a thinker, you need to be Sherlock Holmes’ smarter brother. Mr. Dick was no different, though the extent to which he deliberately misrepresented himself is something we’ll never know. Was it limited to him merely telling people he was part German when he was, in fact, not at all German? Was he lying when he told people he took drugs? Or was he lying when he told people he never took drugs? He liked to shock - the book makes it clear - he had a very deadpan sense of humor and absurdity, and - to my reading - he seems to have liked to see how far he could reel people in before they said “Oh, come on!” and called for the waiter.

Dick was a master storyteller, and it’s impossible to know how much of the man we saw was artifice, and how much was the actual guy grinning like a maniac behind the mask he’d constructed. Any biography has to deal with that on some level, but this one has to deal with more of it than most, given the nature - frequently self-contradictory, if the apocrypha is to be believed - of the man.

Sutin does the best he can: He poured through tens of thousands of pages of correspondence and unpublished notes from the man himself, and his various publishers. He interviewed everyone then living who was connected to the man, he read all his published work, thousands of reviews, records, hunted down rumors, forgotten facts, outright lies, it’s a daunting task, and yet he pulled it off: he managed to flense that massive whale-sized pile of over-information down into possibly the most readable, the most fun biography I’ve ever read.

His style is conversational, cordial, confident, confidential, and perhaps some other adjectives that don’t even begin with ‘C.’ Breezy! It’s also breezy. There you go: Not a ‘C.’ It reads almost as if you’re sharing a long car ride with someone who’s telling you all about their best friend. It’s not exhaustive - nor does it pretend to be - but it’s got an engaging, laid-back feel that somehow manages to import more sense of context than a more traditionally dry, scholarly-written bio could pull off. It’s not “Julius Caesar,” it’s more like “My Dinner With Phil,” in tone.

But of course Phil isn’t there. Much as Plato is really only known through is biographer, Sutin is playing ‘Plato’ here. The question becomes one of whether or not Sutin is more reliable than Plato, who clearly had no interest in giving us an accurate representation of his master.

I think he is, frankly. I think he’s an on-the-level guy. He put a lot of work into this, he doesn’t appear to have an axe to grind. If there’s a failing, I think he’s overly affectionate towards his subject, but he seems to be pretty clear-headed and rational, and there are ‘warts and all’ aspects that Sutin doesn’t gloss over. That said, there’s one or two incidents related in the book that I’m told by two folks I know who knew Mr. Dick well happened quite differently from the way they’re reported here. Not that they didn’t happen, mind you, just that they’re somewhat misreported here.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I’m friends with Tessa Dick, Phil’s fifth and final wife. She's been a supporter of our site, and even contributed a story to our Original Fiction section ( ) I find Sutin's take on this odd: the book never says anything bad about any of Phil’s ex wives, nor does the book allow anyone to talk trash about them, excepting Tessa. I don’t know why. I doubt I would have noticed it if I didn’t know her - indeed I didn’t notice it the previous times I’ve read this book - but it’s definitely curious: The author himself says nothing bad, but in this one instance he allows his interviewees to make rather offhanded, disparaging comments. It’s not a flat-out insult, more a derisive slap, but, well, it still seems out of place, you know?

Is that enough to trash the whole book for? No, but it bugged me, for obvious reasons. As a whole, this really is the best Bio I’ve ever read, both fascinating and inquisitive. It even manages to answer - or at least provide one plausible answer - for some of the more esoteric experiences of Mr. Dicks’ later years, though of course whether you choose to accept that explanation or not is left entirely up to the reader.

There’s also an exhaustive appendix giving synopses of all of the man’s books - published, unpublished, and lost* - and major short story collections. These are rated based on importance, success, and originality, though all of those criteria are pretty subjective, and my own opinions differ from the authors a number of times. There are also extensive discussions of several of the more imposing novels in the actual bio itself, giving a good sense of the context in which they were developed and written.

Any way you slice it, it’s well worth the read, it really is, but is the man himself really in here? I’ve never been entirely sure. I do definitely believe there’s more of him in here then we’re going to see elsewhere, these anecdotes have more of his fingerprints on them than we’ve seen in other, more formal works, and it is mercifully free of the sort of “The Gospel According to Phil” claptrap that has grown so tedious in the last decade or two, but is it an accurate picture of the man, or is it merely an accurate picture of one man’s impression of the man, regardless of objective truth?

I realize that’s a quibble, but given that Dick’s whole career revolved around “What is real?” it seems worth asking. Is the man in the book? A piece of him, yes, but most of him? I don’t claim to be a scholar, but I suspect not.

It is, however, a really good book. Whether it gives us the man, or merely his form, or something in between, whether it’s accurate, or wholly a work of fiction that happens to use the names of some real people, it’s a good book, well worth the read.

* - In the “Lost” cases, they’re based on notes from the publishing houses and editors, which are pretty scant, but better than nothing.