I’ll be honest: I’m completely thrilled by the mere existence of The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, edited by Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $40). It was one of my most highly anticipated reads of the year, and the finished product did not disappoint me. Just to be clear: The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick is not a novel, and it’s not for everyone, but devoted readers who accept the challenge and immerse themselves in it will undoubtedly find it rewarding.
You’re likely already a fan of Philip K. Dick, whether you realize it or not. Dick, who died in 1982, was the prolific science fiction writer of more than 40 novels and 120 short stories. He’s probably best known for writing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novel that inspired the movie Blade Runner. If you’ve seen Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly or—most recently—The Adjustment Bureau, you know Dick. Not every novel was a masterpiece, and many were nothing more than potboilers, but his most successful novels (Valis; Ubik; The Man in the High Castle; The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch; Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said) share common themes: a healthy fear of organized religion and corporate monopolies, anti-government sentiment, drug abuse, mind control, paranoia, schizophrenia, alternate realities and parallel universes, along with mediations on the nature of reality, personal identity and existence.
So what is The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick? The explanation dates to 1974, when something happened to Dick—a kind of “cosmic mind invasion”—that he spent the last eight years of his life struggling to understand.
The facts: in February 1974, Dick was given sodium pentothal by his dentist, who was working on Dick’s impacted wisdom tooth. Later that day, the local pharmacy dispatched a female employee to Dick’s house, bearing painkillers. She was wearing a Christian fish necklace. The next thing Dick knew, he experienced “a sudden exposure to a vast amount of knowledge” transmitted through a flash of pink beams directly into his subsconscious. The visions continued through March.
In an effort to understand the events, Dick started writing down his thoughts. In their introduction, Jackson and Lethem write: “The process of its production was frantic, obsessive and, it may be fair to say, involuntary. The creation of the Exegesis was an act of human survival in the face of a life-altering crisis both intellectual and emotional: the crisis of revelation.”
The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick is a valiant attempt to distill the resulting 8,000 pages of notes, journal entries and personal correspondence that addressed Dick’s religious visions. Despite Jackson and Lethem’s careful editing, and lengthy annotations from eight additional writers, this is no breezy read. It presupposes a familiarity with Dick’s oeuvre, along with a range of theological and philosophical concepts.
Was it a religious vision? Even Dick’s intimates can’t say for sure. It’s been speculated that the whole event was a byproduct of Dick’s own drug dabbling, or possibly temporal lobe epilepsy. In the end, it really doesn’t matter. Exegesis is powerful proof of the sui generis nature of Dick’s mind. If you aren’t ready to tackle it, consider revisiting Dick’s novels. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has already begun an ambitious series of reprints, which will eventually return 39 of his novels to print.