Monday, April 27, 2009
REVIEW: RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH BY PKD
"Radio Free Albemuth" is one of Philip K. Dick's finest novels, having been discovered and published after his death in 1985.
Although Dick wrote the novel back in 1975, ten years before, the book was orignally rejected by his then-publisher Bantam books and sent back to him for re-writes. Rather than handle the re-writes, Dick sent them a different book instead, although he did go back later and write new chapters to correct plot issues.
His original title for the book was "VALISystem A" but when Arbor House acquired the rights in 1985 they published an edition under the current title (the original was too close to VALIS, already published by then). The new, published manuscript was retitled "Radio Free Albemuth" and assembled from the corrected script given by PKD to his friend and fellow science fiction and fantasy author, Tim Powers.
"Radio Free Albemuth" is easily one of Dick's most thought-provoking and provocative books. As a novel that includes many of Dick's personal experiences, and Dick himself as a major character, the story takes on a strange, surreal quality that invades our reality and toys with our perception of the book itself - as fiction or as an allegory of actual events in Dick's life.
At one point in the story, Dick and his friend Nicholas are arrested by the authorities and taken into FAP custody (an SS-like group of secret police who intimidate ordinary citizens). One of the FAP officers tells Dick that they plan to publish books under his name in order to plant subliminal messages in people's minds. At this time in the authors life he is in the process of writing "Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said" and it makes one wonder if Dick had any intention of casting doubt as to the authorship of his own body of work after his death.
The book blurs the edges of reality, as most of Dick's books do, however this one manages to ask "What is fiction?" rather than, "What is human?" in a way that is quite entertaining and provocative.
One thing I loved about the book was how, at the midpoint, the first person narrative changed, in mid-sentence, from the voice of author Philip K. Dick to that of his friend Nicholas Brady. The effect was slightly disorienting and yet, ingeniusly well-timed in the story. Later on the voice switches back again in mid-sentence which makes sense. After all, we're reading a book written by Dick in the first place, so having Dick drift in and out of the narrative is fitting- because he's been the voice all along.
As someone who is aware of a lot of the major spiritual events of Dick's life, the book took on a fascinating quality as specific details spilled over into this book. Nicholas (or "Nick") and PKD (or "Dick") are practically synonymous. Events that Dick experienced such as hearing a voice speak to him about his son needing immediate medical attention and saving the boys life are re-told here as happening to Nicholas. As the two share in Dick's autobiographical experiences it becomes clear that the two are meant to serve as the one, interchangable character- Dick himself.
There is a bit of an alternate history going on where Richard Nixon is personified as "Ferris F. Fremont" and described as an undercover agent of the Soviet Communist Party, and an extra-terrestrial satellite is discovered orbiting our planet and openly reported about in the daily news, however we are always left wondering how much of this is allegory and how much is meant to be taken as fiction.
What makes reality more challenging to unravel stems from Dick's own, and very real, drug use. Of course, in this book he denies being a drug user and attributes the misconception to a misinformed quote from Harlan Ellison. At one point he laments the perception that he uses drugs and says that his readers should no more believe he uses drugs simply because he writes about drug use any more than a crime fiction writer should be assumed to be a murderer because he writes about murder. Of course, it is no secret that Dick did take large doses of amphetamines in his lifetime, largely to stay awake and allow him to write more - which meant he would get paid more. This fact is supported by the astounding number of novels Dick wrote in such a short time (over 36) and the hundreds of short stories he published as well.
In addition to the drug use, Dick also had his own personal bouts with mental illness. His behavior - self-medicating and constantly at the typwriter- suggest someone with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), which also largely contributed to his seemingly endless variety of story ideas.
For the uninitiated, Dick was also someone who dabbled quite a lot in philosophy and beleived that he was receiving messages from either an extra-terrestrial being (Valis) or God himself, much like Nicholas Brady in this very book. Because of this, Dick uses the book to unpack quite a bit of his own personal thoughts about God and his own twisted version of a quasi-Christian religion.
Another surprising element of the book was the humor. It was genuinely funny, which is something I cannot say about the majority of his novels (at least not the one's I've read to date).
Having finished the book I am curious as to whether or not any of Dick's other books can equal the quality of writing or the wall-to-wall lunacy found here.
So far this book ranks in the Top 5 list of Dick's books for me which include "Ubik", "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", "The Man Who Japed" and "Flow My Tears The Policeman Said".
Highly recommended for fans of PKD.