March 2007

Justin Taylor

fiction

Voices from the Street by Philip K. Dick

You don’t read Dick for the sparkling prose. He was a manic pulp writer endlessly fascinated by a very small group of very large topics -- government conspiracy, the search for God (and/or space aliens), the sinister allure of addiction, and the mysterious ways of women. In fifty-four years, Dick produced forty-four novels of wildly varying quality.

Though occasionally honored within sci-fi circles, the mainstream never had much use for him during his life. Since his death in 1982, however, his literary reputation has grown to the point that he’s now a sort of insider-outsider -- another H.P. Lovecraft. But compared to Lovecraft, who got his Library of America edition only after generations of neglect (and, of course, the tireless devotion of a dedicated few), Dick has been canonized at warp speed.

The best of Dick’s books -- The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, VALIS, etc. -- are astounding. They are ecstatic labyrinths, bleak and hilarious, that explode pre-conceptions about the sci-fi genre and might just re-orient (or disorient) your view of the world. Shocking, enthralling, and edifying on topics ranging from classical music to esoteric philosophy, they make you want to start dropping acid again, maybe go to church, and most of all to never stop reading.

Then there are the many second-rate novels, like Frolix 8, Counter-Clock World, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (again, etc.). I love these books, but it’s a warts-and-all kind of love. These contain brilliant passages, ideas, and moments, but ultimately they disappoint. Dick was a provocative and expansive thinker, but a writer of limited skill. He was seldom equal to the task of fully exploring his own ingenious premises, and even less frequently capable of producing a satisfying conclusion.

A lot of the credit for Dick’s legacy is owed to Hollywood. The films Blade Runner, Screamers, A Scanner Darkly, Paycheck, Minority Report, and Total Recall were all based on his work. Several more adaptations and a Paul Giamatti-financed biopic are in the works. In the words of The San Francisco Chronicle, Dick’s work contains “intellectually challenging and deeply philosophical grist for contemporary screenwriters” -- a compliment which seems to me as having been delivered squarely via the backhand.

Voices from the Street is a recently unearthed early manuscript -- a major treat for long-time Dick fans such as myself and a sure-fire way for publisher Tor Books to cash in on the current Dick craze. Also, it’s not sci-fi. In the words of Jonathan Lethem on the dust jacket: “the same writer who recently snuck into the American canon as a visionary and paranoid pop surrealist also penned a half dozen or more proletarian-realist novels set in the California of the '50s and early '60s, the best of which occupy a region demarcated by Richard Yates on one side and Charles Willeford on another.” Note that Lethem, cagily, declines to mention which of Dick’s realist novels he’s talking about.

Voices from the Street, a “formative effort” (thanks, PR goons) that probably never should have seen the light of day, is the story of Stuart Hadley, “an angry young man -- an artist, a dreamer, a screw-up,” who feels “unfulfilled” and “tries to fill his void with drinking and sex, and then with religious fanaticism, but nothing seems to work, and it is driving him crazy.”

I spent most of the book wondering why any of the other characters put up with Hadley. His wife, Ellen, has a cultist’s scary devotion to her mercurial, brooding husband. She’s twenty-two, he’s twenty-five; they’re about to have their first child. Here’s Ellen explaining Hadley’s frequent absences and binging to his boss: “What he wants, what he’s looking for, is much too vague, too remote and abstract. It has no name. A hundred years ago it was called grace. It’s a search for someone he can have faith in. Someone who won’t let him down.” Oh, well if that’s all he’s looking for.

At three hundred pages, Voices is twice as long as it should be. Dick’s normally utilitarian prose is virtually unreadable here -- he must have bought his adverbs in bulk because he serves them up by the pound -- and the text is shot through with creepy pseudo-aphorisms such as “women were the metaphysics of the world.” Contemplating his pregnant wife: “He tried to picture the near future, the three of them; but it might not be a boy. If it was a girl things would be odd, peculiar, mystical. It had to be a boy; it had to be an entity he understood. There were already too many things beyond his comprehension; his marriage had to remain a finite core around which he could collect himself.”

About a third of the way in, Hadley’s sister Sally and her husband Bob come to visit. This is where the book should have begun. Anyway, it’s where it becomes worth reading. Hadley is in love with his own sister. When she enters a room the world stops for him. He dwells on her every word and gesture. He connives scenarios to get her alone. “Presently Sally unbuttoned her coat and slid it off… She wore a pale blue angora sweater, long-sleeved high-necked, stretched tight against her sharply outlined bra, her rigid, white, terribly expensive bra… In a kind of ecstasy he drank in the presence of his sister.” That’s more description than we get of Hadley’s wife in the entire novel.

The attraction is clearly mutual, and Dick hints at a secret history. “Of course, you have a sweet wife… such a sweet little wife you have,” Sally coos to her brother. “ ‘You don’t need me anymore.’ ” Sally and Bob join Hadley and Ellen for afternoon cocktails at the Hadleys’ home. Sally offers Ellen a hand-me-down blender, then explains her reasoning to tightwad Bob: “ ‘I told Ellen we’d give her the two-pint one; it’s really too small for us. Then when we come down next time she can whip up a daiquiri for us…’ ” The condescension is hardly lost on Ellen, but Hadley just keeps on mooning: “[Sally] had put on a yellow drawstring blouse of Ellen’s and one of her short, light summer skirts… [S]he sat curled up on the couch, her bare legs tucked under her, one pale arm resting outstretched behind her.” The sexpot sister dressed in the wife’s clothing is a phenomenal, arresting image -- the most compelling and resonant in the book.

Sally is the only thing that can push Ellen to break rank with her husband. “For years I’ve had to listen to you talk about her -- I’m sick of hearing about her. I’m through… I’ve taken all I can stand.” Hadley counters with these telling words: “You’re not fit to say her name. You’re nothing but an easy lay! That’s all you are; … an easy piece of tail.” Then he walks out on her.

Disturbing as that was, it at least boded well for the rest of the novel. I anticipated Hadley in a showdown with his brother-in-law, the revelation of his and Sally’s illicit past, the inevitable consummation of their forbidden love, but -- inexplicably and inexcusably -- Sally doesn’t have another scene in the book. She’s scarcely even mentioned again.

Instead we get Marsha Frazier, femme fatale, editor of the crypto-fascist arts journal Succubus, and associate of The Society of the Watchmen for Jesus, an Apocalyptic Christian fringe group. Marsha offers Hadley immediate, direct access to the very “someone he can have faith in,” that he’s after: her lover Theo Beckheim, leader of The Watchmen, with whom Hadley has become obsessed.

Hadley vacillates between lusting after and loathing Marsha, but then, Hadley spends most of the book vacillating between one thing and another. Become a Jesus freak, or don’t. Keep working at the TV repair shop, or don’t. Sleep with Marsha, or don’t. When Hadley does take action, it is typically a non sequitur burst of violence -- verbal, physical, or both. He berates his friends and his wife, he tries to rob the store where he works, he forces Marsha to come with him out to a lonely motel.

Over deli sandwiches and juice, Marsha and Hadley discuss their practically bloodless sexual attraction in terms of their larger ideological commitment to rejecting bourgeois moral codes. In the middle of the discussion, Hadley realizes a fundamental truth about himself. “It never occurred to me to be loyal to a person -- only to an abstract ideal… I don’t even know what it means to be loyal.” Marsha: “But we’re rebels, Stuart. We’re trying to bring in a different world.” Hadley: “We’re not rebels -- we’re traitors.” To prove the point of his traitorousness, Hadley turns on Marsha a few pages later. He repeatedly rapes her, then beats her up and steals her car. Like every other wooden character in this miserable book, her faith in Hadley is unwavering. Brutalized, bleeding on the motel bed, she calls out “take -- care of yourself” in all earnestness as he walks out the door. He goes back inside and rapes her one more time.

The rest of the book is a disjointed fugue: a kidnapping, some bus rides, a flophouse, a car accident, a kindly old German couple (no, really), and one scene in a San Francisco gay bar that I still don’t know whether to read as an actual event or a hallucination of Hadley’s -- maybe a juvenile homage to Joyce’s Night Town section of Ulysses. Voices’ conclusion, which comes so abruptly it practically gives you whiplash, and is barely creditable much less satisfying is more or less a happy one, at least in terms of the world described in this book. Nobody deserves that happiness less than Stuart Hadley.

Voices from the Street by Philip K. Dick
Tor Books
ISBN: 0765316927
301 Pages

Justin Taylor is the editor of The Apocalypse Reader (Thunder’s Mouth, June 2007), a collection of new and selected short fiction about the end of the world. Read more of his work at http://www.justindtaylor.net/