Philip K. Dick, beloved science-fiction author, experimented with putting his life into his stories. Dick had written 36 novels in his lifetime and over 100 short stories. Works like A Scanner Darkly and Radio Free Albemuth offer a prelude to VALIS, where Dick experimented with ideas that he had previously pondered.
VALIS—Dick’s later work about finding God—tells a semi-autobiographical story that has clear connections to Dick’s own life, which might shock the readers because of the jarring subject matter. Dick wrote VALIS in 1981, one of his final novels before he died in 1982. VALIS follows the character Horselover Fat, the character based on Dick, who sees a beam of pink light that he believes transfers information to him from God. One can’t tell whether Horeselover Fat became crazy after this experience, or if he always existed that way. What adds to the insanity is thatHorselover Fat is the narrator, but doesn’t realize it. VALIS looks at how we define God and what it means to be crazy in this semi-autobiographical narrative.
VALIS feels more personal than Dick’s other novels, not just because he bases the novel on his own life, but because he speaks so openly about the character’s failed mental health. In Dick’s other novels, he toys with characters going through experiences like his own, but he holds back from really letting himself into his novels. For example, A Scanner Darkly has autobiographical elements relating to his drug use and living with other addicts. However, in VALIS he lets loose and tells the reader everything. The nature of the book, one so unbelievable that it constantly keeps the reader guessing, makes all of the nonsense worth it. Throughout the whole novel, the narrator constantly refers to Horeselover Fat’s diminishing sanity, yet he doesn’t realize that he is talking about himself. The old trope of the unreliable narrator works in favor of Dick’s story and acts in a way that seems different from other more famous examples. Within the first chapter, the narrator (presumably Dick himself) tells the reader that this story hurts to tell as his own, so he created an alter-ego to write about: Horselover Fat. However, instead of writing in the third person, Dick continues to write in a first-person narrative style. This leads the reader to immediately question the writing, rather than the revelation later that there might be something wrong with either character.
The writing in VALIS presents an honest quality, where Dick openly talks about subjects like God, insanity, and suicide. He writes, “The distinction between sanity and insanity is narrower than a razor’s edge, sharper than a hound’s tooth, more agile than a mule deer. It is more elusive than the merest phantom. Perhaps it does not even exist; perhaps it is a phantom.” (Dick, 52). When reading this book, the audience can clearly see that Dick himself might have crossed this razor thin line. The reader might pass off the experiences of Horeselover Fat but somehow still wants to stick around for the whole journey. The following musing from the book sums up how the rest of the book feels, “They ought to make it a binding clause that if you find God you get to keep him. For Fat, finding God (if indeed he did find God) became ultimately, a bummer, a constantly diminishing supply of joy, sinking lower and lower like the contents of a bag of uppers” (Dick, 30). The reader almost wishes that he would find God again, just so this suffering can end. As the characters in the novel search for truth in this experience with God, the reader almost wants to be proven wrong about their judgements. One can’t really know if David Bowie really had the same experiences with God that Dick describes in his novel, or if God intervened with Richard Nixon’s presidency as he concludes in the book, but somehow Dick makes the reader feel less inclined to dismiss the ideas as rubbish and leave with a more open-minded view of the forms that a God-like entity might take.
VALIS reads strangely knowing that it came close to the end of the author’s life. It holds a weird place in the rest of his works, but somehow, it seems like a proper place for all the ideas he had to culminate. The book has an honest, thought-provoking quality which leaves the reader wondering about what Dick’s life experiences. Like his previous works, VALIS discusses drug use, the meaning of life, and reality in a warped way. His discussion of God and his multiple characterizations of himself constantly makes the reader question the reality that he portrays. VALIS discusses God–not necessarily in a religious way but a spiritual, theological way– that makes the world feel mundane and grand at the same time. VALIS feels like a strange journey through a world that seems so close to one’s own yet twists it so that the reader can hardly recognize it.
Often in literature, the character isn’t aware of their own unreliability as a narrator. Even Dick himself has written this way in his earlier novel A Scanner Darkly, in which the protagonist Bob Arctor can no longer distinguish himself as a cop from his undercover identity, so much to the point that he doesn’t recognize himself on video surveillance tapes. Dick’s progression from A Scanner Darkly to VALIS shows a development of his own skills as a writer. A Scanner Darkly, also semi-autobiographical, done in a manner far less honest than VALIS and uses more fiction to cover up the sensitive nature of his life experiences.
Another famous example of the unreliable narrator came from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Fight Club’s narrator has a similar predicament to that of Phil in VALIS. In Fight Club, the narrator meets a man named Tyler Durden who leads him through a string of chaotic and destructive events, like creating a fight club and cult, only to find out that the narrator himself has been Tyler Durden all along. This twist arguably spawned one of the most popular plot twists in literature and cinema, one which causes the audience to question what the narrator has been telling them the entire time. VALIS works differently from Fight Club in the way that the narrator’s situation is no secret to the reader. On the third page of the novel, the narrator says, “I am Horselover Fat, and I am writing this in the third person to gain much-needed objectivity.” He doesn’t try to hide this situation from the reader, he embraces it, which leads to a different perspective from the audience on the character’s own mental health. In Fight Club, the character does not distinguish his other identity as his own and doesn’t recognize the fact that they’re unreliable in telling the story. Dick does, hence the objectivity he tries to give to his readers by telling them this fact outright, which makes VALIS such a unique take on this trope. This difference makes Dick a master in writing, someone who creates ideas so advanced and tells them to the reader in a way that they can comprehend and interact with, no matter how outlandish.