Book review: VALIS by Philip K. Dick

Let me begin by saying that VALIS is not science fiction. It is not a good book, either. It barely holds a plot, and instead contains little less than incoherent ramblings and conspiracy theories from a very disturbed mind, which goes off tangent even before a narrative line is established. And yet, the book has an almost hypnotic quality for the average reader, and as I’m told (I’m no expert), it provides for a great insight into certain mental illnesses.

The protagonist of the story is Horselover Fat. He’s tried to kill himself a few times, until he had a divine revelation and now thinks that God implanted thoughts into his head. He sets off to document a new mythology, based on holy texts, myths and philosophy, which he further refines through conversation with a small group of friends. They learn that Horselover is not the only one with the revelation; that a musician and his wife also had divine intervention, and they travel to meet them. There, Horselover finds out that he is only an aspect of the author’s personality (Philip K. Dick’s name can be translated into Horselover Fat), which is something that has been hinted on throughout the book. Horselover disappears, and the rest meets with the couple’s daughter, who is the personified God-like entity. She helps them escape the cult that the couple builds around them. Back home, the author slowly descends into another round of madness, Horselover emerges, and goes to travel around the world to search for another incarnation of his God.

The story goes off a coherent tangent a few times. For example, Dick spends a considerable time describing a movie that the musician has made, where Horselover’s God plays a major role. However, these tangents are about as unimportant as the main storyline. What counts here is Dick’s own mythology, called Exegesis, which is summarized in the appendix, and which was later published as a humongous, standalone book. The rest of VALIS is simply the explanation of the thought process that led Dick to his revelations in the Exegesis. This is what’s so fascinating about the book.

The text reads like a feverish dream, where the end of a paragraph can have absolutely nothing in common with its beginning, as Dick makes humongous leaps in logic and very tenuous connections, often combining linguistics, foreign translations, philosophy, religion and mysticism. A (very general) example would be if Horselover came across a word, which could be translated into Greek to mean something else, but that translation is then used in a myth, and the main character’s name in that myth would mean something else in Hindi, and this something else would form a revelation in Exegesis. The transitions are so fast that this slim book, which runs for less than 300 pages, is so dense that it feels like a volume three times its size.

I have read that VALIS is an autobiographical peek into Philip K. Dick’s mind, and I’m perfectly willing to accept that. In this case, I am absolutely amazed at how he managed to put his thoughts on paper so coherently. For this reason alone, this book is well worth reading. It is not science fiction, but it is written by a SF author, so he uses terms that would make his writing a little more approachable to his readers (he alludes to this in the book as well). If you have the time and patience, I fully recommend this utterly fascinating depiction of a feverish mind, and I challenge you to come out of the read without being at least a tiny bit insane.

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