“Valis” isn’t so much a novel as it is a descent into someone’s mind. Who that someone is, really is anyone’s best guess. It could certainly be the mind of Phillip K. Dick himself, or it could be a character. PKD often circles back to the idea of a split mind. Two halves of the same entity working against itself. Normally I make some sort of attempt to avoid discussing the author, to take them out of the equation, but that is entirely impossible here. Even so, I will avoid making assumptions about the man himself. I will use the book as a buffer. There is so much that can be said about “Valis,” the Vast Active Living Intelligence System, its pink laser, and its victims. Perhaps victims is the wrong word. Perhaps chosen people, or messiahs, is more accurate. This book has a touch of the alien world in it, a touch of the super natural or super advanced, but as with most PKD novels, this book is about people. Let’s take a dive and see where it all goes.
First, I have to look at and address the religious nature of this book. There is a certainty and a courage to the words in this book. He references religions with such fluidity and ease that it forces us to trust the narrator, at least when it comes to gnostic and Christian knowledge. I will be the first to admit that I am far from a religious scholar. Approaching some of the denser regions of this novel are daunting to say the least. Things like footnotes and the appendix complicate things further. At some point, it is easy to believe that “Valis” is less a novel and more a religious text. The landscape of this book is unique and varied, but no matter how deep I dig, I still comeback to our narrator. In the opening pages he is introduced in the third person so eloquently and then he is revealed to us with the simple line “I am Horselover Fat, and I am writing this in the third person to gain much-needed objectivity.” Upon confronting these words, the reader is immediately forced to reevaluate everything that was said up to this point. This isn’t a small revelation. This is some heady stuff for page three in any book. What Horselover is telling us is, “I am your narrator, and I am not to be trusted.”
The unreliable narrator is always a fun story-telling tactic. Normally narrators in this case aren’t explicitly untrustworthy, and only through their actions or perhaps even through their nature do they become untrustworthy. Many examples of unreliable narrators allow the reader to make up their own mind. The storyteller sitting around the campfire or victim relaying their version of the crime. Human beings are inherently unreliable narrators, especially when they are tied to their own stories. This is where authors love to have fun. They create stories that tell multiple versions of themselves depending on who the reader empathizes with.
The unreliable narrator is not a frequent guest in between science fiction pages, though they aren’t exactly strangers either. Every narrator in our last entry, “Cloud Atlas” has at least a shade of unreliability. Thrusting the narrator into the story is all it takes, but “Valis” takes it one step further. In “Valis,” the reader knows explicitly that the narrator is unreliable. We can guess it in the first half of the novel, and we are given proof in the latter half of the novel. The courage in “Valis” is that the characters just run with it. We have both Phillip and Horselover Fat existing on the same page and interacting with each other. Living their own lives, and yet they are the same person. In doing a little research, it was easy to stumble across the origin of Horselover Fat’s name. Phillip in Greek means fond of horses, hence Horselover. In German, dick means fat. We are being told, right from the beginning, that these two characters are to be taken as one. They are the product of each other, like binary stars spitting hot atoms and waiting to see which one will go super nova first.
To bring in another degree of strangeness to the mix, Phil is a science fiction author. By no small leap of logic we can assume that Phil is the author of this book and one of the main characters, because of this, are we to believe that the events of the novel are real? I am not one for conspiracy theories and abduction stories, but some of this clearly had deep claws in PKD (the character and the author). At times, I do not know whether to call this book a novel or a fever dream. Maybe PKD did go super nova and the results are all over these pages. Perhaps that’s the best way to think of it. This novel is an explosion. An explosion of thought, philosophy, religion, dreams, and nightmares all carefully sown together by a plot that has its roots in reality. I guess that’s what I am getting at here. What this novel does so well is toe the line between reality and fiction.
This novel is absurd in the best of ways. It left me with a hollow pit in my stomach. One I wanted to fill with information, but was afraid to. Like a wound that I either had to pick at or let heal. I let it heal, but I’m still left with a scar somewhere deep down. In many of the world’s great novels, the reader is left with no way back home once the journey is done. A second journey, one of the mind, must be undertaken. First, you grow with the author, then you grow apart. As readers and students of the literary world, we must always seek out books like these. Books that push us beyond our humble boundaries. I admit that I came out of “Valis” with mixed emotions, hesitant to go back and look at the pages again. Whether it is a novel, an autobiography, a religious text, or a book on philosophy, I suppose it doesn’t matter. What matters now is that I am glad to have read it.
Where do we go from here? That’s the question I usually ask myself as I drift to the end of these things. Let’s go to Portugal, or rather to a novel that originated from Portuguese speaking Brazil. Don’t worry it has an English translation. “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho is where I’m setting my sights. It’s beautifully poetic novel that takes us away from the world of science fiction for a change. Happy reading!