Review: VALIS

VALIS is a 1981 novel by Philip K. Dick in which an author-insert named Horselover Fat cooks up an elaborate theory about the true nature of the universe involving a shade of pink that doesn’t exist, the idea that all time between 5th century Rome and 1974 was a fictional interpolation by an evil entity, and an alien satellite called VALIS.

For Dick, this was all literally true; hence the self-insert. There is, however, some metafictional play here: the novel is narrated by Phil, author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Man in the High Castle, who exists alongside Horselover Fat. Later in the novel, Fat dies, and Phil realises that he unconsciously split Fat away from his own personality in a sort of Freudian rejection…and so on. The novel’s chronological flow is similarly confused, jumping around timelines in a way that’s vaguely free-associative, fracturing experience into personal gnosis. I found myself jumping back and forth trying to work out what had happened before what and what, therefore, was important when.

Adam Roberts describes VALIS as “a novel of prodigious, almost heroic tedium” and goes on to relate that to the work the novel is doing:

It’s difficult to think of another writer, or theologian, who gives us this insight into precisely the ordinariness of religious revelation—a thrilling banality perhaps, but a banality nonetheless

I like this reading, and find it convincing. But I also feel the novel is more…purposeful – more aware of its own ridiculousness – than Roberts suggests. Complicated and made self-aware by its metafictional shenanigans around the identity of its author, it’s more than the fervent conspiracy-ramblings of the Scientologist or the UFOlogist. It’s not even confident in its own divine revelation, as the prophet of Fat’s newfound cosmology, a two-year-old child named Sophia, dies just a few days after we meet her: was she truly Wisdom embodied? Or just a precocious child with a brain tumour, coached by her parents? With its fractured narrative and its lack of faith in anything, VALIS embodies not only the tedium of religious revelation but also the impossibility of following its logic. If everything means nothing, then everything can also mean everything; so the believer can pick and choose signs to their heart’s content. It’s this arbitrariness that Dick and his characters fear most, I think: the arbitrariness that says that one person’s religious revelation is another’s hallucination. Nothing is true for everyone.

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