“I sure have odd nights,” wrote Philip K. Dick in a July 1974 letter to a young woman writing her thesis on him. It’s a tremendous understatement, and its inclusion in the early pages of The Exegesis — the long-awaited compendium of the sci-fi writer’s papers — acts as a palate cleanser, a wry little weigh station wherein Dick pulls back from his own dense, circuitous investigation of his visions; laughs a little at himself; and then dives back in, allowing the reader to do the same.
Novelist Jonathan Lethem, who, along with fellow Dick scholar Pamela Jackson, gets primary editing credit for the nearly-thousand-page edition, believes that The Exegesis “has a pretty remarkable cumulative narrative force, for something so sporadic and centrifugal. Just so long as you don’t expect it to have an ending!” Dick wrote more than eight thousand pages in the eight years leading up to his death in 1982, all in his attempts to decipher a series of visionary, multisensory experiences he had in February and March of ’74 (“2-3-74”) wherein he glimpsed a vast truth of the world — not to mention the most awesome modern art exhibit ever, a pink beam of light that diagnosed his son’s hernia, and much more.
In The Exegesis, Dick — the mind behind A Scanner Darkly, Valis, The Man in the High Castle, and stories that formed the basis for the films Blade Runner, Total Recall, and The Adjustment Bureau — discusses Aristotle and Eno, Brahmanism and LSD. Though his mind was clearly capable of great cogitation, Dick’s work is often disregarded as being all concept and no substance, a claim that Lethem shrugs off. “The typical reservation is that the prose veers into the awkward or inelegant. … At those moments he may seem a bit more like the prose equivalent of an ‘outsider artist’ — but it’s largely because he worked too quickly and sloppily, and in a publishing realm where editorial standards weren’t always exacting.”
The Exegesis, on the other hand, has been edited carefully and with some skill: Jackson, Lethem’s co-author, had access to the full Dick archives for two years before spending an entire year on actual editorial work. The final product can be experienced from start to finish, or entered into at various points without regard for what Dick would consider a rather pedestrian notion of time, anyway.
“We wanted to put together a book that rewards both kinds of reading,” said Jackson. “I’ve always found the story of 2-3-74 and the intellectual, personal, and literary journey that Dick embarked on in its wake utterly enthralling. I’ll be very interested to find out how people read this book.”
Were Dick alive today, both Jackson and Lethem — who will discuss The Exegesis with Dick’s daughters, Isa Dick Hackett and Laura Leslie, on Tuesday, November 22, at Moe’s Books (2476 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley) — would have quite a few things to say to him. They’d both like him to provide an ending for this final work, of course. And Lethem would have some amends to make: “I’d probably have to begin by apologizing for spending my whole life dropping his name. He’s gotten me into more conversations and situations — including the bookstore job where I first met Pamela — than I can count.” 7:30 p.m., free. 510-849-2087 or MoesBooks.com