ON Friday I braved some of the worst traffic in Southern California for A County Darkly, a panel on Philip K. Dick's years in Orange County.
Overall, the event was lively and fun, even without offering few genuinely new insights. (I wrote about the symposium briefly, here, on the LA Times Jacket Copy blog. And I wrote a lengthy piece on his years in SoCal here.)
UC Riverside scholar Rob Latham read a few passages from the author's OC novels ("Life in Anaheim, California, was a commercial for itself, endlessly replayed..."), and was followed by three of Dick's friends. Generally the most intriguing part of the gathering was getting people who'd really known "Phil" at the same table.
Wily writer/physicist Gregory Benford stressed how funny Dick was a person, describing him as a gifted physical comedian as well as how generous he was, giving much of his Blade Runner money away to charity and poor people he knew. "Even though he lived pretty close to the street himself, he knew what it was like to be down, and tried to help people." Benford also described Dick writing on his old Olympic typewriter on a day Dick was so obsessed with his deadline -- and speed-ed up -- that he had to drag his friend to dinner: "He was hitting the keys so hard and so fast it sounded like a motorcycle." (This took place in the late '60s, a few years before the author moved south from the Bay Area.)
Writer Jim Blaylock emphasized how hard it was to really figure out which of Dick's wild theories the writer himself believed. "He seemed to be evolving in his beliefs so constantly that it became harder to tell from one Tuesday to another," where his thinking was.
Dick told his friends about a thousands-year-old plot involving Jesus Christ and the KBG. "The other night he convinced us that the Soviets had developed a madness ray... which was aimed at Los Angeles... They'd developed the hydrogen bomb as a kind of lark -- what was really going to take us out was the madness ray."
Writer Tim Powers talks about finding Dick's thousands of pages of writing on his visitation by God -- soon to be published as The Exegesis -- while Dick was in the hospital, dying, and stashing it in a large ashtray with "Elvis is King" on it because he didn't want it falling into the wrong hands. "I started to read it, and it sounded really crazy. Out of its proper context it really sounded weird." When he spoke to the authorities after the author's death he told them, "Don't neglect the Elvis ashtray, because that's where all of his theological speculation is."
Powers also mentioned Dick's difficulty with marriage (he was married and divorced five times. "I think he could see, after all of those attempts, that he wasn't very good at marrying people. He wasn't going to do that anymore."
Many intellectual teenagers and young men have an older, eccentric friend who turns them onto weird books and ideas, exposes them to jazz or classical or experimental music, and sometimes buys them beer. (I know I did.) After Friday's session, I sorely regret not having known Philip K. Dick in his prime.
Here is the full announcement and cast of characters:
TITLE: A County Darkly: PhilipK Dick in the OC
TIME: Friday, May 21, 12-2
PLACE: Humanities Gateway 1030, University of California, Irvine campus
ABOUT: This panel presentation will consider the inter-relationship of PhilipK. Dick's work and his life in Orange County. Spending the last
ten years of his life in the OC, Dick composed some of his most important
SF works here. In many ways, the OC is a peculiarly Dickian space, with
managed communities and a veneer of the unreal. Conversely, Dick's late
novels (A Scanner Darkly, Valis, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer)
seem at least partly inspired by Dick's life in Orange County. Our
panelists will explore such connections, bringing the work of the
century's most noted SF author to bear on our cultural imagination of
Orange County, while also bringing our imagination of the OC to bear on
possible interpretations of Dick's work.
I'm a former LA Times arts and culture writer, sometime New York Times, GQ and Salon contributor, the co-editor of "The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles," and an enthusiast of film, wine, indie rock, retro culture, archtop guitars and California history.