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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Jonathan Lethem on the “Exegesis” of Philip K. Dick

This month Houghton Mifflin publishes The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, a massive tome of more than one thousand pages edited by Jonathan Lethem and Pamela Jackson. To create this volume the editors culled through some 8,000 pages of typed and handwritten notes, journal entries, letters, and story sketches Dick spent the last years of his life obsessively reworking.

In his exclusive LOA interview about VALIS and Later Novels in 2009, Lethem described the “Exegesis”:
LOA: You mention in the Notes to the volume that Dick wrote VALIS in a “mere two weeks in November 1978, but its composition had a longer foreground” and that it incorporates material that Dick had “rehearsed in his ‘Exegesis’, an extensive journal project.” I gather that the “Exegesis” spanned some 8,000 pages upon Dick’s death. How does the material in it differ from what he includes in his novels? Is VALIS the only novel that includes work from it? Will all of it ever be published? 
Lethem: To take the simplest question first: VALIS is the only novel that includes language from the 8,000 (largely handwritten, unstructured, repetitive, digressive, and often dull) pages called the “Exegesis”—and, in their clarity and compression, these passages are far from typical of the whole. Some other (still comparatively “finished”) sequences from those pages are collected in In Pursuit of VALIS, edited by Dick biographer Lawrence Sutin. The challenges in organizing and transcribing the lion’s share of this material are being slowly approached by the Dick estate, with the help of some conservators and scholars, even as we speak. So, if you’re really excited about the prospect of reading the entirety, for the first time there’s a project to root for. But be warned: it shows no prospect of being some “lost masterwork,” nor even particularly readable.
Earlier this week Lethem spoke with John Hockenberry on NPR’s The Takeaway about the just-published selection from the “Exegesis” :
Lethem: This was literary detective work on a lot of levels. [Dick] left this stuff completely unsorted. There‘s no page numbering. You can’t put it in chronological order. Pamela Jackson took the brunt of this. She was the hands-on editor who really made some sense out of the chaos. It mirrors what Dick was doing in the writing. He’s trying to take the chaos of reality, of his experience of the universe, and put it in some kind of order, and mostly failing. The book represents an endless series of restarts. Every morning he gets up and thinks: no, no, no throw it all out. Here’s how everything works. He begins the book a hundred times. What we did was to try and embrace the best material, distill it, remove the repetitious stuff, and bring it into a framework where you could approach it. It’s not a book that reads like a narrative. It doesn’t get anywhere. It’s an endless meditation on existence. 
Hockenberry: In the end does that meditation give us a glimpse of a world far into the future that he imagined where we are headed? Or is it a look back at a life which in a sense might be sad and unfinished at the end? 
Lethem: It’s all of those things. It does have visionary sequences in it. You can take elements of this and project them into the most amazing and unwritten Philip K, Dick novels. It’s also very, very mournful and retrospective. In some ways it’s about a writer failing to grapple with his materials and drowning inside them on a daily basis. It’s brave but also kind of tragic. It’s also really quite a scholarly work. He was studying Aramaic. He was reading the Gnostic gospels. He was gathering every piece of material he could to try to bring to bear on the inklings he was having about the world. 
Hockenberry: Is there something you found in that treasure trove where you said “This guy is just a genius.” 
Lethem: There are lyrical flights in it where suddenly it becomes visionary, it becomes literary and you just see the writer taking over and the language soars. Those are the moments I live for as an editor.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Philip K. Dick Collection (3-book boxed set)

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