BRIEF SYNOPSIS: As part of the Last Interview series, this book provides six edited interview snippets in chronological order, finishing with the last interview conducted by Gregg Rickman on the day before Philip K. Dick had a stroke in 1982 and never spoke again.
PROS: The Final Interview is a tragic yet fascinating read.
CONS: Arguably an inaccurate portrayal of Dick’s life and work, and potentially off-putting for new readers.
BOTTOM LINE: Only worth buying as an addition to your PKD bibliography.
There are two Philip K. Dicks alive in the world today.
There’s the “Hollywood” PKD, the one most people have heard of, the original mind behind the big blockbusters such as Minority Report, the cult classic Blade Runner, and the more obscure but highly revered A Scanner Darkly. His name has become synonymous with the weird, the psychedelic, the freaky side of science fiction.
The second is the “hack writer” who wrote furiously, who told interviewers that he had at one point written sixteen novels in five years and could easily do three or four in a year at least. Fueled by a heady mix of drugs and the California lifestyle, he wrote to protect himself from the frustrations he felt at the way science fiction was perceived and the meager living he made from writing. A man who died without achieving true success in his too-short lifetime.
And then there’s the third PKD. The one who doesn’t sit with the former two. The man who read as much as he wrote; who delved head first into philosophy, religious texts, key contributors to the literary canon – works that he deemed part of the “Berkeley intellectual community”. A man who dropped out of university to pursue his own form of education and used it to create the masterful works we still consume today. This version is not a man who wrote to pay the bills (although that was obviously part of it) but who wrote because he literally did not know what else to do with his time. He had what so many call the “artist’s spark”, that desire to create that so many admire and desire equally. A man who even had an entire special edition of the Science Fiction Studies journal published in his lifetime (1975) and won a Hugo award for The Man in the High Castle.
Unfortunately this latest offering — Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview: and Other Conversations, by Philip K. Dick and edited by David Streitfeld — does little to highlight these points. The introduction is one among many that serve to counter this idea, to fuel the first and second PKD. It is good to see the writer placed alongside others in the Last Interview series such as Kurt Vonnegut, Jaques Derrida and Jorges Luis Borgez. Some content is praiseworthy (at one point Streitfield even compares Dick to George Orwell) but much of it rakes over familiar ground. He talks about the despair and loneliness that Dick felt and the need to create characters as a panacea to the solitary lifestyle of the science fiction writer. He uses the time honored excerpts that any fan of Dick’s work would have seen before in various articles and books – the scene in UBIK when Joe Chip argues with a door knob, and the final scene from Now Wait for Last Year. He talks about the drugs, the women, the critics. Streitfield echoes many writings before that present Dick’s novels as incoherent or unstable.
Streitfield does however point out that the interviews themselves must be read with a certain “wariness”. And I would agree with this point. The book goes on to present six interviews which appear to be selected to back up the ideas raised in the introduction. However, in a somewhat “Dickian” fashion, the contradictions come through. We see Dick shy away from the drug speak, talk about paranoia in a rational way, and steer the conversation towards his intellectual pursuits. The reader may also notice that Dick hopes that he will not be conflated with the drug users in his work:
I hope the reader won’t say, “Boy! I bet he did that!” This is the verisimilitude the author is trying to create, the sense that the novel actually is real.
It is a shame that so much written on Dick focus on the paranoia and mental instability. It is also a tragedy that many critics choose to slap the “bad prose” label on without looking at his work with fresh eyes. Granted there is evidence to back up both these stances, and I am by no means discounting the many books, biographies and articles that have come before. Anyone who takes a look at the Exegesis and the final chapter of this book may question the writer’s mental state – but I implore you to look past what is presented here and see Dick in a different light. Look into the cracks between the paranoia and the ego and see the ‘reality’ of the man. Keep these words from Dick himself in mind when you approach this book:
…reality really is a mess, and yet it’s exciting. The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order?