A criticism often levelled at Dick is that his female characters are badly written, and it’s hard to deny it. Particularly in his earlier work, the female characters, when they exist at all, are an amalgamation of every dreadful trope regarding women in popular fiction. They are poorly developed, flimsy. They are nagging wives, whores, and addicts. The lecturer who took the SF module I did at uni (we read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which is a fairly tame offender) pointed to his succession of failed marriages. Those feelings of bitterness are almost certainly a contributing factor. Personally I’d argue that, in many ways, Philip K. Dick was a bad writer. I mean, God I love him, and I plan to read everything he ever set down on paper; no one has ever fed my head the way Dick does. But he wrote a lot, and did a lot of drugs. That even his bad novels are still pretty good is a testament to his ability. But when he was less experienced, under more pressure, and probably having to produce more work than he had good ideas for, certain elements of his work suffered, characterisation being chief among them. The women in his work get it worse because of the misogyny in the groundwater and the aforementioned personal factors. He got away with it because the core ideas in his fiction are always so damn interesting. You could just go read philosophy, but it wouldn’t be nearly as fun. Who goes to Dick for characters, anyway?
But if you did want to come to Dick for the characters, you could do a lot worse than The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Being the final novel he completed, you might expect it to exhibit his mature style, but it does more than this, becoming the kind of logical end point of both strands of his work. Dick’s theological and philosophical concerns are present, as always, and all the characters freely debate the nature of belief and the existence of God. But, they are much more than just mouthpieces for Dick’s ideas, something his earlier work can suffer from. Transmigration is the end point of Dick’s work on character and his maturing as a writer, from The Man in the High Castle (an earlier work, but he spent much longer on it than his other novels of the period, and you can really tell), to Do Androids Dream?, to A Scanner Darkly. Dick’s concerns were always very human, there just weren’t always humans to be concerned about, but you can see that in this thread of novels that Dick did work on developing his characters, on making them more than mouthpieces. You’ll also note that the aforementioned novels contain some of Dick’s most complex female characters. I’m not sure if they pass the Bechdel test, but it’s something, compared to say, Eye in the Sky.
Transmigration is a novel soaked in pathos. What could be more emotionally charged than the death of John Lennon, a musician you and your late husband were very fond of? Every station is playing Beatles songs on a loop, and it takes you right back to the ‘60s, right back to when you were in love with him. Such is the setup for this novel, and boy does it grab you, because not only are we immediately given an emotional concern, but it is all from the perspective of Angela Archer. A Dickian heroine. If nothing else this will immediately interest readers of his works because (to my knowledge) this is the only time he ever used one.
It’s that emotional resonance in going back to the ‘60s that still keeps this identifiable as a late Dick novel, and it gives the whole work a feeling of lament. Death is inescapable, this inevitability even figured in to the structure, in which we first meet a woman who has experienced much loss, and then slowly come to know just what it is that she lost. She is also flawed and unreliable, and despite lacking the schizophrenic quality, has a lot in common with the narrator of A Scanner Darkly (and in fact the book does as a whole). It is not played out as a main theme, but pretty much everyone is fucked up on drugs, which in some way contributes to the whole mess. Not only is the ‘60s over, but we come to realise it wasn’t that great, really. Dick doesn’t go so far as to include an explicit memorial, but one knows his dead friends are lingering.
That feeling of lament, and the exploration of nostalgia in its most literal (saddest) sense, reminded me a lot of Pynchon, particularly Vineland, while I was reading. I know Vineland is one of Pychon’s least liked novels, but I quite enjoyed it, and am thinking about it again having finished Transmigration. I think they make quite good companion pieces, so bear that in mind if you’re planning to read one or the other.
I haven’t yet read any of Dick’s more “straight” literary novels, but if this is anything to go by, they are certainly worth a look. If SF functions by estrangement, then Dick does a very good job of making his representations of real life seem very strange indeed, leveraging, in this mature work, his considerable speculative talents to make a familial tale of tragedy and loss seem very fucking far out, indeed.
Caveat lector: This is something of an exercise in talking about myself publicly, something which I am not used to doing and something which I certainly don’t do often when my real name is in the byline. Please also be aware that this piece discusses medical issues and that I am not, in any way, shape, or form, a medical professional.
I have never been diagnosed in a clinical setting with any kind of mental illness, but I know myself well enough to know that I am not neurotypical. I find it difficult to do lots of things that typically healthy and happy people do every day; if not with ease, then at least without an accompanying feeling of fear and loathing.
I wrote those paragraphs because I was pretty sure I wanted to write something about my experiences with what I can only assume is depression and the things I have done to attempt to relieve it. I walked away from it for a couple of days partly to get my head together about what exactly it was I wanted to say and also because I am hesitant to talk about myself. This is because I fear myself being one of those awful people who does nothing but tell you about their personal problems and gives you nothing but grief. I also know I can be too self-effacing, and that gets on nerves, as well. I am also plain scared of it.
I couldn’t sleep and got out of bed at 5am to continue working on this piece. With that said, here’s a laundry list of symptoms, not all of which I experience all the time, and some of which are mutually exclusive, and alternate:
That about covers it. Anything else would be variations on a theme. I experience any given combination of these things on a pretty regular basis. As I said in the disclaimer, I’m not a doctor, but I think the above dovetails fairly smoothly with what depression is thought of as being. I am thankful that there are symptoms I don’t experience, and that the people around me love and support me. There are people who have it a lot worse than me. I am ok. I manage.
I am naturally of an artist’s temperament i.e. very lazy, averse to working for a living, good at intellectualising my moral failings. This combined with the aforementioned means I am not as productive as I would like. For example, this should be a pretty simple piece, but I just walked away from it after a couple of paragraphs. I came back because if I can’t sleep I may as well try and get something done.
Well I walked away from it again and I’m back now. Which is largely the crux of the issue. In the course of the last ~15 years I’ve gotten better at managing my symptoms and living with/understanding myself etc. I am better at life than I used to be. But I’m still not exactly as productive as I’d like to be. This is particularly a problem for me because I am my own boss and in that sense my boss often isn’t even in the building to notice that I’m not working when I should be (I’m a proofreader/copyeditor with plenty of experience who can furnish some excellent references fyi). I am also a writer and that becomes a problem when the worker would rather jerk off and play videogames and the boss has been out to lunch for weeks.
I realise there is a natural ebb and flow to creativity and that everyone’s creative process is different, but all the same I can’t help but despair at myself. During one of these periods (this is what I came here to talk about, but the boring prologue was necessary, I am afraid) I tried stabilising my moods with St John’s wort in an attempt to enable myself to be a bit more productive. I guess if you’re a writer everything is an experience you can write about, and I wanted to write about it publicly for the benefit of anyone who is in a similar situation.
(And before we go on, if you are interested in trying St John’s wort, go read the Wikipedia page first. There are various contraindications/things you should bear in mind. I am not a doctor. I am NOT a doctor).
I spent about a month taking St John’s wort daily. It did have some of the effects I desired. It helped even my moods out. The lows were not quite so low, the days when it barely felt worth getting out of bed weren’t quite so frequent, and unless you’re Marcel Proust, getting out of bed is a pretty good precursor to getting things done. It did dull positive emotions, too, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as in my experience positive emotions are things that need to be managed in their own right. Baseline was pretty good. I felt ok.
It also helped deal with my anxiety in that it stopped my head ticking constantly. This is a good and bad thing. I often found there was simply nothing there, which was a welcome relief compared to some of the mental states I have experienced. The negative side of this, I suppose, is that I have the ability to think of things with determination and constancy, something St John’s wort inhibited. A constantly working mind has positive aspects even if it can occasionally lead to one’s life becoming a maelstrom of paranoia and second guessing. This, along with the evening out of moods, might be what people sometimes refer to as medications taking away their edge. But, in general, these were positive effects, and I felt a bit more able to deal with life.
There were, however, two very large drawbacks. I had trouble maintaining an erection, and even more trouble achieving orgasm. In a month of trying my best, I mostly ended up beating my dick red raw and making lots of excuses. Luckily, I was on anti-depressants, so I didn’t feel as fucking awful about this as I would have had something else caused these inabilities, but it still felt pretty bad. It wasn’t great for my girlfriend, either. My libido was fully intact. I really really wanted to, but couldn’t. If I hadn’t been in a relationship, my dick might have been an acceptable casualty, but as it stood (or didn’t), it was untenable. Lack of interest in sex is not something I have ever had a problem with, and in the end I had to stop taking St John’s wort for this reason. My sexual functions quickly resumed. I would rather experience emotional instability and be able to function fully as a sexual being than feel more stable and not be able to consummate any of the urges that I still had.
In the main, St John’s wort had a positive effect on me, and were it not for the side effects with regards to my sexuality, I’d probably still be taking it. For me, though, the dysfunction it caused was so great it made me weigh those negative effects heavier than the positive ones. Everyone reacts to it differently, and you might have a better time than I did. Just bear in mind that you might have to sacrifice your genitals for a little while.
I just came back to this again to proof/edit. I am scared of posting it. But I recently read some Harlan Ellison, and he described “writing for the trunk” as masturbation. And while I am happy I can masturbate again, I am going to decline to in this instance.
I think it’s probably illegal to end an essay like this without mentioning that you are not alone, and that help is available.
I am bitterly disappointed that Blizzard has chosen to order a shutdown of the Nostalrius World of Warcraft server. I would be even if I didn’t have a level 60 on that server. The disappointment is double considering that the only other (to my knowledge) decent vanilla WoW realm was Emerald Dream, which declined heavily in population because Nostalrius was so good, and then got merged. There isn’t going to be a proper vanilla private server left. Maybe another will come along, who knows.
But I did have a level 60 on Nostalrius, and it was a damn good server. No BS with donating for gear, no BS with donating for any other kind of advantage, no BS with an abusive or negligent mod/dev team. Just a community run by people who wanted nothing more than to have WoW, as they knew it, back. As far as private servers go, it was a smooth experience. There were problems, of course, but to my knowledge they were sorted. I mean, which private server with any kind of popularity hasn’t faced constant DDOS attacks? The Nostalrius team came down hard on hackers and botters, far harder, in fact, than Blizzard ever did while they were running the vanilla game. The economy was kept stable. There was progression, and the content was coming along smoothly. There was a community.
And it’ll be gone in a few days.
I’m disappointed, as well, because barring a stickiness for the letter of the law of intellectual property, I don’t know why Blizzard have chosen to shut it down. I could speculate that it has something to do with the fact that Nostalrius had around a million registered users, and Blizzard were anxious to have some of them back in the fold considering the impending release of Legion, but that is purely speculation. For whatever reason, Blizzard have shut down private servers in the past, and will surely do so again, considering that the Nostalrius team have decided to open source their very, very professional work.
And it was professional work. It was a service I would gladly have paid for. It was a service I still, gladly, would pay for. The Nostalrius team didn’t want you to pay for it, and for that I salute them. Instead, they had a hidden donation link that you could use if you wanted to help support running costs. That was it.
But Blizzard, look at the million registered users. I can’t speak for them, but I can speak for myself. It is a service I will pay for. I am sure some of them would, too.
I have little to no interest in WoW in the state it is. I tried Warlords of Draenor and it lost me very quickly. I have no intention whatsoever of buying or playing Legion. I am a fan of your games, and continue to play Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm, but WoW to me is, for all intents and purposes, dead. There is nothing you can do to get me to pay for the game in its current state. I understand I might no longer be the intended audience, and that’s fair, but at the base of the matter, I am someone who used to pay their sub, who no longer does. I gather that there are a fair number of people like me.
There is, however, a service I would pay for.
I want legacy servers. A million other users want legacy servers. I would still be paying my WoW sub if you hosted legacy servers. You don’t, so I have to go to places like Nostalrius. I would rather be playing my WoW on Blizzard servers, where I can be sure of official support and rest easy knowing my character isn’t just going to disappear someday because your lawyers said so. I would rather be giving you money every month, paying for a service that I love and want to continue enjoying.
But I can’t. Because you don’t, and it appears, won’t, host legacy servers.
And if it’s a matter of inability, well. The Nostalrius team can. And they’re a phone call away. Get the number from your lawyers.
“Anyone who’s worth anything reads just what he likes, as the mood takes him, and with extravagant enthusiasm.” – Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room
When I was in primary school, there were strict rules about how I should read. At home I pretty much had the run of my parents’ bookshelves, but at school there were rules which formed my reading habits and continue to guide my choices to this day.
The rules were simple. If I took a book out of the library (really a couple of bookshelves intersecting in the corner of a classroom, with a couple of requisitioned chairs), I had to finish it. No ifs, ands, or buts. This is how I came to finishing probably the first literary novel I picked up, that being Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. I hated it, so much that not even the juvenile pleasure of seeing a Bad Word being repeatedly printed could coax me on or find me with much enjoyment.
The dictat that I must finish what I pick up, however, could coax me. And not only did I have to finish my books, I had to prove I had finished them by filling out a small (big at the time) report about the contents and how I felt about them.
It’s not a bad idea to try and teach kids that it is often a wise idea to finish what you start, and it’s not a bad idea to teach kids to reflect on what they have experienced. After all, we do then go on to force kids to read things, and to write about them, and it goes without saying that children should be encouraged to read. The early training certainly stood me in good stead.
We try hard to quantify this kind of thing. And yet what do the humanities teach except for things that can be hard to quantify? It is hard to quantify that a book isn’t working for you right now. It is hard to quantify that even though this book is certainly good, there are so many and life is short, and something else excites you right now.
It is hard to quantify that sometimes you feel you have learned as much as you can and want to put a book down, that there can be value in giving up, however unwilling we are to admit that.
There is a difference between reading a book and looking at every word in a book. I looked at every word in Huckleberry Finn, I didn’t read it. I couldn’t tell you much now except for the fact that Huck Finn had an abusive father and that Jim had an unfortunate epithet attached to his name.
Being forced to finish a book is not a nice feeling. At least when you’re studying it there’s some feeling of accomplishment, but honestly I tend to get less out of being forced to read a whole book than voluntarily reading only the first chapter, or first third, or half. I definitely tend to remember less when I force my way through, looking at, not reading, every word.
I don’t like being forced to finish books. So why do I like Goodreads so much?
I’ll lead by saying that I sincerely believe World of Warcraft fucked up my brain chemistry. It turned me into a rat pining for a box, and dog longing for someone to ring my bell. I have trouble feeling like I’m making progress unless I can see a number going up. I am a rat and I need pellets. Nice, quantifiable pellets.
So there’s Goodreads, a way to not only quantify and catalogue my reading, but also tell everyone that I’ve read Ulysses, Moby Dick, and Infinite Jest.
And it is awesome, and I love using it. But it’s tapped in to my psychology in a way that stops me being able to fully enjoy my reading.
You see, there’s such a thing on Goodreads as a reading challenge. At the start of the year, you can challenge yourself to read a certain number of books over the next 365 days. As you note down each book you’ve read, a little box in the sidebar keeps track of how many you’ve read that year, how many you have left to read. It lets you know how ahead of (or behind) schedule you are.
Awesome, awesome, awesome. Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage. And I need pellets.
Therein lies the rub.
Tying the reading to the pellet dispensing mechanism does have its pluses. Not only do you get the nice feeling of having read a good book, but you get to see a number go up, and even fill out a report if you want. Having small definable goals and tracking them is a good way of making progress.
But what if you’re not after progress?
What if you wanna read some poetry, but you don’t wanna read the collected works of Lord Byron? What if you feel like reading a single, short story, not an entire collection? Some Montaigne, not all of it?
What if you feel like trying War and Peace?
What began to happen, at least to me, was that any reading I did that I wasn’t necessarily going to finish felt like wasted reading. It wouldn’t make the number go up. I wouldn’t get a pellet.
It warped my reading. I wouldn’t pick up a book to while away the time or be interested. Instead I’d pick up a book to make progress. If I didn’t feel like reading the book I was making progress with at the time, I just wouldn’t read. I’d stop dipping in to collections. My view got narrower. I’d only pick up poetry if I was prepared to read all of it. Same for essays. Same for short stories. That is a broad swathe of literature I found myself less interested in for no real reason. I wouldn’t take a risk on a bigger book, because if I gave up after 200 pages, it was “wasted time”. (This is a testament to how good Infinite Jest is. It got me and kept me despite the fact that I could have read ten other books in that time). I was disproportionately interested in novellas and short novels. I’d give books up before they really got going, for fear of making progress that wouldn’t be counted.
That’s no way to live a reading life.
Yes, there is value in a finished book. But there is value in an unfinished book, too, and we should be free to pick up and put down as we please. Our reading, first of all, should turn us on, not off.
And tracking my progress is turning me off, despite the tasty pellets.
So I’m gonna game my reading challenge. For example, some Poe stories I read in a collection earlier this year, despite the nagging voice in my voice that said “But you won’t finish the collection”, have been published as stand alone books. I shall mark them as read. I am gonna read really short books for the rest of the year, to get my challenge done. All I care about is getting that number high enough.
It will be different next year.
I am going to go in, out, around. I will read exactly as much as I want, of whatever it is that pleases me at the time. I’ll make time to read bigger books, and not fear stepping away from them. I’ll read more poems, and really read them, not just look at every word in the collection so I can tick the box.
I’m still gonna set a challenge next year, but I’m gonna set the bar much, much lower. I am gonna give myself the time and space that I’ve always had, back to myself. But I’m still gonna do the challenge. After all, there’s a profile badge at stake.
I have read a bunch of stuff like Naked Lunch and American Psycho and consider myself to be pretty hardened when it comes to shocking content (although I did recently read some passages from Apollinaire that raised my eyebrows). And then I read Conrad’s The Secret Agent and I found myself absolutely aghast. Conrad renders a terrible situation, in which no one is exactly right or exactly wrong, with considerable skill and care, and the attention he pays to what information he is giving his reader is a masterclass that any writer interested in fucking with a reader’s expectations should learn from.
Anyone who’s seen The Usual Suspects will be familiar with the kind of present/flash forward/flash back kinda structure of The Secret Agent, and it really does work fantastically. You know a dynamite outrage has been commissioned, you know Verloc has thought long and hard about how to go about committing the act, and the flash forward lets you know that the act was bungled, claiming a life. You are not told who perished. There is conjecture of course, between old anarchists. Someone heard that Verloc was behind the whole affair, but you are given no confirmation from the ultimate perspective of the narrator. This is very disquieting. You spend the opening couple of chapters getting to know Verloc, his family, and his personal struggles. He seems to be a pretty good husband by 19th century standards. One sympathises with him and wonders how he is going to get out of this bind, and one is shocked that someone, possibly him, died in the attempt. The narrative might flash back to before the explosion, but it does not show you Verloc, alive, for a few chapters yet. He was the protagonist, right? What happened to Mr Verloc, and who was the second person involved in the bombing?
This is a masterful display of what a writer can do when they have the reader’s feelings on the end of a string. What really makes the novel utterly horrifying is the way it then shows you that Verloc did indeed survive the explosion. You follow the police as they attempt to puzzle out what happened. You see them discover that Verloc is still alive. You are fed drips of information. Verloc had been spending more time with his brother-in-law, Stevie. Verloc had sent Stevie to live with a friend of his for a while. It slowly dawns on you as it slowly dawns on Verloc’s wife, Winnie. It was Stevie, the one character in the novel (apart from Winnie’s mother, perhaps) who is free from sin, free from guilt, the one you really rooted for. He was blown to smithereens, off screen as it were. They had to collect him with a shovel.
And it was all Verloc’s idea.
The scene where Winnie slowly realise this as Verloc attempts to bargain, reason, plead, argue with her, is yet another fantastic display of technique. Free indirect discourse is the perfect tool if you are using a third person narrator but still want parts of the writing to be from the perspective of certain characters. Conrad’s switching between Winnie and Verloc’s discourses in this section is astounding in its effect. The same narrator puts you directly in the seat as Verloc attempts at first to commiserate and then to explain away his terrible mistake, growing to hate him more and more all the time, hating him along with Winnie, who you feel worse and worse for the entire time as the news that not only is her brother dead, but her husband effectively killed him, sinks in. Both discourses wind against each other tighter and tighter until the reader realises that Winnie has also noticed the carving knife laying on the table, and Verloc realises that Winnie has the carving knife in her hand. This conclusion again unfolds slowly, to character and reader alike. Verloc’s death is foreshadowed much like Stevie’s as Conrad gives you just enough rope to hang on to as he pulls you through his densely packed prose. You have some idea of where this could be going, but you are not sure until the decisive, explosive moment is upon you.
This is how you claim the distance of a 3rd person narrator whilst keeping the personality of a first person narrator. It is superb, and well worth reading for anyone interested in the craft, or anyone who just likes a well told story. It is, as the subtitle says, a simple tale, after all.
My knowledge of the Greek classics is limited to The Oresteia, Aristotle’s Poetics, Euripides’ Medea, and whatever I’ve picked up reading in or around Joyce. That is to say, I am no classical scholar and would never have received a degree 200 years ago. But I know a bit. I have not read any of The Iliad. I found a copy of Fagles’ translation of the Odyssey for a quid and decided to pick it up. I’ve found copies before but decided not to bite because I was worried about public domain translations being dense and full of archaisms. I will try Pope’s translation some other time. Considering that I occasionally have the nerve to call myself a poet, not having read any Homer is a pretty big gap in my knowledge, I should be ashamed, hand in my badge, etc. I am about two books in to The Odyssey so far, here are some of my thoughts:
I shan’t imagine too many people will be interested, but I filled out the Proust questionnaire for a bit of fun. As of this writing, I am 24 and turning 25 in about a week. Might be fun to look back on. Or horrifying. Probably horrifying. Remember those Myspace questionnaires?
Questions were taken from here.
Peace, quiet, an engaging activity.
Indolence, overindulgence, impatience.
Leopold Bloom. Stephen Dedalus. Sherlock Holmes.
Sigmund Freud. Jacques Derrida. Malcolm X.
Jane Eyre. Molly Bloom. Ophelia.
Lou Reed or Kurt Cobain. Can’t decide.
I could say reading and writing to try and save face, but I spend altogether too much time playing videogames.
Delusions of grandeur.
Intelligence. The ability to hold a conversation.
A willingness to listen.
Inability to see things through. I answered the first five questions of this, then stopped. Came back a month later. Tempted to give up and log in to WoW.
Them blasted videogames.
Sharing my daily existence with the woman I love.
To not have met her.
Myself without the character flaws.
Green. I tend to like darker shades of green, like emerald or British racing.
All that comes to mind is filth.
I don’t know enough about birds to have a favourite. I like all kinds of birds apart from magpies, I have taken a dislike to them after learning about how they eat the young of other birds.
James Joyce. William S. Burroughs. Thomas Pynchon.
T.S. Eliot. Ezra Pound. P.B. Shelley. Hope Mirrlees.
Jane Eyre. Molly Bloom.
Beethoven, for Ode to Joy
My mother, my grandmother, my sister, my girlfriend.
Rosa Parks. Ada Lovelace. Aphra Behn.
As full of self-regard as it is, I like my name a lot. I like Ophelia a lot, too.
The necessity of earning money.
Hitler. Reagan. Thatcher.
The defence of Stalingrad.
The liar who decides to stop, and does.
Either a musical ear or the ability to easily learn languages.
With no foreknowledge or apprehension of the fact.
Still thinking about packing it in and logging on to WoW.
Impatience, anxiety, frustration.