Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

"God Promises Eternal Life. We Can Deliver It."

Come on now, isn't that cover freakin' awesome? I have made it my personal mission to own all of these spectacular vintage editions of my favorite Philip K. Dick's novels since my current bookshelf feels naked without them, but I digress. Let's get down to brass tacks here -- to label this novel as bizarre or otherworldly would be an understatement. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is science fiction in gonzo and psychedelic overdrive but without the unpleasant after-effects. Yes, you’re head might still be spinning after reading this novel but after the intense bafflement subsides, a profound sensation of awe and fascination should arise. The novel is far from perfect and is often messy in narrative structure without a completely satisfying conclusion. Nevertheless, it contains such an onslaught of mesmerizing ideas along with an elaborate philosophical and religious discourse that is difficult to fully absorb upon a first reading. I am confident that my admiration for this novel will only improve with subsequent and closer readings. If the science fiction is a genre basted on estrangement that offers an exploration of ideas based within cognitive logic, then Philip K. Dick adheres to this concept but does so in such an aggressively energetic way that it seems he cannot write fast enough to express everything he intends to get across in the novel. Infusing a dazzling and intense literary style elevates his work into the stratosphere of great literature.

After reading several of his novels, it is clear that he focuses on similar themes but he takes a different approach each time around; the major ones being the precarious nature of reality, capitalism, drugs and religion. The difference between Three Stigmata and the other of his works that I have read is that this one focuses more overtly and intensely on religion; that is, spirituality, ontology, gnosticism and the existence of God -- all with an intrinsic connection to the perception of reality which, is of course highly influenced by drugs and the competing corporations supplying the addictive hallucinogens. The connection between a drug induced hallucination and a spiritual awakening is an intriguing observation that PKD makes: “We lose our fleshly bodies, our corporeality, as they say. And put on imperishable bodies instead, for a time anyhow: Or forever, if you believe as some do that it’s outside time and space that it’s eternal” (41). This euphoric sensation is transitory since the drug eventually wears off but the novel then introduces its clever premise: What if a drug existed where the individual was able to permanently retain this feeling of religious re-birth, exhilaration, freedom and purpose by living within a new reality of their mind? Of course, the effects of such a drug brings into the whole question of reality and what exactly constitutes absolute truth. The bottom line is, human perception is inadequate; there being a fine line between so-called “reality” and illusion. Dick creatively explores this conundrum wrapped around a mind-boggling story that does not always make sense but part of the fun is attempting to figure out just what exactly is going on in the novel. In fact, new readers would benefit greatly for not possessing any further knowledge of the plot since it contains plenty of surprising twists and revelations. Whether or not Dick was consciously aware of creating narrative ambiguity and uncertainty to reinforce his thematic concerns is difficult to say with any assurance. Nonetheless, the erratic style and convoluted plot structure does fit within the context of the novel. I would be hard-pressed  to recommend Three Stigmata to newcomers of Philip K. Dick and it is bound to be more enjoyable and appreciated if one is already familiar with some of his other works.  

Read from May 15 to 17, 2011

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